We have had an excellent first half to the gardening year in Britain, spoiled only by a very few hot over-sunny days. I pity those of you who are now leaving for obligatory holidays, just when the garden and the British landscape are potentially so beautiful. What needs to be done before you go and where can you then go to comfort your green soul when the magnet of sun, drought and the Med wears off?
Here is an unwelcome truth. You will get as much from your garden when you return as you put into it this weekend before leaving. Late summer and autumn are high points for all alert gardeners but they are missed by those who give up after the roses and reckon that there are only a few Michaelmas daisies between la grande rentrée in early September and the end of the flowery year. The best is still ahead of us, far better than those “mists and mellow fruitfulness” that are only part of the scene.
The two essential preparations are deadheading and feeding. If you are a big last-minute buyer of bedding plants, go over them now and remove all traces of the first batch of flowers. The aim is to stop each plant from setting seed and giving up the bother of flowering. Cut it back and force it to start all over again. Some of the most popular bedding plants have now been bred to be sterile, but not many. Trailing calibrachoa and so-called “surfinia” will not set seed and only need to be deadheaded if they are looking untidy. Everything else needs to be neutered and then fed. In general, I use watering cans of soluble Miracle-Gro on just about everything, staining my hands blue in the process. It is excellent on verbenas and antirrhinums after their first flowering, on all daisy-flowered favourites, on all begonias and, especially, on fast-developing fuchsias and cannas. Otherwise, I use diluted Tomorite, the tomato fertiliser, on everything which has ample green growth but just needs a drug in order to encourage it to set buds all over again. The cardinal examples are dahlias, now opening their first flowers. I soak their immediate root area with Tomorite, delivered steadily, not in one wasted slosh. I do the same to all gazanias, tobacco plants and marigolds.
If you prepare now before leaving, you will come back to pots, window boxes and flowerbeds full of zest. Drugs give the second-flowering a special intensity. You also need to spend an hour or two decimating any hardy geraniums that have flowered so well until now. With very few exceptions, their entire top growth must come off, down to a basic ruff of leaves. The main exception is the wondrous Geranium Rozanne, the star new plant of this millennium. It is sterile, so it flowers on and on, gaining a depth to its blue and white flowers as the weather cools in autumn. If you have it, feed it perhaps, but do not cut it. If you do not have it, get it at once on your return. It has transformed British gardens.
Meanwhile, the spikes of verbascums must come off, down to almost no leaves at all, and also the spikes of any lingering foxgloves. In general, tell yourself that you do not want the second half of the year spoiled by the first half’s outdated performers. Barrowloads of superfluous top growth can come off most borders right now. They will look so much fresher without it when you return.
There is one peculiarity to the year that seems to be widespread. Some of mid-to-late August’s shrubs have flowered absurdly early, probably because there was no sharp spring frost to hold them back. Lacecap hydrangeas were looking lovely by mid-July and buddleias were well out, too. The buddleias need a little attention, but the time spent is well worth it. Go over them and remove all the flowers that are turning a dirty brown. Deadheading works wonders with them too, giving you a second crop of flowers within another fortnight. My care and attention will be prolonging my recent favourite, Buddleia Adonis Blue. It is not a tall buddleia, about 4ft to 5ft being its span if it is cut back each spring. The spikes of flower are the most beautiful deep slate-blue, a special colour. I pick them and contemplate them each morning over breakfast.
After feeding and cutting, you can be off with a clear conscience. An amazing number of you now contact me with messages beginning, “we have taken a house in … ”, dried-up Tuscany, scorched Provence, all the usual suspects, even a Greek island, “ … and we are wondering where we can go to see gardens”. The best answer is, “straight back to Britain, you nits”, but there are some havens on the way south. Here are some of my top tips.
In France the answers are mostly in the northern half. In Normandy, as you drive through, be sure to see Le Jardin Plume in Auzouville-sur-Ry (lejardinplume.com), although the highest points of this cleverly planned garden are earlier and then later in September. In Paris, if only for a night, go straight up to Bagatelle on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, even though the exhibition roses will be in a lull. In Italy the best hopes in August are green gardens, planned with ample box and cypress trees. Near Lucca, the winner is Marlia. In Lazio, the best destinations are all within reach of Viterbo. Go first to Caprarola for the Palazzo Farnese and adjacent Vignanello for the Castello Ruspoli garden (email firstname.lastname@example.org for opening times), and then the Villa Lante at nearby Bagnaia. If you are sweating near Florence, head out to Settignano for the Villa Gamberaia, always visitable with its water pools and green hedges. The star, of course, is further south, the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, easily combinable with the vast ruin-park of nearby Hadrian’s Villa, a great place for a shaded picnic. The Tivoli fountains are in spouting form nowadays after their recent restoration. Do not become too bewildered by the obligatory entry through the villa itself. The views out on to the gardens and then the gardens themselves are the point of the visit. When the gardens were in social use, guests entered from the bottom of the slope anyway, looking up at the terraced waterworks and villa above.
When planning these outings, remember that in August, the “golden hours” apply. As photographers know, they are the early morning and the hours as late as possible before dusk. The worst possible strategy is to announce an outing, say, to Villandry in the Loire valley and not to whip yourself and your family into action until mid-morning or after a guilty lunch, arriving in glaring sunshine at about 3pm. Set out early or late after a wine-fuelled siesta and then the gardens will be graced by a kinder light.
If green dreams continue to haunt you, my advice is to head for the mountains. Kind readers have been sending me cards after their happy climbs up the tracks to the great Schachen Garten, an outstation of Munich’s superb botanical garden, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. The garden is only open at its high altitude until September 4 but it remains a holy place for those who want to see mountain flowers in a natural setting. This year is its centenary, a fine time for a visit. If uphill walking is not your thing, head to Interlaken instead and take a train from nearby Wilderswil’s rail station to the stop signed Alpengarten, the excellent semi-natural garden on the Schynige Platte, which is linked to the University of Bern. It is such fun to arrive at a garden on a special train. Its meadow and alpine flora are inspirations to anyone looking for life beyond Piet Oudolf and yet more “natural” grasses.
Best of luck on the beach, poor things. I will be meditating without you, night after night, the white wine from my Oxford college cellar beside me, as the sun fades on my phloxes and drugged dahlias.
Photograph: Paul Williams/Alamy