Aster way to do it

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Vegetables have been a struggle in the British wet and the widespread droughts elsewhere. I smile wryly at the memory of the two female fund managers who told me last year they had met at the Lloyds TSB AGM, fallen in love and promptly bought a Sussex smallholding as English wine had a better future than bankers’ debts. They need to be taking the long view, as I hope they still are of their relationship. The grapes for Château Haywards Heath 2012 have been rotting by the thousand in a damp autumn. Has anyone ever drunk a bottle of English wine with more pleasure than an equivalently priced bottle of French wine and if not, why do lovers bother with it?

They should have stuck to my advice and planted an autumn flower-garden. I have never had mine looking so good in mid-October. The revised calendar for English frost gives us all an extra two or three weeks before the dahlias and zinnias turn brown. Wonderfully, the last of the year’s summer flowers are now coinciding with the first of the year’s autumn colours. Gloucestershire is not Vermont, I admit, but the wisterias on my main garden arches have just turned a superb shade of yellow. Clouds of blue-flowered Aster King George have never looked better beneath them. The tints on Britain’s trees are often rather good but the tints on so many of our border plants and shrubs are even better. Pay them the attention they seldom get, starting with paeonies.

October works well for me at two levels. One is in pots where everything has been drenched weekly with liquid fertiliser since July. At the end of the season this frenetic feeding pays off. It has kept a magnificent half hardy verbena in flower for months, a dark burgundy red one called Diamond Merci. This colour of verbena turns up on flower stalls in southern French market towns but Diamond Merci is available in Britain and is very dark and vigorous. It is ridiculously easy to propagate from short cuttings taken even as late as this weekend. Next year I will have rivers of Diamonds, thank you very much, but only after winter protection as it is not a hardy variety. Expatriate gardeners would love it.

Feeding has also caused a little known aster to go into overdrive. Aster frikartii Flora’s Delight is named after the second wife of the great Norfolk nurseryman Alan Bloom and I like to think she would indeed be delighted by its season. It shows a mass of lavender blue single flowers in late June and responds to heavy feeding and deadheading by flowering flat out until this weekend. Experts warned me that this superb plant is best in a pot, a blessing for those with urban gardens. Dead head Flora and she is delightful for a longer season than any other Michaelmas daisy. Why did I bother with pricey designer diascias in strips when this hardy daisy out-flowers them all and lasts through any winter outdoors? One or two plants can soon be split into a dozen more.

Fuchsia Royal Academy

Cool wet days have done for the grapes but they are ideal for fuchsias. Every year at the Chelsea Show I admire the fuchsia stand of Roualeyn Nurseries from Conwy in Wales ( They offer a quick mail-order turnaround for those who are impressed by the display and their catalogue has an invaluable list of the fuchsias they consider to be hardy. They are a surprising number, but well chosen, even for chilly gardens. On the rebound from Chelsea week I bought mixed hardy varieties to round off the potting display and this year they are in top form. My favourite is Preston Guild, a combination of ivory white and a central slate blue tube. Royal Academy runs it close, a double flowered variety that combines red and pale blue in extravagant fashion. It ought to be renamed Coalition. These hardy varieties are more exciting than the basic sort of Tom Thumb that is offered in stores and garden centres in the bedding season. Send away in May and you will be rewarded with a much more interesting autumn.

Salvia involucrata

Away from pots many of the best things are out of control. There is a lesson here. If you are seduced by the fashion for “natural” gardening or the “meadow” look, you do not have to run after Euro-fashion and plant masses of grasses and stale pink pokeweed or major on an Olympic strip of golden-flowered annuals. Many of the best perennials for autumn are natural runners and are far, far more beautiful in October than a meadow of yesterday’s flowering carrot. I first realised this fact in the superb flower-gardens of the Picton family, kings of the Michaelmas daisy at Old Court Nurseries, Colwall, Malvern. In the further reaches of their planned display they had let vigorous asters, lemon yellow-flowered helianthus, spectacularly tall Golden Rod and big clumps of white-flowered Leucanthemella run into each other in big half-controlled groups. The result made even a Monet painting of an autumn garden look limited. These and other October perennials grow so fast and are so easily maintained. There was hardly a grass in sight, as they are too boring for the colour–range available. Tall salvias also had a look in, especially the magenta-red Salvia involucrata, which has been hardy with me for 10 years and is such a superb late performer. Its flowers are thrust out almost horizontally like tubes of a 1950s lipstick and the stems make a late-season run to about 4ft.

Within two years a basic stock of, say, five plants each of these varieties can be split and multiplied into thirties and fifties. Then, on cleared ground, they can be set out like swirling colours from a modern artist’s palette with not a qualm for the so-called “colour-wheel” of the 1860s. In autumn I rally to the remark of that queen of style, the late Nancy Lancaster: “In time you’ll begin to like anything with anything.” By October it is certainly time.

In another year these tall strong perennials will have merged into weed proof clumps. They need no staking. They can all be cut down in November with the help of a strimmer. To accommodate them there is no need whatsoever to “fertility­-strip” the soil, the bad practice of meadow-gardeners who want to give a chance to something more than ox-eye daisies. The wetter the year, the better the daisy-flowered Helianthus Lemon Queen and the white Leucanthemella, a plant from wet meadows in Hungary. Forget those vineyards. A runaway planting is a much better way to bring autumn and a garden’s plan to a close.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.