August – keeping it all going

Every time we have a hot dry spell am reminded how fast plants flower and give up displaying just for us, the job of making seeds having been accomplished in double quick time,the seed cases browning and ready to disperse their bounty. I am not a particularly neurotic person but the thought of ‘Oh my- how I am going to keep it going’ always arrives around mid July ( oh, apart form last year when summer came in April)and I don’t imagine that I am alone in this. Some of these things help:
Dead heading and chopping: Dead heading becomes very important- we need to trick the plant into believing it still has a lot of work to do producing flowers to makes seed- most plants will only do this if they are not allowed to set seed in the first place so rigorous pinching off of spent flower heads will achieve this. Some perennials like most of the hardy geraniums can be dead headed by simply cutting the whole plant down to the ground- it will grow back a nice neat mound of leaves and will often give you a second flush of flower, this can be done with Alchemilla mollis and Nepeta too.
alchmilnocutback If you have repeat flowering roses dead heading every day will get the best out of them- cut down to the next leaf joint so that you don’t end up with a plant that looks a though it has been deadheaded by a deer. Chopping, or the Chelsea chop( done in June) as it is known, is a way of both reducing the size of a plant making it more sturdy and less likely to flop- Sedum spectabile can be stopped from flopping in this way)- and a way of making it flower later.Not all plants respond to this so be careful- it must be a perennial that will grow side shoots such as Golden Rod or Helenium sp – you will get smaller flowers but many more of them and by cutting down only half the clump you will extend the flowering season instead of delaying it.
Leaves : Apart from the highly bred cultivars particularly in bedding plants and bulbs most plants are more leaf than flower,and their leaves are present for a lot longer than flowers so choosing plants with interesting leaves helps maintain interest and bulk. Coloured foliage like purple, bronze, silver as well as the many many different greens can make a fabulous display with an accent of flower mixed in. Interesting shaped foliage like Carex, all the grasses,Cynara,Iris, Acanthus all mixed with the more usual leaf shapes help to provide contrast and texture both of which engage our interest.
Annuals ( bedding):Planting hardy annuals in situ amongst the perennials, or transplanting half hardy and tender plants into gaps is very important as a way of keeping the garden looking bright well into late summer- the ubiquitous Cosmos bipinnatus will flower until October and beyond if you dead head it, as will Antirrhinum majus , Petunia, Pelargonium and many of the plants we use as bedding or infill.
Succession planting: Planting for a succession of colour so that your garden looks fabulous at all times of year is an ideal that most of a chase- it is not easy and is the skill by which many of us judge our gardening prowess- it takes an enormous amount of plant knowledge to select companions that will gracefully give way to one another and die back beautifully in an orchestrated wave of pure magic – my how I would love to achieve this- someone who has written of his work to this end is Christopher Lloyd( now dead) of Great Dixter garden in East Sussex. Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners BBC Books tells of how he and his head gardener Fergus Garrett managed this year after year, as well as photos there is lots of practical stuff too- they share their knowledge with us- having a go is the only way to get there but using all the layers you have is a good start- bulbs, ground cover, perennials, shrubs, climbers and maybe a small tree.
Mulch, organic matter and water :You may remember that I spoke of mulching in a previous article- well I can’t stress enough how it will help your plants to survive our hot spells with minimal need for watering, adding organic matter to the earth in autumn or spring, and mulching the soils surface then too will really help as it holds onto the water that is present and stores it for roots to find- If you do have to water then water the base of the plant lots – watering overhead wastes a vast amount of water as only a small proportion of it gets to where it is needed- at the roots of the plant. Water planting holes , watering and mulch newly planted things- this means that all the water you have applied will be under the ground- in the root zone and not being evaporated from the soils surface.

The weather: I have stood next to a planting recently thinking ‘maybe I should change it all for Mediterranean
plants that love the heat and the dry’ and have had to remind myself that in the last couple of years this summer heat has been the exception – that if we do have a prolonged spell of hot weather nature will take its course, I will be dead heading like crazy and watering more than I would like to, that I must get more organic matter into the soil next spring, and that this weather is so much needed, not by the garden plants maybe, but by us – definitely.

Written in mid July-
I wonder what the weather is doing now.

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