For a little while last month I was forced to adopt my ‘emergency hot weather’ gardening mode. This involves early starts, with late finishes, in order to carry out watering tasks before the sun is too fierce and also so that I, not a fan of roasting in the midday heat, could effectively ‘take a siesta’. Of course it’s nice to get some properly hot and dry weather but, now we’re into September, I hope the risk of a damaging dry spell is behind us for another year.
The soil where I garden has, in most areas, a high proportion of clay in its structure which means that it holds onto water well, generally a good thing as far as plants are concerned, but has the downside that it sets like concrete as soon as it dries out. This isn’t helped by compaction, generally caused by stepping on it, which is why it is essential to use a border fork to lift out all footprints if, for any reason, you have to walk on the borders. It also means that to carry out any lifting or replanting tasks, during dry weather, the area concerned has to be watered first and, in the case of planting, well-watered afterwards too.
A ‘good watering’ following a hot dry spell is enough to initiate flowering in autumn flowering bulbs like Amaryllis belladonna and Crinum x powellii; these are pretty monstrous and need a large space to look their best en masse. Nerines do much the same job and are much ‘prettier’ with finer leaves, which are less of a problem, and in a greater choice of varieties.
They all require a fair degree of sun but, for shadier spots, Autumn crocus and Colchicums are better, some of the larger varieties naturalising in grass. In practice, naturalising can be tricky as their large, frankly coarse, leaves persist for many months after the flowers have gone. I prefer them in pools (as in ‘patches’ not ‘ponds’) under small-leaved trees like birches or Amelanchier. Gathered around the base of the tree the flowers are dramatically spring-like in contrast to the general ‘onset of autumn’ feeling everywhere else.
We have the aforementioned Amaryllis belladonna under wall trained nectarines. When their naked flower stalks begin emerging, just about now, they look pretty strange—like a troupe of little aliens arching their pale heads out of the soil before invading the world! In fact, it’s not the flowers that threaten to wipe out all opposition but the leaves that follow, persisting through much of the following year, as these blot out all light to the soil beneath and, unless dealt with, will harbour a huge population of slugs and snails (which in our case climb up the walls and chew on the defenceless baby nectarines).
Cyclamen are more ground-level with the advantage of having attractive leaves, especially in the case of C. hederifolium, and these quickly naturalise to spread and carpet even in full shade. In sunny, but not arid, flower beds, you could do worse than Schizostylis coccinea. The variety ‘Major’ is the one most often seen and it’s a truly rich red with, improved, large flowers. The, smaller, white flowered form does well here, liking the water holding capacity of our clay soil no doubt, and is a breath of fresh air blooming away as the perennials die down. The grassy foliage is present for most of the year, often not fully dying down even into winter, and it’s the cooling temperatures, teamed with more abundant moisture, which coaxes them into flower around this time of year.
In the flower garden there’s a lot to do to prolong the summer display. Dead-heading, weeding, cutting back perennials and pulling out tired bedding will all help to keep it looking respectable. Any gaps revealed are an opportunity to bung in some spring flowering bulbs (top slimming tip : buy them in the supermarket instead of a packet of biscuits!). Replant the area with winter bedding to mark where they are buried – to stop you from digging them up again. Good old winter flowering pansies like to get their roots down before the proper cold weather arrives, or else they may sulk all winter instead of flowering their socks off.
Of course, dahlias, cannas and all the late flowering tender perennials will only just be reaching their peak so growing these in your borders will naturally extend the season. Perennial grasses are the perfect foil for these and, if planted ‘cheek by jowl’, they perform a useful role in propping up their more floppy bedmates. Tall grasses may also help a little bit in protecting more delicate exotics from the worst of the wind and rain which can devastate late summer borders as we head deeper into autumn.
Moist, warm, soil at this time of year means that it is a good time to move evergreens and conifers which need to be able to recover from the shock of transplanting, by producing new roots, before the ground is so cold that it stops growth. By the same token it’s a good time to prepare new areas of ground where you want to plant herbaceous plants because if you need to clear it first, using a non-persistent ‘glyphosate’ weed-killer, then September is the last month when this is likely to work. Even if you’re clearing it by hand then this needs to be done in good time so that any weed regrowth can be removed before new perennials, or divisions from existing plants, can be put back into the weed-free soil.
Hedge trimming, having started on the yew last month (chance would be a fine thing), continues as and when I get around to it. Also, I’d quite like to have a go at removing the thatch and moss from the formal lawns but this is very weather dependent. I live in fear, because it’s not my lawn, of timing it wrong and having a patchy looking mess for the whole of next year. I think I’ll experiment on a bit that doesn’t show from the house 😉
PS—Last month I mentioned the very joyful annual mix flowering away at the council recycling centre. I was less pleased to see, towards the end of the dry spell, that the specimen trees, forming the ‘spine’ of this planting, were looking decidedly stressed and desiccated. These trees would not have been cheap to buy, or plant, and I’d have expected, if there was any ‘joined-up thinking’ at all, that someone at the facility would have been tasked with keeping these expensive items well-watered, at least for their first year in the ground. I mentioned this to the ‘recycling centre operatives’ but, rather depressingly, as far as they were concerned it was not their problem;. As a tax-payer I would very much suggest that it should be their problem!!!