After the suns blasting earlier this summer and the high temperatures day after day, the garden was looking the worse for wear. However... what a difference a month makes, a much cooler and above all, fairly rainy August means that the garden is now looking an almost fluorescent verdant green. I reckon I can see at least 50 different shades of healthy green out of the window at the moment. It always makes me so pleased that I am able to garden in England's plant-friendly climate where so many species are happy to lay down their roots and call it home.
The summer has had a few odd effects on the garden. Despite the sun and heat, the plums are late - by at least a week if not two. They were looking very small not too long ago, but have swelled nicely with the extra water they have had and now it's the annual race to eat or pick them all before they start to fall off. There seems to be less loss to pest and disease too - maybe a result of the higher temperatures?
My poor old purple Phormium was damaged by the sun, where the older leaves arch over, the upper part as they bend downwards again that is more or less horizontal is pretty much dead, but with live parts above and below it. These are never going to recover, so it's a case of them aging and being replaced before the plant looks at its best again. I thought it was interesting that my green Phormiums didn't suffer in the same way at all - surviving the weather without incident, just shows how nature gets it right and our ornamental cultivars just can't compete when the chips are down.
I have a small section of the front garden that is in sunlight all day long, it was planted with what I thought were sun-loving plants, but it appears not entirely so. The plants that came off best of all were self-seeded Pheasant-tail grass - Stipa arundinacea, and fennel - Foeniculum vulgare, both of which will be close to the wild strain, the Euphorbias did well too, as did the variegated sage - Salvia icterina. Total failures were Rudbeckia, grown from seed about three years ago and a great show last year, but all dead apart from one poorly plant with two flowers this year and Bear's Breeches - Acanthus mollis. Acanthus has over the last few years developed a sort of summer aestivation (like hibernation, but dormancy at a difficult time of the year, usually a harsh summer - earthworms do it, you may have discovered one all tied into a ball shaped knot during summer digging). My very large specimen in the front garden produces loads of huge leaves until it gets too hot, then it goes into dormancy, the leaves shrivel and nothing else is produced until it gets cooler again. Now in September it has about a dozen vibrant fern-like emergent leaves, but of course it's never going to flower this year and the chances are it never will if I leave it there, so I've made a note and I'll move it next spring before it starts growing properly - to a sunny, but less so - place.
This is a good time to make a note of anything that needs moving around the garden. Shrubs and trees are best moved in the winter after the leaves have fallen off all the deciduous trees in your neighbourhood and before Christmas, or in early spring with the very first signs of growth for perennials.
I've always said that this is a good time of the year to look for garden bargains. The phenomenon seems to be increasing. Unsold every-growing plants have always been a good bet, but recently I've been spotting one and two-offs of lawnmowers, shredders, containers etc. at bargain prices. I bought a new lawnmower this year for instance and very pleased with it I am too (Honda IZY) but I saw another model that was about Ãƒâ€š£400, for about Ãƒâ€š£200 instead last week. Old stock being cleared out for next year, and who buys a lawn mower now? If yours in on its last legs, you'll be hoping it manages this year and get a new one in the spring, but if you can bear the unseasonal expense, it's a really great time for bargains. The down side? - like I said just one and two-offs end of lines in the garden centres.
Tidy the garden. This helps to reduce the amount of hiding places and food that slugs and snails in particular will have to tide them over the winter, which is good news for you next year. Don't be too enthusiastic though, some plant seed heads can look good through the winter, particularly of ornamental grasses.
If your plants have been affected by disease or pest pay particular attention to tidy-up hygiene so as not to give them (the diseases and pests) a head start next year. Diseased leaves should be burnt or taken out of the garden and disposed of, likewise fruit that is damaged by apple scab, plum sawfly or anything similar. The pest or disease needs the host tree and they do what they can to make sure they hang around it through the winter to feed on it again next year.
Just time to prune any plum trees you have as soon as possible. The problem with plums (and all the Prunus) is that you're supposed to prune them in the summer, any other time means they're at risk from developing "silver leaf" a fungal infection that can easily kill the whole tree. If you do prune in summer then you lose the fruit on your pruned branches, not to mention what you would knock off adjacent branches as the pruned wood fell. A good compromise is to prune immediately the years crop has been picked, not quite high summer, but enough to keep the tree reasonably safe.
