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Late Perennials in the Garden

Summer marches on and soon autumn will begin to show her hand with shorter days and chilly mornings of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Cooler temperatures are a sign for most plants to cease growing and begin to close down for winter. This act culminates in the stunning display of autumn leaf colours before these fall to reveal bare skeletons of trees and shrubs, allowing evergreens to come to the fore, standing like sentries in the winter garden.

At this time of the year, late flowering perennials blaze through borders on a mission to give us a show to remember. Pushed into the background are the pastel colours – the silvers, pale pinks, mauves and whites of the midsummer borders. These are replaced by golden yellows, mahogany reds, orange, carmine and cyclamen shades which belong to the many varieties of autumn daisies. 

Teamed with ornamental grasses such as Molinia and Miscanthus, these daisies add a natural, ‘prairie’ feel to the garden. The brilliant golden-yellow Rudbeckia is one of the best, lighting up our borders for weeks from late July until well into September. When the glowing petals finally fall, the brown cone-like centres are revealed and add another dimension to this area.

Heleniums are another autumn wonder; their stiff, upright stems topped with flowers in rich orange, red and yellow shades. ‘Moerheim Beauty’ is one of my favourites with dark mahogany coloured blooms and ‘Wyndley’ is a beautiful rusty orange. Slow to make big crowns, they are best planted in a drift of three or five plants depending on the size of your border and look stunning backed by the arching mounds of dwarf Miscanthus whose ‘feather duster’ flowers take over once the Helenium  flowers turn to seed heads.

The real stars of the show in our autumn garden have to be Asters. Just asking to be picked for a vase where they will last for ages in water, it’s possible to have varieties of these cottage garden favourites in flower in the garden from August until October. Some of the taller varieties of Michaelmas Daisies have been handed from neighbour to neighbour over the garden fence for hundreds of years and these good tempered plants are very easy to increase by dividing the crowns after flowering or in early spring. ‘Winston S Churchill’ is a beautiful older variety with ruffled flowers of deep magenta-red surrounding a bright yellow centre. ‘Marie Ballard’ is one of the earliest to flower with double flowers of mauve-blue on branching stems. When in full flower, many Asters carry so many blooms that they completely cover the leaves – a magnificent site in autumn borders. There are colours to suit all tastes from clear blues and misty pale pinks to vibrant carmine and cerise varieties. Some plants make low mounds – ideal for the front of a border, and others will grow tall to fill a space at the back. Their sturdy stems mean that once they have acclimatised to your garden, Asters rarely need supporting like some tall perennials.

A late treat for gardeners, I find these perennials easy to look after. They prefer a well cultivated, moist soil which does not dry out in summer, so we give a good mulch of garden compost around the crowns in spring or in autumn after they have flowered. Taller varieties are given the ‘Chelsea Chop’ in late May by removing two thirds of the growth. This will encourage a shorter, sturdier plant with more side shoots and so more flowers at the end of the summer. With little care, these lovely plants will continue to brighten our garden for many years to come.


Insects busy in our garden

On warm, sunny days insects are always busy in our garden. From Hoverflies to Ladybirds, butterflies and Hummingbird Hawk Moths, I could watch them for hours as they fly from flower to flower or, as in the case of Ladybirds, patrol the new growth tips on shrubs and vegetables looking for their favourite food – aphids.

Many insects are beneficial to gardeners, either by pollinating the flowers of food crops or as part of the food chain, predating on garden pests or as food for birds and small animals, which in turn eat pests such as slugs, snails, caterpillars and greenfly.

By planting their favourite food plants, they will arrive in numbers but what about the winter when the weather changes and there is little about for them to eat?

Luckily, most insects will hibernate through the colder months and re-emerge in spring to carry on their good work. By giving them winter lodgings, gardeners will be off to a head start on the pest control and pollination front in the following year.

If you have room in a quiet corner of your garden, stone and log piles are a cheap way to give shelter to a huge variety of creatures – have you ever peeled back a rotting layer of bark and noticed the number of insects scuttling away? Or lifted a stone to reveal a damp layer of earth - again with a wealth of insect life? Toads, frogs and small mammals will also use these places to shelter through the winter and a rotting pile of wood is a great larder for birds as they rummage for food through the lean months.

Another easy way to create winter lodgings for insects is to build a ‘bug hotel’ from an empty plastic water or fizzy drink bottle with a top. This is a great project for children on a wet day during the school holidays!

Start by collecting some dry, hollow stemmed sticks from the garden or use hollow bamboo canes. Cut the base from the plastic bottle and push some fine wire through the side to act as a hanger. Cut the hollow stems to length and place them in a bundle in the bottomless bottle. Remember to leave the top on the bottle so that the sticks or bamboo canes stay dry.

