August in the Garden

The trend over the past quarter of a century, or so, has been to move away from the traditional ‘mid-summer’, herbaceous border, plants towards a later flowering, ‘new perennial’, palette. This means that the season of interest has extended so that August need no longer be a ‘hungry gap’ in the flower garden, with little in the way of blooms, but is actually only just the beginning of the peak for later flowering perennials.
For me I think Veronicastrums are an indispensable component of a later flowering garden. They have many of the attributes associated with the ‘new perennial’ tribe; spiky, tall, long flowering and not requiring staking. Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’ is a good one to start with because, being white, it fits in anywhere and can be planted fairly close to the front of the border as it’s easy to see through its tall, ethereal, flower spikes. Other varieties are available in the pink / purple / mauve colour spectrum. I find they hybridise with each other and seed around, non-aggressively, so that you end up with your own mix of offspring.
For the more traditional herbaceous border and bedding plants, regular dead-heading is essential to achieve maximum performance and to produce a succession of blooms. Roses benefit from similar attention, except for those that produce decorative hips and therefore need to have their faded blooms preserved, and I think roses have done particularly well this year. If they are running out of steam then a feed with a proprietary rose fertiliser and a generous mulch with organic material will see them through until the end of the flowering season.
Similarly, tender perennials and bedding plants respond well to regular feeding. It’s easiest to do this via a liquid feed at weekly intervals, or whatever the label of your chosen product suggests, and never allow the pots to completely dry out, which stresses the plants, is important too. Commercially available feeds have the advantage of containing a balanced mix of essential nutrients but it is possible to make your own ‘feeds’ using such things as chopped up nettles, or comfrey, steeped in water. If you have access to sheep then I believe that ‘dags’, fermented in water, yield a particularly pungent brew.
Mature hedges may well need tackling this month, as soon as the birds have raised their last broods, so that any regrowth has time to harden up before the onset of winter. Those which require frequent trimming can be done anytime, species which are usually cut on an annual basis, yew being chief amongst these, can be left until a bit later. If you are doing second or third cuts, on specimens like privet or box, it is still important to avoid doing this on really hot or sunny days. If you remove a layer of foliage from these, small leaved, species there is a danger that the new layer of foliage which you expose will get scorched by the strong light and high heat. There is nothing worse than doing a fantastic clipping job, on a long run of box hedging, only to return a day or two later to find that the whole lot has turned brown and crinkly!
As an antidote to anything ‘brown and crinkly’, spring bulbs are hard to beat. I know it’s a bit depressing to have to start to think about this summer ending but, as ever, gardening is a circular pursuit and now is the time that you can begin planting the bulbs that you need to brighten up your garden next spring.
New bulb varieties may only be available in limited quantities and are more likely to be found in specialist bulb company catalogues (online and ‘on paper’) than in mainstream garden centres. Ordering early ensures you get what you want and, culturally, it’s better for the bulb if it spends as short a time as possible between being ‘harvested’ and being replanted.
While you are perusing the bulb suppliers, for spring flowering bulbs, you may also come across a number of bulbs that flower in the autumn; autumn flowering cyclamen and crocus being, possibly, the most well known. I like autumn flowering bulbs because they inject an element of spring freshness into the garden when most of the other constituents are beginning to lose their shine or are dying down. Autumn flowering cyclamen have the advantage of having cheerfully bright blooms, in the white to purple spectrum, and, especially in the case of Cyclamen hederifolium (Ivy-leaved cyclamen), attractive leaves too.
When planting the autumn flowering crocuses and colchicums it is important to consider that they produce rather large, somewhat unlovely, foliage, after flowering, which takes a long time to die-down. For this reason it is best placed somewhere where it’s not too prominent. I’ve seen them planted amongst low, evergreen, ground-cover, such as a prostrate juniper, where their bold flowers pop up amid the foliage backdrop and, in turn, their dying leaves are largely hidden, as they shrivel away, under the disguise of the evergreen ground-cover.
They’re not bulbs, they’re tubers, but it’s hard to write about the garden in August without giving an honourable mention to the phenomenon that is the dahlia. I’ve mentioned before that this seems to have been a ‘social media’ driven renaissance, because they are so damn photogenic, with dahlias having been out in the wilderness, as far as horticultural taste is concerned, for decades until recent years. I can see their appeal because they satisfy the modern need for almost instant gratification, a tuber purchased in the spring will flower reliably in the first year, and they are available in a dazzling array of sizes, colours, shapes and foliage forms. If you want to see what’s available then a quick image search on ‘Google’, or a foray into the world of ‘Instagram’, turns up hundreds of varieties.
If only the good old chrysanthemum was quite as easy and quick as the dahlia. I find that they have just as much charm and cheerfulness as the more brazen dahlia. The showiest ones are similarly tender, requiring them to be lifted and kept frost-free over winter, but their culture and rate of establishment is a little less obliging than the dahlia. They don’t produce discrete tubers, like the dahlia, but form stems and ‘stools’ which are slightly more difficult to prepare and lift for overwintering. I guess this is what is limiting their appeal; dahlias can be treated as ‘disposable’, their dormant tubers are widely available in packeted form whereas chrysanthemums cannot be packaged and marketed in such a user-friendly way.
I guess, if chrysanthemums are a little complicated to form a permanent part of your garden mix, then there is always the good old aster, part of the hugely useful ‘daisy tribe’, to bring late summer flowering to your beds and borders. Which brings us neatly back to where this began; new perennial planting. One of the best places to see this late summer planting, at its very best, is in the ‘Oudolf Field’ at ‘Hauser and Wirth’, near Bruton, Somerset. They have reopened, after lockdown, but booking, via their website, is essential in order to maintain social distancing.