Scour the retail outlets for summer plant bargains. The end of the year is the best time for new plantings, the soil is still warm and there's time for plants to get established before the winter. At the same time drought and being baked by the sun is much less likely so new introductions don't need the fussing over that they may do at other times of the year. Come the spring they're all ready in place and ready to perform as best they can with minimal intervention from you.
Shrubs and perennials that have sat in nurseries and garden centres all summer have been growing strongly in good conditions and are now large and vigorous. They pose a problem for the retailer in that they will need potting on to ensure they remain healthy, in the main, if the plants are not sold they will end up on the compost heap or in the skip. So this becomes an extra special time of year to buy and plant new introductions to the garden.
What stops people doing it? - the thought that things are now going to wind down and there won't be any reward seen until next spring from their efforts. Not a problem for the real gardener though - go on fill those gaps before you start pulling the purse strings tighter in time for Christmas.
Sow hardy annuals for early flowering next spring. Calendulas, Larkspur, Nigella (love in a mist) Shirley poppies and my favourite blue cornflowers all do well if sown in rows in a sheltered position. Don't bother with the "broadcast" method of sowing as often advised for hardy annuals, the additional individual attention of short rows drawn in the soil with a stick, seed sown thinly and then covered properly and watered in is much more successful. The rows don't need to be straight or aligned, as long as the seeds aren't left so much to their own devices.
Plant spring flowering bulbs for next year. Spring flowering bulbs and shrubs Plant hyacinths in tall containers for the best results indoors (not shallow bowls, the more the roots reach down, the more the flowers reach up so it seems). Lily flowered tulips are extravagant, but fantastic and only very rarely found as potted bulbs in the way that Hyacinths and Daffodils are.
Detach strawberry runners and plant them out in well dug over and manured soil. You can get huge amounts of free plants if you've grown any strawberries. If you're not ready to plant them out, then place each little plantlet in a space of its own in a small pot or several in a seed tray and they'll soon root and be ready to plant out later. It's also a good way of getting extra plants to give away to friends and neighbours which is always one of the nice things about gardening.
A good time to make a new lawn using seed or turf. if you've put it off over the summer (or for even longer). The cooler but still reasonable temperatures and more reliable rainfall at this time of year mean that it is one of the best times to do this.
If you have any half hardy plants such as fuchsias or Pelargoniums watch out for cold weather and frosts that may kill them off, they need to over-winter in frost free conditions if they are to survive the winter. It's a good idea to take cuttings in a protected place as an insurance policy.
Sow the seeds of any perennials or shrubs as soon as they're ripe. If you collect your own seed from existing plants, then sow them when nature intended them to be sown. They might not always germinate straight away, so keep them somewhere sheltered from too much rain and sun and they will do in time.
In the 19th Century, Devon girls would go "crabbing for husbands". Crab apples, gathered on 29th September (Michaelmas Day) would be arranged in the shape of the prospective lover's initials. Those best preserved on Old Michaelmas Day (10th October), were thought to indicate the best prospects.
Still to do from last months list
Still time to sow seeds of winter flowering pansies and violas, under cover if at all possible, in the space made by under cover crops coming to the end of their season. Pansies and violas are among the easiest plants to grow from seed and if started off now will be good strong plants by late autumn and so able to flower throughout the winter period finishing off with a final flourish in the spring. Strictly speaking they are perennials and can be kept going after the first season, but they are never again as good as they were in the first year, so are best discarded and replaced. One of the main reasons I grow from seed rather than buying them as plants (as well as the satisfaction of growing from seed) is that you can get a bed or group of all your favourite shades and colours.
A good time to take cuttings of shrubs, preferably with some protection. Cut a piece of new stem about 6 inches long and remove all flower buds and all but the end 3 or 4 leaves. Place several of these around the rim of a small plant pot filled with a mixture of sand and compost. Water and place in a shaded place, don't allow to dry out. Check the bottom of the pot after a month or so and pot up individual cuttings when you see roots sticking through the drainage holes. It's worth trying with almost anything, maybe I shouldn't say that but even when I read up how to propagate a plant I usually try this method as well anyway as it's so simple and will work with lots of plants in many cases.
