Don’t say goodbye to the colour and wonders of your high summer garden. With a bit of planning you can still have vibrant colours right through to early autumn and beyond
How often have you hear gardeners say ‘Oh my garden looks its best in spring’.
Late-summer drabness is often taken for granted and by July we are saying there’s nothing to look forward to.
Which is of course nonsense. Why waste your garden's best performance on the matinee? Hold it back for the main event: August, when it's warm enough to sit out and enjoy it.
So the message is don't say goodbye to summer too soon. Thanks to today's warmer climate, summer can often stretch into early October, and the traditional midsummer floral display seems like a flash in the pan. Where once we threw all the big guns at June and July, you now need a second set of late-flowering plants to see you through September and October.
Flowers that peak in late-summer are wide-ranging, as are shrubs, climbers and herbaceous perennials. Most fashionable annuals, exotics and tender perennial patio plants should also stay in flower until late-September, or even early October, if properly looked after. Don't overlook ornamental grasses, which can lift a border into the designer league.
Late-summer flowering plants are seen as high maintenance, yet there are plenty of easy-to-grow plants ready to deliver a hit of colour and form at this time of year. Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy' is one. By the end of August its plump flower buds are bursting with promise, like a class of five-year-olds sat cross-legged with their hands in the air. The architectural fleshy leaves look great next to the lightness of Cosmos 'Purity' and it's a big hit with butterflies and bees.
Just as the rest of the garden starts to run out of puff, Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' is like a substitute with fresh legs that comes on and scores the winning goal. You'll look forward to seeing it every year. At two metres it is likely to be the tallest plant in the border, and that creates a dramatic skyline. Despite its height it doesn't need staking, which is another reason why gardeners love it. An alternative with just as much oomph is Rudbeckia 'Herbstsonne'. It has chunkier flowers and the colour is more intense but it's still a great addition at this time of year.
For tall plants to look good you need a few shorter ones nearby. Phlox are perfect for this – they look great, smell great and are easy to grow. There’s the beautiful white variety 'Mount Fuji' so when the excitement of my alliums and lavender is over. Give them some leaf mould in the autumn; your efforts will not go unrewarded. Phlox prefers the sun so if you have shade you could try one of the Japanese anemones which actually come from China. These plants have almost cornered the late-summer flowering market and with good reason.
They're reliable, easy to grow and despite their delicate appearance are as tough as they come. The variety Anemone x hybrida 'Honorine Jobert' is tall, elegant and white, whereas A. hupehensis 'Pamina' is shorter and pink. Both are gorgeous, especially if teamed with the blue flowers of Geranium 'Rozanne', which will have been flowering since May but will still have enough juice in the tank to continue until the hard frosts.
But it's not only colour that can deliver interest at this time of year; shape is important, too. Two favourites are the little and large of the grass world. Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau' is just above knee height and produces a cappuccino froth of blond flowers, which lasts through to winter. And towering above it at two metres tall is Chinese silver grass Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus'. The silvery plumes of this skyscraper are beautiful and dramatic. Summer and autumn wouldn't be the same without it. Both these grasses prefer the sun but will cope with partial shade.