It’s time to let the warm glow of late-summer stalwarts take over, says Elly West
Summer is marching on, it’s holiday time and the garden has been in full swing for several months now. It’s a time when we want to be outside, relaxing and enjoying the fruits of our labours, but it’s also a time when many gardens are starting to look tired and lacklustre. Keeping the show going through summer* can be a challenge. The soil is dry, many plants are past their best, leaves are dying back – perhaps wilting in the heat – and we may be away on holiday so watering will fall by the wayside. (*Please bear in mind I’m writing this in advance, which is always a risk when mentioning potential droughts. This will almost certainly mean I’m tempting fate, and we’ll actually be looking out at a soggy sponge).
However, unless the entire summer has been particularly wet, the ground will be dry nonetheless. Rain hits leaves and evaporates more quickly in warm weather, leaving little to soak fully into the deeper layers of the soil. Climate change is also playing its part. So, how can we keep the summer going in a blaze of glory, rather than a disappointing home firework that burns itself out with a tiny fizz?
Despite an Italian garden designer once telling me that we don’t have the light for red flowers in the UK, I disagree. And the hot borders at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden hold testament to this. In my view, the long sultry days of summer’s end are the perfect time for a fanfare of rich colour. Warm glows of oranges, yellows and reds take over, and many of our late-summer stalwarts can be found in these fiery colours, following on from the fresher blues, pinks and whites of early summer when everything is galloping apace.
Colour is to be enjoyed and played with – throwing in some splashes of bold, vibrant colour can be just what the garden needs to carry it through to autumn. Heleniums, achilleas, crocosmia, hemorocallis, sunflowers and rudbeckia all have that heady vibrancy the garden is crying out for right now.
I love growing grasses in swathes through borders. They mingle happily alongside the early summer fresh leaves and flowers of alliums, alchemilla and foxgloves, then add their calming movement to the late-summer trailblazers as well, providing a backdrop and a filler, rather than stealing the show. Most ornamental grasses flower naturally in late summer and autumn, so their seedheads add extra interest and often last well into winter as well. One of my favourite grasses is the unusual flame-tipped Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’. It’s easy to grow, but likes a sunny spot in free-draining soil. This variety dies back in winter, but will push up its fresh new leaves the following year. Pushing through the flat-topped panicles of Achillea ‘Paprika’, it provides a stunning combination of texture, colour and form.
If you are going away for most of August, or don’t have time to water, then there are measures you can take to help your borders cope with the frazzle. Container-grown plants are another story – if they don’t get water, they will most likely die – but not many border plants in this country will die from drought. However, a healthy plant will put on the best show and this means starting at root level. So, assuming we have got the sunshine August should – in theory – bring, what can we do to help?
Start with good ground preparation when you plant. Dig a large hole, fill in with some compost and mulch with organic matter as well. Improving the soil structure helps plants to grow strong roots that can find water even when we’ve not had rain for days or weeks. Sandy soil can be improved so it is better able to retain water, while organic matter will open up a clay soil so it doesn’t bake hard and crack.
Think about mulching your borders with gravel or grit, as this will also improve your soil (especially if you are gardening on clay, as many of us around Bristol are), and will help to prevent evaporation. Over the first summer, keep new plants well-watered during dry spells, and make sure you give them a thorough soaking; a light spray on the surface will only encourage roots to stay shallow.
When you plant climbers, position them away from the base of the wall or fence, where not as much rain will fall, and train them back against their support with a cane. Think about installing an automatic irrigation system if you are going away and don’t want to come back to parched soil. This doesn’t need to be complicated. A trickle hose (a hosepipe with holes in) connected to a tap on a timer could make all the difference.
Choose plants you love, but also remember: right plant, right place, and a good start to a successful summer is to choose drought-tolerant plants. Plants with silvery, hairy or thick and waxy leaves are designed to survive hot sun, as are plants with daisy-like flowers that open when the sun is on them, such as osteospermums. Mediterranean plants such as lavender, artemisia, helichrysum, rosemary and santolina are all built for dry conditions, although they don’t like our winter wet and hate soggy feet. When you’re buying new plants, always check the label to see what conditions suit them best, to save making expensive mistakes.
Remember also though, that rules are made to be broken, and gardening is not an exact science. Throw caution to the wind, embrace colour and let your plants enjoy the sunshine. (Assuming we have some!)