Janet Queen

Rose Castle Garden Diary: Nov 2012

Some herbaceous perennials melt away instantly in November’s frosts, some lingering cut flowers are frozen intact before thawing and then collapsing. Deciduous trees drop what is left of their amber and yellow-tinted foliage.

On frosty mornings, a clump of scarlet shines out from the new woodland that borders the east boundary of the garden. The mound of bright red foliage, noticeable from the castle drive, belongs to what is commonly referred to as a spindle tree. It looks a little out of place because everything else surrounding it is clad in more subdued shades. The species I have planted is not really a tree at all; in the horticultural trade it would be classed as a large shrub, and its botanical name is Euonymus alatus. Spindle tree, however, is a much more memorable name, even if the stems of this particular species will never grow wide enough to produce enough of the extremely hard wood that was traditionally used for making spindles for spinning wool and hemp. As an after-thought, though, I did eventually plant one specimen of the real spindle tree in the new woodland. I enjoyed the thought – completely unfounded – that this species may have been growing here in previous centuries in the grounds of the castle purely for its harvestable wood. Time will tell whether it will grow to be a small tree.

In a sheltered recess, against the castle wall, a perennial Salvia is still flowering. It was planted here when the bishop was still in residence, placed beneath the office window so that its tall, arching stems would grow up as far as the square panes of glass, and then tap on the window on breezy days. Spires of flowers are bright pink, summery and girlish, hardly in keeping with early winter, but all the more reason for planting it. The window looks out across a large expanse of lawn where once, according to a report from the 1640s, ‘a very useful fountain runneth continually and serveth the offices in the said house with water’. A plan of the castle from this era shows a well was also situated not far away.

Below the level of the lawn, a tap protrudes from the mortar of a sandstone wall. This tap is hidden from view and sometimes forgotten for months on end because a ‘Kiftsgate’ rose has formed such dense covering over the wall. In spring, when seeds are being sown and annuals planted in the area known as the apothecary’s garden, it is the handiest garden tap because it saves me walking to and from the castle yard. The first flush of water to come through is thick, brown and tepid, but it eventually runs clear and cold. It crosses my mind that this flow of water may be a remnant from the original source for the fountain. A wren sometimes takes advantage of missing mortar, nesting in the same recess of the wall that the tap occupies, seemingly unconcerned when watering cans are being filled.

In the castle drive and woodlands, autumn colours are either veiled in mist and silence, or they glisten loudly beneath blue skies. Tree planting is important and on-going, and for every tree that is felled or falls naturally, or appears as if its life may be coming to an end, a replacement is planted during the winter months. Trees have always been held in high esteem here. In 1580 it was Bishop Richard Barnes who assured Queen Elizabeth I that, during his incumbency at Rose Castle as Bishop of Carlisle, ‘timber trees were not felled’.

Queen’s counsel for November

Spindle tree

This small, deciduous tree produces scarlet autumn colour that is further enhanced by little red fruits. Throughout the year, Euonymus europaeus remains rather anonymous, but by October it becomes a striking feature.


In a sheltered site that is well-protected from frost, tall stems of Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellii’ will carry on producing flowers during November. If happily settled, this almost tender perennial will live for many years.

Paper bark maple

Acer griseum is a small tree, best known for its slender trunk of brown, peeling bark. It is also colourful in autumn, with deciduous foliage developing tints of orange and red. Ideal for gardens where space is restricted.


Named in the 17th century after a Swedish professor of botany, Rudbeckia is the perfect, long-lasting cut flower. Annual varieties are easily raised from seed in spring and will carry on flowering until early winter, managing to survive light frosts.

Seed potatoes

Check seed potatoes in storage and throw away any that have become diseased. Make sure seed continues to be stored at a consistently cool temperature. Remember that, as winter progresses, mice become more of a threat to stored potatoes.