Keeping the Show on the Road

By Jonathan Diaper

Midsummer is a testing time for the garden.  How to prolong the freshness and colour of spring?

Foxgloves that placed themselves so perfectly in the borders are looking distinctly seedy. Leave one or two plants to randomly self-seed or collect seed to cast into areas where you would like the seeds to germinate.  Pull out the remainder or cut them to 10cm or so above the ground. Sometimes sturdy plants will go on to flower in the following year.

‘Happy accidents’ – those plants that have seeded themselves in perfect combinations, such as the lupin growing with white campion I found in a cut-flower border in June – should be encouraged.  Recognizing the seedlings of useful ‘fillers’ like foxglove, Lychnis coronaria, or Eryngium, apart from the weed seedlings that need to be taken out, is a way to make a border seem more artistic and settled in its place.

In July many plants are coming into their own.  Lavenders are alive with bees that, a week or two ago, were busy collecting pollen from Nepeta. Nepeta can be cut down to the ground after flowering to encourage fresh young growth that will flower again later in the season. A lot of perennials can be cut down in this way, such as geraniums, Centaurea (knapweeds) and oriental poppies. Given suitable conditions they will flower again, if not so prolifically, and the new leaves will keep a border looking vibrant.  Once Alchemilla flowers have browned cut them back to encourage bright green flowers in August-September.  They can be slow to grow back in a drought, however, so will benefit from a good soaking after the chop.

Keeping the Show on the Road

Lupin growing with white campion (Silene latifolia)

Achillea (Yarrows) are flowering well by July and will remain in flower for weeks, if not months ahead.  Penstemon are into their stride, their tubular flowers a memory of the foxgloves that are all but over.  These are great plants for providing a wide spectrum of colours, from rich purples and reds to pastel lilacs and pinks.  Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is about to heat up borders with its red flowers – a real statement of a hot summer, especially when paired with a golden Hemerocallis (Day Lily) and Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ (bronze fennel).

Keeping the Show on the Road

Lavender ‘Hidcote’ and orange Achillea ‘Walther Funcke’ with Stipa tenuissima

Midsummer doesn’t have to be about hot colours, though.  Cool shades of white and pink can be found in varieties of Phlox that are beginning to flower in July.  The spherical heads of Echinops are turning a steely shade of blue, day by day.  Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’, one of the first asters to flower, adds an icy mauve to even the hottest July garden.

Deadheading flowering perennials encourages more flowering buds, as well as removing anything unsightly that will detract from fresh new blooms.  Roses will benefit from deadheading – unless they are a variety such as rugosa that will have decorative hips in the autumn.  For repeat-flowering roses, cut back the whole truss to an outward facing bud or emerging shoot once the flowers have faded.  Try and prune back stems to a similar length so that the new trusses are grouped together – one flowering stem waving way above the others looks quite self-conscious!

Feeding is important for hungry roses.  A repeat application of a balanced fertilizer, around this time in July when the buds are still growing, will improve the flower-power of the second flush.  Granular rose food is readily available and easy to apply, though will be ineffective unless there is enough water to transport nutrients to the roots.  If the weather is dry, then water generously; if tomato food is available, roses love this too, you can then water and feed simultaneously.

At this time of year roses can be plagued by blackspot.  Pick off any affected leaves from the plant and collect those that have already fallen (the fungus can overwinter and reinfect next year).  If you choose to spray, then this is best done in the early morning or evening, when bees and insects are less active.  Use a specific fungicide product rather than dual purpose fungicide/insecticide in order to protect wildlife.

A good ploy for adding interest to a late summer border is to drop in pots of dahlias or bedding plants. These can be moved around strategically to ‘fill in’ where colour is needed. They must, though, be watered and fed religiously.

Keeping the Show on the Road

Watering in dry weather and deadheading, as well as judicious weeding, will show surprising results.  Adding later-flowering perennials extends the show of colour, but also their fresh foliage masks the yellowing leaves of spring perennials.  Having a gardener’s eye for which seed heads are attractive, and those which should be taken away, will also pay dividends.

There is a tendency, at some tipping point of the season, when it is easy to think of a border as being ‘done for the year’.  Resisting this thought is the first step to keeping the garden looking good well into the autumn.

Keeping the Show on the Road