Autumn Thoughts

Whilst most visitors to the garden would easily identify the exquisite and fragrant flowers of a Magnolia, many are left uncertain once the trees have produced their conspicuous and equally exotic fruits. The pods start to form soon after flowering but take many weeks to ripen. Whilst striding through the Delos garden recently, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the splendid sight of the Magnolia x soulangeana; its fruit had ripened and split to reveal the glossy, fiery red seeds inside – a sumptuous display of late Autumn colour.

Magnolia x soulangeana

Magnolia x soulangeana

One noteworthy point – Magnolias are naturally surface rooting plants and one of the commonest causes of poor growth or even subsequent death, is planting them too deeply – which often leads to root suffocation. The collar should be well clear of the soil and the shoulders of the main roots where they join the stem barely below the surface, with a generous mulch of some loose, moisture retentive material such as leaf mould – providing the aeration necessary for free and vigorous root growth. This is especially true on heavy soils, such as our ‘Wealden clay’.

One of my jobs last week was to cut the yew hedge surrounding the Herb Garden. The hedge is currently completely flat along its top, but recent research has brought to light a photograph taken around 1950 which clearly shows some steps cut into the top of the hedge which Troy, our Head Gardener is now considering re-introducing.

The Herb Garden in the 1950's

The Herb Garden in the 1950’s

Rather frustratingly, the Herb Garden hedge is the only formal yew hedge at Sissinghurst which is not level across its top, it slopes just slightly less acutely than the slope of the ground around it. We’re also pondering the possibility and practicalities of addressing this issue at the same time.

A photo from the 1950's showing steps cut into the Herb Garden hedge.

A photo from the 1950’s showing steps cut into the Herb Garden hedge.

This year we decided to bone back certain sections of this hedge which have greatly outgrown their allotted space. This includes the Nuttery entrance, which was becoming an increasingly narrow passage way.

One of the great advantages of yew, is that you can cut it hard back to the trunk, and it will grow back, so long as it’s healthy. If you were planning on doing this at home, I would strongly recommend cutting back one side, and leaving the other side until the following year, at the very earliest. It is also better to cut it right back, and not half way – be brave!


7 thoughts on “Autumn Thoughts

  1. Hello, we inherited a Magnolia x soulangeana and for the first time in 15 years it has produced 3 seed heads as you have shown in your photograph, the tree is considerably older than that. Do you think the long hot summer encouraged this to happen or does your Magnolia produce seed heads every year?


    • Hi Julie, our tree is only about 15 years old and I can’t remember it producing such a bountiful display of seed heads since I’ve been here – 10 years. I suspect it does have something to do with the warm weather – we’ll have to keep an eye on it and see what happens next year.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So few conifers are that forgiving! Even though the hedge is healthy, do you do any additional fertilizing regimes before or after such a hard cut to ensure a better chance of success?


    • We feed all our hedges annually in early Spring with Blood, Fish & Bone, but we wouldn’t normally do more than that. When the beds are composted, this hedge might get an extra dollop. Leaving one side of the hedge uncut does allow it to continue photosynthesising strongly and compensate for the boned back side. You’re right Matt – Yew is our tough, native conifer which is quick to recover and in 2 or 3 years this hedge will be back to normal.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Pete, I was very interested in your blog especially the bit about cutting back hedges. Could I do this to a massive Beech hedge that is well on its way to taking over the entire veg. garden? Actually this blog could have been designed for me. I have a young Magnolia that is looking very sad. I now know that it has been planted entirely incorrectly so I will attempt to rectify matters. All best wishes and thanks again for the blogs. Gina Briers.


  4. Hi Gina. Yes you certainly can do this to a Beech hedge. You need to cut it back on one side during the Winter when the plants are dormant – certainly before March, when new top growth begins. You can do the other side next Winter.


  5. Not quite sure if I fully understood your thoughts about the hedge/slope thing, but it brings to mind something I seem to remember reading about Harold Nicholson’s geometry for the axes of the garden involving some ‘easing’ of the geometry around unavoidable topographical asymmetry – to create the optical illusion/feeling of an ‘ideal’ classical symmetry that wasn’t actually there. Like the thing they did with the columns in the design of the Parthenon in Athens. I think HN was a classical scholar/enthusiast and may have taken inspiration from such classical examples. So, I just wondered whether this stepping of the hedges may have been for a similar reason – to visually confuse the eye by means of not perfect/’eased’ steps that mask the actual slope of the land and give the feeling of a perfect underlying horizontality, in keeping with classical ideals.

    Does this make any sense to you? Was this what you were planning to try to do if you did reintroduce the stepped shapes?


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