New editorials are added every month, back again on the first of October
Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month
It's 30˚C as I sit down to read this, I don't know what that is old money, but it's only 7˚C off my body temperature and that makes me very uncomfortable indeed. When I pull back the curtain though that's keeping the sun out of the study I do like what I see, a very green garden, apples hanging off the branches, purple plums readying themselves for tomorrows harvesting sessions by the family and sons friends - we gave up picking them and putting in baskets a couple of years ago, they now get eaten off the tree, the best way. Most of all though everything is just so verdant and lush, the intermittent rain of the last few weeks has come at just the right sort of time so even the lawn is healthy and not a straw-coloured rough carpet like it can sometimes become.
The only sign of impending autumn at the moment, besides the fruit, is Vitis coignetiae, the Crimson Glory Vine where the leaves are starting to turn yellow in between the veins.
We went to my brother-in-laws a couple of weeks ago for a barbeque, we'd just recently returned from holiday somewhere ridiculously hot and parched. As we sat under his tall trees in the shade and I looked up at the shafts of sunlight shining through, each one with its own group of midges dancing about, I thought it was almost the very essence of an English summer. Those dancing (harmless) insects in the sunbeams in late afternoon are one of my strongest summer memories from childhood, calming, hugely atmospheric and yet some indication that even the very last of the sun's rays were being used to benefit.
Do you remember to enjoy your garden? In the sitting and relaxing way I mean? A few weeks ago, I was sitting inside reading when my wife suggested I go and sit out instead (in the Adirondack chair and stool I'd made from teak planks for the purpose - noticeable swell with pride) as it was so lovely. Sure enough, it was "so lovely" and I settled to read, then felt a drink would be nice, on the wide chair arm, specifically designed for the purpose. Drink acquired and a couple of pages were read, then I saw.... so one thing led to another and 20 minutes later I received the admonishment "You just can't do it can you?". I had secateurs in hand, trowel at my feet and a tub for clippings with me, I was also at least 30 feet from the chair, so a last minute dash wasn't going to be convincing.
Funny thing is though, I find it very easy to relax in other peoples gardens, even though I can see dozens of little jobs that would be beneficial, maybe it's because there's some-one with me and so my mind doesn't wander. I've decided I just enjoy my own garden in a different way, and my family enjoy it in a different way to me, so I reckon alls well that ends well.
Didn't we have a lot of weather in August! The rainfall in England and Wales was 152.9mm (almost exactly 6 inches) which is twice the long term average for the month, the temperature was up too, 1.8°F) above the long term average. Which makes it all in all a very warm and wet month. My memories of it are of a lot of days where if it wasn't raining, it looked like it was just about to, grey ominous clouds rolling over nearly all day long, though the statistics said that we had an average amount of sunshine. Global warming in action? A couple of years ago, when we'd had a series of hot dry summers, it looked like the answer was to start to plant for a dry hot summer climate - but this year scuppered that plan!
I think the real answer is to do what we've always done, plant a variety of trees, shrubs and perennials and take especial care to establish them well, keeping them free of weeds, watering through the first summer and maybe the occasional soak in the next one. Once they are established, they should be able to survive on their own. In an exceptional year some extra attention might be necessary and if you need to give the attention every year, either carry on if you like the plant, or call it a day when it will probably die and force you to remove it through embarrassment.
The extra rain meant that the lawns stayed verdant and green all the way through and for the first time in years, still looked spring-fresh at the end of the month. For my part, I was glad I got away from it all for a while where I didn't see a single cloud for the whole of my holiday - when we landed back at Gatwick, it was through heavy cloud of course!
I'm over-run with fruit at the moment, the plums are welcome as I love them and anyone who comes near the house gets encouraged to go and pick a few off the tree (I'd pick them myself, but the novelty wears off after a while, now I just pick to eat immediately). I'm still agonizing over what to do with my apple trees. There's three mature apple trees in the garden that we inherited, none of which are of a variety that I'd consider planting today - neither would I plant three apple trees, particularly as they're all on rootstocks that make them grow tall, some branches were at 20 feet when we moved in before I started to prune them.
They are valuable as they look very old and gnarly, far more than they really are, so what I'll do is probably prune them into a reasonable size and shape over the next couple of years. I started last year, big old trees like that need to be pruned in stages or you just get a whole forest of weak "water shoots" growing from every pruning cut, There's some on them now, most of which will come off in the winter when I prune them, just leaving the minimum to develop into the new branches.