Site your bug hotel in a shady spot, sheltered from cold winds and facing away from prevailing winds so that winter rain is not driven into the stems – the lodgers will need somewhere dry to hibernate and may die if their home is flooded or becomes damp.

The lack of bees has been a worrying environmental issue for some time and we should do whatever we can to encourage these industrious insects to our gardens. Not all bees live in swarms - many are solitary but still play an important part in pollinating crops and flowers. Some live in holes in wood and some in burrows in the ground but by planting their favourite food plants we can help them. It’s important to provide suitable flowering plants through the year as many will emerge in winter or early spring, stirred by warm weather. The Royal Horticultural Society has a list of plants suitable for pollinators on its website and many are available for sale at Notcutts. Fatsia japonica, Sarcococca and Clematis cirrhosa are three such plants that spring to mind for the winter months but we can also help by erecting a solitary bee hive or simply drilling holes in logs to encourage them to take up residence.

Helping beneficial insects out doesn’t have to be expensive - even the smallest of projects can make a huge difference – so this autumn why not get building or planting with wildlife in mind?


Beetroot Plants

Our small vegetable patch in the back garden has been cropping well and we have been eating our own vegetables since May but the heat and dry weather of the past few weeks has meant that the last of the lettuce have ‘bolted’ and the peas and broad beans have come to an end.

Runner beans have yet to start cropping but I am feeding them once each week with a Grow Your Own liquid feed and watering every other day. The first flowers opened and dropped off which I put down to drought, but since I have been more diligent with the watering and feeding they have recovered and tiny beans are starting to form so I am hoping for a surplus to be able to make runner bean pickle in September once my onions are ready for lifting. Runner beans really do like lots of water and will soon tell you if they are too dry by dropping flowers and wilting so that their large leaves look very sad!

My beetroot are not yet big enough to harvest but there is still Florence fennel to enjoy along with plenty of carrots and courgettes. I love fennel bulbs par boiled and pan fried in butter to finish with a little white wine vinegar and a sprinkling of brown sugar – an unusual and delicious side vegetable which goes with anything as far as I am concerned!

This week, I have consigned the pea and broad bean plants to the compost heap and sown some more vegetable seed to take us through the autumn. Radish, spring onions, rocket and mustard leaves have all been sown in short rows along with another row of carrots and a ‘late’ row of French beans – the rabbits ate my other row on my nearby plot! 

Thoughts are also turning to valuable winter vegetables and I have planted out some purple sprouting broccoli – one of my favourites – which will produce tasty spears from February until the beginning of May when there is little else to harvest. I am late with my leeks but they have been transplanted from their seed bed into the space where the broad beans were growing and I already have a good row of parsnips which will stand the winter and like the leeks can be harvested as needed through the winter months. 

Having ‘downsized’ from two allotments to a small raised bed in our back garden and a raised bed at a nearby farm it has surprised me how much can still be produced – certainly plenty for the two of us even though my husband moans sometimes about having to eat the same vegetables for a few meals running!

I miss not having the room to try longer term crops such as Asparagus and Globe Artichokes and I really miss eating the first of the home grown new potatoes - their taste, freshly dug from the ground is like no other – but until I have more time to devote to growing vegetables the back garden and nearby raised bed will do very nicely!


Low Maintenance Plants

At this time of the year, the garden seems to take on a mind of its own and plants grow at an alarming rate. Shrubs that looked so prim and proper in the spring now have long straggly shoots at all angles giving them a dishevelled look. Perennials too have burgeoned in the borders with Cranesbills climbing through other plants and Phlox straining to keep their heads in the sun whilst their neighbours jostle with them for space and light.

The Privet hedge at the back of the garden was drastically reduced two autumns ago so that the stumps and bare branches stood dormant for what seemed an age until bright green shoots were seen in the following spring. It has grown back into a sleek green backdrop kept in bounds by the hedge trimmer regularly run over the new growth before it gets a chance to become a leaning, light sucking, woody mess as before.

Many of the plants in our garden have been there for years and with careful pruning, an annual spring feed and plenty of homemade compost spread as mulch the garden is relatively easy to keep looking good with our limited spare time.

Many perennials are relatively ‘low maintenance’ until their rootstocks become congested and they need to be dug up and divided into pieces after flowering. Hardy Geraniums (Border Cranesbills) can go on for years with no attention save a feed and mulch each spring. The straggly growth can be removed to the base after flowering, leaves and all and the plants will quickly spring back to life with many producing more flowers.

