Peter Dowdall laments the bad summer but takes a positive approach and looks to other plants to add colour form and a sense of structure to the garden over autumn and throughout the wintertime.
As the colour lessens in the garden and the exuberance of the summer bedding and patio plants fade into the autumn, or get consigned to the compost bin — and as the perennials start to show signs of tiredness and lack lustrous growth — it is time to look at the other touches that can bring interest and life to the garden.
This year those self-same bedding and perennials really never got the chance to shine with all the wind and rain.
I planted a bed this year with pink geraniums — I love the scent and the look of these flowers — reminding me of my childhood when they were one of the very few bedding plants that were widely available.
I hadn’t planted them in years but thinking of the last two glorious summers I felt they would be just right with the pale pink working nicely with the Indian sandstone of my patio — and I pictured us sitting out on the long summer evenings, with the geranium scent hanging in the air.
Unfortunately, this summer didn’t work out quite like that and almost every day, I had to go out and deadhead the blooms that were rotting after all the rain, never having been given the opportunity to open fully in the sunshine.
I laugh to myself now when I think about how, when trying to decide which colour to go for, I opted for pink because I thought that it would be a nice cool colour for the hot summer we would surely have.
This summer, it transpired that the only time I was in the garden of an evening, was to bring in the washing before it became soaked.
We had two in a row of superb summers — so I really shouldn’t have been so bold as to hope for a third. Roses too, struggled and continue to struggle this year, never getting the chance to open fully as the inclement weather led to huge amounts of mildew, back spot, botrytis and bud rot.
The hydrangeas, however, have loved the damp summer and most are producing blooms far bigger and more lush than over the last few years.
Despite this, and exceptionally, the white varieties are having their blooms destroyed as soon as they open, for the rain marks and discolours the beautiful pure white petals as soon as they open.
You could be forgiven for wondering why we stick at this gardening lark when this happens.
You wait all year for the blooms, pruning back the correct stems at the right time of the year to create a good shape, and promoting plenty of strong flowering stems.
Then, as soon as they open, the first shower of rain destroys your hard work. But it’s an addiction of course and as such is difficult to explain.
Other touches that can make the garden more interesting and colourful are plants that hide in the wings all year round, but really only come into their own over the next two seasons, as the garden divests itself of its summer garb.
I am referring to the use of texture in the garden and in particular, the use of plants with differing forms to create little combinations and areas of interest over autumn and winter.
Some plants offer little or no movement in the garden — varieties like the Buxus sempervirens or Common Boxwood which when pruned to certain shapes — like balls and cones — offer a solid dense punctuation mark in the garden.
Some too like rhododendron and azalea, will develop into good solid shrubs which will produce colourful displays of flower in the spring.
Ferns are another group of plants which have a very definite structure producing wonderful fronds which can look even prehistoric as they unfurl in the spring. Some perennials like bergenia and hosta, with their rounded, fat and very flat leaves bring another nuance again to your planting.
One of my favourite plants in the garden is the heuchera, no particular variety, I love all of them.
They bring evergreen colour, flower and that sought after texture. I use them everywhere in the garden but to me their best use is with ornamental grasses.
For it is these grasses that can be the star of the horticultural show over the next few months, moving with the breeze to create a light and airy feel as the flowers of many, particularly Miscanthus, develop into seed heads during the autumn.
They also provide an important food source for many birds during the long winter, so don’t be in a huge rush to prune them down to the ground during the next two seasons, as not only can they provide the framework for a stunning frost-covered winter scape, but they will also help the wildlife get through the cold spell.
Chinolochloa flavicans is commonly referred to as the dwarf pampas grass though this is misleading as it is not of the same genus. The Chinolocloa is an evergreen grass native to New Zealand but thrives too in our climate and grows into a lovely little plant about 40cm in height.
Drooping shiny leaves lie beneath the white pampas like plumes which are produced during late summer and really only come into their own now.
A great plant for taking the extremes of the coast, it works well among my beloved heucheras — the contrasting textures working so well together but Chinolocloa too will work well with the stately Buxus and other dense evergreen shrubs, ferns and hostas.
It’s a plant too that can work so well on its own in a simple terracotta pot, offering something each month of the year.
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