My slow make-over continues, though slower still as it's summer. The principle is that with a mature garden, everywhere is just about full of mature plants, but many are poor varieties or types I'd never choose to plant if I was starting from scratch, but at the same time I don't want to slash and burn and start from scratch.
I've been ruthless in pulling up all of the remaining Aquilegia (Columbine or Granny's Bonnet) which always promise a lot in spring, but then never deliver except in the seed department if I'm not quick or thorough enough at dead-heading. I'll be pulling them up for a long time to come yet.
I've a couple of successes to report. One of the beginning of a swathe of gorgeous golden yellow flowers of Rudbeckia hirta - Black-eyed Susan that I grew from seed sown in the spring. I didn't think they'd flower at all this year, but they've been quite magnificent and being members of the Compositae with daisy-like flowers (but up to 6 inches across) the individual flowers last for ages. The first ones came out about the middle of August, 14th or 15th and I haven't dead-headed any at all yet. Even the smaller ones that I put into 1L pots rather than the garden have grown up and flowered making successful gifts for friends as they're about 2 feet tall with great big blooms. I must remember this for the future, I'd given up giving plants away in the last couple of years as I'd approached it from the gardener's point of view - a healthy growing plant at the best time of year to establish which translates as pretty boring from the non-gardener's point of view. From now on I'll apply the garden-center logic - sell 'em when they look good and ignore the best time for planting (except I don't sell them).
My other success is a holly tree half way down the back garden at the hedge in front of next door's forest. This tree was about 5 feet tall and rather misshapen, it had been cut down to ground level some time in the last 5-10 year I guess and had grown up with the occasional hacking back again. I removed all but the strongest shoot from ground level, leaving a clear trunk and removed all but one of the three competing leaders at the top, finally I clipped it using secateurs into what will be a smooth round pyramid shape. I then stood back and looked at about half the foliage that had been there, lots of big gaps and a truncated pyramid shape, wondering why I had butchered it so mercilessly.
That was in the late spring and now I'm pleased to say it's starting to recover well. The leader that I left has shot up a full 3 feet! and the gaps while still obvious are starting to fill in as the pruning cuts I made have encouraged shoots to grow which will eventually make a good solid cone shape.
Failures and embarrassments. We all have them and it's usually a result of not doing what we know we should or trying to get away with things - or in my case just forgetting stuff. As I've mentioned before I'm not a fan of crisp salads (though I do have my own teeth) I like flavorsome leaves rather than crunchy cellulose encapsulated water - iceberg lettuce - I'd rather suck a real iceberg. A major source of my salad delights last year was a marjoram / oregano bush in the front garden that grew strongly, but as the summer wore on also grew characteristically ragged and flopped about. I decided it wasn't earning its place properly and so had to come out - as it did. Then I forgot about it until I realised it wasn't there to add to my salads this summer as I did my rounds of the mixed leaves I grew, the cherry tomatoes and herbs - and how I've missed it! It's going down in my list of seeds for next year.
I love Morning Glories, the fabulous sky blue flowers about 3-4 inches across produced in profusion and anew every morning through the summer. Sure enough I grew them from seed in good time, but this year instead of growing them up and over my doorway, decide to grow them (in a large container) up and through the hedge facing the living room window. This way I could appreciate them fully instead of the couple across the road getting the best view from their conservatory (we got many compliments last year) - or so the plan went. But it just didn't work that way. Grown over the door way, they could go upwards like they wanted and had all the space they needed, in the hedge, the stems were reduced to twining around each other and just making a big mound of foliage. So instead of 70-100 flowers a day at their peak last year, I was lucky to get 20, 10 being more usual - and it was more difficult to dead-head them - and most of the flowers were on top of the hedge so no-one could see them. Shan't try that again.
Dickinsonia antarctica - Australian tree-fern, you must have seen them, they're all the rage and very trendy. So I bought one and put it outside the back of the house in a hurry as I was going out - except I forgot about it - and the sun shone and shone for a couple of days. When I noticed it again, half the foliage was dead and brown and it looked awful, it's spent the rest of the summer recovering in the shade being re-potted, fed and pampered.
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