The last gasp of summer or the first breath of autumn? September keeps you guessing as so much depends on the weather and how benign it turns out to be. Of course the legendary, and these days almost mythical, ‘Indian Summer’ can make this month a real bonus.
Whatever the weather, autumn flowering bulbs lend a fresh fillip to planting schemes. You can’t beat sheets of ivy leaved cyclamen with their pretty white / pink flowers appearing before their marbled leaves. In a wet summer they will actually start flowering as early as August but they get into their stride right about now. Although they are supposed to favour shady conditions the ones in my garden seem to have forgotten that and pop up all over the place; gravel paths, the lawn, cracks in the paving – they’re not fussy.
What else is coming into it’s own now? The late flowering, ‘orange peel’, clematis, such as ‘Bill MacKenzie’, is a particular joy. Jaunty little nodding flowers, like pixie bells, smother an established plant and stay blooming for many weeks. Being a late flowering clematis, that is one which flowers after midsummer’s day, pruning is a cinch as they can be chopped back to just a framework of stems in the spring. They flower on the shoots which grow in the current year so even a drastic chop back will not stop them from flowering. For this reason they are great planted where they can scramble through a spring flowering shrub, festooning it with flowers when otherwise the space would be dead.
On the herbaceous front Japanese anemones are reliable perfomers, as are the novae-angliae (New England) varieties of aster. The latter can be floppy so-and-so’s, demanding timely staking. I know all the advice is to get your pea-sticks in nice and early, i.e. May, but I’m no good at timekeeping and shoving in a few emergency twigs, just before flowering, is not a hanging offence. Asters do best in full sun but the obliging, self supporting, Japanese anemones will tolerate some shade and thrive in full sun if the soil is relatively moisture retentive.
For soils with that rare combination of constant moisture and full sun we return to the realm of bulbs and, in this case, corms; Schizostylis coccinea has many forms from deepest red to palest pink and white. Stunning when they are given the conditions they enjoy; all leaves and no flowers when they are either too shady or too dry.
Bringing it back to bulbs reminds me that it’s now that I really should be starting to plant spring flowering bulbs. Start planting them in the order that they flower in the spring so that the earliest flowering ones, early crocus come to mind, have enough time to get some roots down before producing the flower stems. Tulips are famously planted late, in November, to reduce the likelihood of ‘tulip fire’ (a debilitating infection) so don’t worry about those yet.
One timely task which I actually completed last month, but which it’s not too late to do now, is sowing ‘Yellow Rattle’ seed into grassland to reduce the grass’s vigour before introducing wildflowers. It’s a bit complex, this ‘Rattle’ business, because the plant, a naturally occurring species in traditional hay meadows, is semi-parasitic on grass species and as such drains energy out of the bullying grasses and gives the more delicate wildflowers a chance to compete. It’s not as simple as that, of course, because the ‘Yellow Rattle’ seed needs to be sown while fresh and it can only be gathered during a small window of opportunity when the hay meadows are cut around July. As long as it is kept in favourable conditions it will remain viable for a few months but it must be introduced into its new sward before the onset of winter.
As with many seeds ‘Rattle’ requires a period of cold weather, ‘winter chilling’ or ‘vernalisation’, before it can germinate in the spring. That’s why it must be sown fairly soon after collection. I read a report on the internet which stated that there wasn’t any difference in germination between seed sown onto short mown grass and that sown into a broken up soil surface. I didn’t quite trust that so I compromised with a combination of brutal mowing, using a metal bladed strimmer, raking off the cut grass and then scattering the ‘Rattle’ over this surface before raking roughly in with a soil rake.
I’ve sown ‘inoculation’ patches of random circles in the grass, rather than broadcast sowing the complete meadow, because to do the whole area is beyond me without special machinery. With luck the seed will germinate in the spring, parasitize the grass and grow to flower before ripening seed, during July, which is spread around when the long grass is cut and dried as part of the haymaking process.
The grass in the ‘inoculation’ circles needs to be mown, in the absence of trained sheep, right up until germination in the spring so I’ll have what appears to be an elaborate series of crop circles to enjoy for the next six months or so. What fun! I love experimenting with this gardening lark.