Evergreen shrubs too are usually no trouble. The Mexican Orange Blossom below the kitchen window was a picture this spring – full of scented clusters of white flowers for weeks. Careful pruning to remove the faded flower heads keeps this in shape and there is another flowering in early autumn much to the delight of the bees.

We have several Hebes in our sunny front garden and one, H. ‘Wiri Charm’ has been in flower for weeks. The spikes of deep magenta flowers are covering the mound-like growth and look great against the weed suppressing gravel. A light prune back to new growth once the flowers have faded may bring more blooms in the autumn and will keep the plant in shape. Larger varieties are growing on the edge of the garden and make excellent windbreaks. If they are badly damaged by cold winter winds, snow or frost, we wait until new growth shoots from the middle of the plants and prune back to this in late spring. By the end of the summer, the plants are always full of flowers and have tidy mounds of leaves once again. Along with many other evergreens, Hebes benefit from a good cut back in late spring every few years to keep them in shape and encourage vigorous new growth.

For evergreen texture and its lovely silver-grey leaves Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ is one of my favourite shrubs and this too can be hard pruned to shape in the same way as the Hebes. Left to its own devices this plant can become a sprawling mound so benefits from a good prune every few years.

The list of low maintenance plants goes on and on but I am particularly pleased with my latest additions of Rock Roses (Helianthemum) which will add a lower layer of planting to the front garden with their cheerful flowers so loved by bees and sprawling, ground covering habits. With a quick tidy from the shears once the flowers have faded, they should be happy for many years to come.


Watering Your Garden

Infrequent showers, thundery rain and misty mornings are often not enough to top up moisture levels in the ground and new plants will dry out fast in the sun – especially if it’s a breezy day.

The following tips will save time and water and help keep your plants in tip top condition.

Planting in the ground

Prepare the ground well before planting and add organic matter such as garden compost to the soil to help retain moisture. Organic matter acts like a sponge, soaking up water and slowly releasing it back into the soil.

Fill a bucket with water and place the plant, still in its pot in the bucket so that the pot is submerged. You may see air bubbles coming out of the water or if the plant is very dry it will float on the surface. Hold the plant pot under the water until the air bubbles stop – your plant is now at ‘field capacity’ which means the compost surrounding the roots cannot hold any more water.

Dig the planting hole and add some bone meal or other fertiliser to the soil. Remove the plastic pot from your plant and place it in the hole so that it is slightly lower than the soil surface. Backfill with the soil mix, gently pushing soil between the hole and plant’s roots so that there are no air pockets. Firm gently with your hands as you go – there is no need to compact the soil so that it is solid.

Water your plant and the surrounding soil straight away after planting and it will be fine for a few days.


Newly planted areas should be watered thoroughly a couple of times each week if need be. Sprinkling the leaves with a hose will not help and just wastes water!

To see if your plants need to be watered, gently scrape the soil around the base to check for moisture. If the soil is dry or the plants have drooping leaves or flowers (wilting) fill a watering can and water directly onto the soil near the plants stems. A quarter to half a can two or three times a week should do the trick and enable your plants to establish well.

It is better to water a couple of times a week using the above method than sprinkling your plants leaves with the hose every evening. By wetting the soil each evening, you will encourage roots to form near the soil surface not reach down into the soil to anchor the plant and enable it to withstand dry weather in the future. 


Planting in containers

Because their roots are confined, plants in hanging baskets and pots will generally need more water than those in the ground. Bedding plants, herbs and other fast growing ‘annuals’ may need watering up to twice a day in dry weather – their vigorous roots become a mass in a container, quickly soaking up water.

Add water retaining crystals to the compost before planting hanging baskets and summer bedding plants in containers. The crystals swell up when watered and can hold many times their own weight in water which is slowly released back into the compost.

Use pot saucers beneath pots that are difficult to keep watered properly or for plants that don’t like to be watered overhead. The saucers can be topped up as needed so that water is taken up through the base of the container.

Water your plants in the evenings when evaporation will be much less and top up if required in the mornings before the heat of the day.

Be especially vigilant during hot, breezy or showery weather. Often a sudden down pour will wet the ground but not get past the leaves of established plants in pots, leaving the surface dry.

Pots in a ‘rain shadow’ - near the base of a wall or tucked under the eaves of a garden building for example – will probably not get enough rain even if other containers in the open do. Remember to check these often, or move them to a more open site when rain is forecast.

When watering established containers, use a watering can or a garden hose with a lance fitted so that the water is directed into the centre of the container onto the soil surface, not over the leaves which will act as umbrellas, leaving the pot surface dry. Bedding plants and hanging baskets may need watering twice a day but often more established plants will not need as much water – a good soak twice a week may be enough for many shrubs and roses growing in containers.

And finally........

Be mindful of the weather and act accordingly!