September gardening is one of the big additions to my love of the art in Britain. I owe an awareness of this month’s potential to garden visiting, especially in the West Country, and to the London flower shows of the mid-1990s when the Great Autumn Flower Show was still great. There is so much more to enjoy than mildewed hardy geraniums, buddleias which have run to dead-heads and a general air of chaos.
Not all of it is yellow-flowered, either. Do women really dislike yellow, as the garden-minded Editress of this section of the FT cautioned me when first visiting my late summer garden two years ago?* Younger ones certainly do not. I have had to write down the name of my yellow mainstay of the moment, the little-known Inula racemosa, twice in the past 10 days for ladies who have the best of their gardening careers still far ahead of them. In their view the problem, rather, is that women tend to see red. Maybe they will cherish my accidental mixture of this tall upright inula, flowering at intervals along its stems, with the tall yellow Rudbeckia Herbstsonne, whose flowers have down-turned petals. A chic combination with this superb rudbeckia is the blue-flowered Salvia uliginosa.
You will notice that my September enthusiasm relates to particular flowers. It is not that I undervalue a garden’s design but in my view, a new plant, well-used, is as transformative as another “feature”. On most sites I think the design should be formal, based on straight lines, unobtrusively arranged to scale. If wrong the garden will not really work, but if they are right they will not thrust themselves at viewers’ attention. Within them the plants are then like artists’ colours, changing from week to week, or like emphatic points whose shape is arresting. A new shape or colour at a new time changes the art of the game. I do not believe for one moment that flower gardening is somehow stuck in a rut. Its seasons, colours, shapes and contrasts continue to be transformed by new additions to our floral paint-box. Imagine if Fra Angelico had had all the colours at Degas’ disposal.
My range has been changed by the best Aconitums, those tall blue Monkshoods that used to confront us at the start of nursery catalogues and somehow be lost in all that followed. I am not yet sure which is the best in this good family. Trendies might opt for Aconitum Stainless Steel, which has grey-blue flowers at about 4ft. It is looking good at the further end of my Oxford long border but it does not show up so well at a distance. Others would go for Aconitum carmichaelii wilsonii because it flowers from late August into October. The flowers, however, are only a middle-of-the range blue. My favourite is the taller Aconitum Newry Blue because it has the longest spikes of flower and the deepest blue. Even women in a shade of grey would agree that it looks excellent beside autumn yellows. The spreading Helianthus Lemon Queen is the easiest to contrive but it has to be curbed in wellwatered conditions.
Michaelmas daisies are about to fire up the entire picture, but meanwhile the stars, as ever, are dahlias. How did “tasteful” gardeners ever banish these wondrous plants from mixed borders? They have grown spectacularly in this wet season, slugs permitting, and if the weather is sunny now, the flowers will cease to turn to damp little parcels. It pays many times over to travel or send away for the best varieties. One of the best postal sources is still Halls of Heddon up in Northumberland, at www.hallsofheddon.co.uk. It was good to read in the last but one FT Weekend that the company’s postal dahlia trade is holding up well, even though this season has been diabolical for sales of almost everything else from a garden centre. I can testify that Halls’ practice of dispatching ready-rooted dahlia cuttings in May to gardeners who have pre-ordered in February delivers first-class results. As a novice you may fear that the cuttings are too small on arrival to make enough headway by September. Never underestimate the stamina of a well-treated dahlia. I treat mine to liquid feeds every fortnight. There is no arguing with Dahlia Glorie van Heemstede liquid-fed to be 4ft high and flowering in a young female-friendly shade of yellow. Right now, I am most in awe of the pale cream-yellow Dahlia Cameo, first supplied to me by Halls seven years ago. I have preserved it by prudent lifting and storing each November. Those of you who idly leave dahlias in the ground have been taught a lesson by the last two sharp winters.
Dahlia colours are inexhaustible, except for a non-existent blue. In the famous Hidcote gardens this year, the white cactus dahlias are segregated from the pinks and also the dark reds. Perhaps it is easier to lift and store them separately if they are kept apart but I think their potential is lost. Try to combine the colours you like best, just as you would combine tulips. Pink Dahlia Bracken Ballerina with creamy Cameo would delight any fastidious eye. I am less sure what to put with a cracking double red Dahlia called Murdoch. This year it has solved the problem by following its namesake and bowing its head as if in shame.
Daisies, dahlias and anything from fine salvias to tall white leucanthemella transform September’s scope. This year we have an exceptional blessing too. So many of the early summer roses and even the spring magnolias are flowering yet again in a second or third season. The excellent old rose Jacques Cartier has flowered all year. Magnolia soulangeana is still producing shorter-stemmed flowers. This free gift is surely the result of so much of the summer rain. To get the goods we have to go through a few wash-outs. The lesson of this prolonged season is as true in the garden as in the rest of life.
* Lane Fox’s veteran status appears to be exacerbating his gender-linked condition of colour confusion. Defenestration (see Letters August 7, 8, 9 and 11) it is.
Jane Owen, Ed(itress)