Colour is key in the garden, even at this late stage in the summer

Peter Dowdall discusses the plants that shine in the waning of the year — from cosmos to lobelia and more.

Looks like were back to the norm this year, a mediocre summer at best and now the hope for the famous ‘Indian Summer’.

September is consistently our best month in Ireland, to such a degree I wonder could we change the word ‘Indian’ to ‘Irish’ as it’s our most reliable month for some sunshine. 

Yes, the days start to close in that bit earlier and as the month comes in at late summer — it certainly ends very much in autumn.

It can be the nicest month in the garden, that transition between the seasons when the summer perennials are giving the last of their best before the year starts thinking of coming to an end once more.

Colour is key in the garden, even at this late stage in the summer

Do you notice that your colour preferences change through the year? Give me the nice fresh lime greens and vibrant yellow of daffodils in the spring, the hot riotous colours of summer bedding and patio plants during the summer, but at this time of the year I don’t want to see a yellow, I’m much more about the purples and duller greens and of course white, always white.

I think again its part of our connection on a basic level to the universe and the natural world around us. 

The fashion industry illustrates this point with the spring/summer collections and then later, the more muted colours in the autumn and winter designs.

Sedums are one of ‘the’ September plants in the garden. Producing fleshy leaves earlier in the summer and opening into flower during August — it is really during September that they are the star of the show.

Many varieties are available and the popular Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ with its coppery red flowers and grey green, will grow to about 50cm in height and an established clump taking up about 1metre in diameter.

Colour is key in the garden, even at this late stage in the summer

Sedum ‘Coca Cola’ is a much lower growing type altogether with masses of grey and red flowers on grey/blue leaves and makes a great underplanting to the taller perennials.

However I think my favourite, if only for now, has to be Sedum ‘Jose Aubergine’. 

The rich purple or mahogany brown coloured foliage will grow to about 30cm in height and produce masses of sugary pink flowers giving such a beautiful contrast. Stunning together but also subtle, if that makes any sense.

Sometimes I stumble upon a plant combination that works so well — it makes the viewer stop in their tracks. 

In my case its normally by accident more than by design — but earlier this year I planted several ‘Jose Aubergine’ and mixed them with the dark green and airy, nearly copper coloured Carex testacaea. 

The effect is magical. The colours and textures work so well together. It’s a real summer meets autumn look and welcome in the fall of the year — and of course, the other great thing with sedums is that they are adored by the bees and butterflies.

Cosmos astrosangineus too, or ‘Chocolate Cosmos’ is another one of the plants that continues to keep giving right through September and the colour, which seemed so vibrant during the summer, now fits right in with the autumn garden. Try mixing it with a Dianthus or carnation to great effect. 

Colour is key in the garden, even at this late stage in the summer

There are so many colours of Dianthus available you will find one that suits your taste and of course as well as their sweet scent they also keep flowering well beyond September and into the winter.

Another group of plants that only start into bloom during August are the perennial lobellias. 

Again where we only had Lobelia cardinalis ‘Queen Victoria’ to choose from for many years, now each year seems to bring another few varieties to the market.

I’m a fan, excuse the pun as they are referred to as the fan-shaped lobelias due to the shape of their flowers which are normally either shades of blue or orange/red depending on the variety. 

With all the new varieties emerging, I still go back to the dark purple foliage and scarlet red flowers of ‘Queen Victoria’.

Not a colour combination that sounds like it would work, but as is so often the case in nature, the colours which shouldn’t, do work fantastically well together and this is one dramatic queen in the late summer garden.

I referred to white and always needing white, and of course we are in the middle of hydrangea time — so what better plant to provide a shot of pure white. Like lobelias, hydrangeas will thrive in moist, damp soil and semi shade.

Keep an eye out for the paniculata types, namely ‘Kyushu’, ‘Early Sensation’ and ‘Limelight’. 

Each one of them is worth that place in your garden but hold out if you can for Hydrangea paniculata ‘Candlelight’ which will produce very large cone shaped flowers.

It starts off nearly green in bud but opens to the purest of whites on top of red stems before the flowers start to reach old age and develop lovely red markings.

But still, for me there is none to beat the flouncy, light, massively overstated Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’.

The most showy of all the Hydrangeas, she will produce flowers so large as to bend the stems to the ground with their weight. 

If your garden is particularly open to the wind or if the summer like this year is particularly wet, then Anabelle will benefit from being staked to keep the flowers upright.

But I like the way she falls about the place and I have mine planted with some Heucherella ‘Solar Eclipse’ the pale green leaves with dark brown centres look so calm and restful with the blooms of Annabelle resting on top — it too creates that feeling of the garden slowing down, the year once more heading towards an autumn.


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