August in the Garden

There may be a bit of a lull this month as early summer flowers come to an end and late season contributors haven’t quite built up a head of steam. Regular dead-heading extracts the maximum performance from plants which produce a succession of blooms and will tidy up those which otherwise hold onto faded flowers. Roses are a case in point; ‘repeat’ flowerers’ need to have their deadheads removed and ‘single flowering’ varieties look messy if not cleaned up. Those which bear decorative hips should be left untouched as their attractive fruits add colour to the garden right into winter.

Annual plants in containers, hanging baskets and borders benefit most from constant removal of dead flowers as they are designed to keep blooming as long as they don’t set seed. Producing wave after wave of flowers exerts a heavy toll on these bloom laden plants so adding feed, on a weekly basis, to their water is a necessity. Ensuring that their compost never dries out is paramount because, once completely dry, it is very hard to re-wet without submersing a container in water, which is often not possible with decent sized pots. Droughted plants will run to seed, stop flowering and get stressed, or even die, which defeats the object of having annual displays to add colour right up until the first frosts.

August is the traditional time to cut yew hedges as it removes all the extension growth that they have put on and gives them plenty of time to recover before any severely cold weather arrives. I have frequently cut yew at ‘non-traditional’ times and I’ve never noticed any disastrous consequences. I think I may have postulated before that the timing of this task may have more to do with the sheer amount of large, formal, plantings of yew hedges, and topiary, in ‘grand’ gardens than a strict horticultural need.

The wealthy owners of these stately homes, and gardens, were wont to head to Scotland this month, for the start of the shooting season, so the laborious task of clipping all the formal hedging could be undertaken once the household had departed and every able-bodied gardener could be freed for this annual mega-task. In the days when gardeners were employed for very specific skills, be it in the vegetable garden, or specialising in greenhouse work, or solely tending the lawns, then all these tasks could be temporarily suspended, with the owners off shooting, and it was ‘all hands to the pump’ for every member of the garden staff to get the yew clipped and tidied up in the shortest time.

Old hedges can be clipped right back to where they started from; hedges which have yet to reach their desired height can be allowed to keep just a few inches of new growth. Clipping during their ‘formative’ years will promote bushiness and density. I can understand that the impatient gardener may baulk at removing a good proportion of height which his, or her, vigorous young hedge has put on. As with so many things in gardening; being tough now will reap much bigger rewards in the future. Yew grows surprisingly quickly, once it’s got going, so there’s no point in having a tall hedge, in record time, which has no density or width (which is what taking back the top growth, during establishment, promotes).

By the end of this month you should have ordered spring bulbs for delivery by mail order but, if you ordered these when the catalogues arrived in July, you may well receive your order later this month. In Holland, were the vast proportion of all bulbs are either grown or shipped from, I remember being told that they try to get all their spring bulbs ‘in the ground’ by the end of August—with the exception of tulips whose internment is delayed, by a couple of months, for cultural reasons.

I don’t think I’ve ever managed this feat but it’s good practise because it means the bulbs are out of the ground for as short a time as possible. All the time that they are not in the soil they are potentially drying out, or getting too hot, or too cold, all of which can potentially harm their ability to flower in the spring.

If you want to have ‘prepared hyacinths’ in flower by Christmas then you really do have to start these off soon, in a cool, shady, spot, as they need a gentle start in order to produce a decent root system before launching into flower.

Coming back to the present; it’s actually very hot and dry, as I write this. It reminded me of a very cheerful little patch of flowers that I spotted while on a jaunt (!) to the new Bridport ‘dump’ (the ‘Recycling Centre’, or whatever we’re meant to call it these days). In the patch of ground, beneath newly planted trees, on the traffic island facing the line of skips, is a cheerful ‘meadow’ planting of grasses and annuals. It’s not a native meadow mix, which would be either too dull, or too tall, by this juncture, but has the kind of hardy annuals, for colour, which you could easily replicate in your own garden – Californian poppies, ‘Baby’s Breath’, Nigella and the like.‑

For the council it has the advantage of not requiring cutting, or excessive watering – unlike the turf which might have been used in the past. Of course, even this scheme isn’t ‘maintenance free’ and my worry is that, with the general low public awareness of the managed environment, it could be replaced with permeable hard standing if cutbacks reduce the horticultural skill level of the workforce to a point where even simple ‘greening’ of our built environment becomes a cost that society cannot bear.

Horticulture has always been very poorly paid, compared with other disciplines which require good knowledge combined with long experience, and hence poorly respected. I just hope that people do realise that those joyful little annuals are only there because someone in the council has allocated the resources for their initial planting, regular maintenance and their eventual replacement – and employs skilful enough gardeners to make it all possible. If we don’t value such things, be they at the local council dump or en masse in great landscaping schemes, then they will quietly go away again and barrenness, or boring monoculture, will return.