Do not shorten the garden’s year in your minds. Some of the best is still ahead. Last year, English gardens went on until the end of November, a marvellous extension of the season. Dictionaries, handbooks and guides for “beginners” have yet to react fully to the changes. My advice to those beginners is to plan for February, an exquisite month for gardens nowadays, and to load up for late autumn, the new finale. They will then double their enjoyment. Roses can fill in meanwhile.
First, a brilliant idea which I have failed to carry out this year. I saw it last September in the excellent American garden, Chanticleer, in Wayne, Philadelphia. Groups of 10 or 12 colchicums had been scattered in groups in the rough grass, spaced several yards apart. They had such impact. Colchicums somehow slip through the net when we send away for bulbs. Many suppliers ask us to pre-book them for spring delivery when we are ordering the tulips in the next few weeks. They seem a long way off as they will not be sent out until early summer when their big green leaves have died down. Being well-informed, I therefore wait to order in late spring, but forget to do so. So I am still without scattered small groups of colchicums, my postponed plan now for 2014. They will send up flowers on bare stems in an English September and need to be marked so that you do not mow them off in their first stages. The glossy green leaves appear in the following spring and although books call them “untidy”, I much like them too. They are said to be poisonous to cattle. It will be brilliant if they turn out to be poisonous to badgers too.
Next, a late summer success. Lilies scare many gardeners and there is no doubt that most of them are best in pots. One good trick is to grow them in pots and then sink the pots into clear spaces in a flowerbed when the stems have developed well. Their soil is still specially controlled and when they have finished the pots can be whisked out again. Another trick for those of us on limy soil is to major on Lilium henryi. This superb plant has been part of my late summer gardening for 50 years and I am amazed that many gardeners still ignore it.
Lilium henryi is named in honour of the great Irish plant collector who first gathered specimens for Europe. It is at home in central China. Yet again, it has proved to me that it is almost impossible to kill. It sends up long stems, up to 7ft tall, with healthy, green pointed leaves. It then bears big clusters of recurved flowers in a fine shade of orange. It is a classy refutation of those who dislike orange in a flower garden. They always weaken before a good henryi. The flowers tend to hang downwards and are not too big. They have a roughened surface, marked with what botanists call “papillae”. These “paps” are like spots or pimples which break out on the reflexed petals near the centre of each flower. Unlike a teenage crop, they are extremely fetching.
This month, I have been enjoying tall henryi lilies in a bed which is limy, sandy and disliked by so much else. They improve yearly and, as gardeners found in 1945, they are able to survive years of neglect, even in wartime. They merely need an individual cane to hold up the weight of stems in flower. Well staked, they are twice as effective. There is also a white-flowered henryi which is rarer and there is much henryi blood in recent, lime-tolerant crosses with Oriental lime-hating lilies. They are all excellent even though they are classed as “Orienpets”.
When ordering the tulips, add in Lilium henryi, for spring delivery, and also 50 or so colchicums, for delivery even later. Then, sit down and see how many September to November flowering plants you really have. I am thankful that I went so heavily into asters 12 years ago, reading how they have a long season if we choose clever varieties. They begin with varieties like the charming blue Aster macrophyllus Twilight (the RHS Plantfinder has tried to rename this one Aster x herveyi, so be warned) and they go right on into late October with the likes of the superb A. amellus King George. Here, I want only to stress the excellence of the lesser-known Aster schreberi. It is a picture just now in my garden, a wide carpet of glistening white flowers at a height of about 1ft. The great merit of this fine plant is that it really will run and flourish in horribly dry, even semi-shaded, soil near tree roots. A few plants soon spread and can be split into hundreds. London gardeners would love it under their neighbours’ sycamore branches. The Plantfinder lists about 10 suppliers but garden centres have yet to wake up to it. It is so much tidier than yet another off-pink hardy geranium.
Warm springs, late springs, cool summers, hot summers all make problems for conventional “colour combinations” in gardens nowadays. The timings are no longer predictable and the oddest things come into flower at the same time. My response is to limit the colours in plantings, orange being well represented, and then to leave it to the year to decide which particular flowers in the restricted range come out together. Colour combinations then come back into line in autumn when the weeks come back into a reliable rhythm.
Try blues and clear yellows together from now until October. Lemon-yellow Helianthus Lemon Queen looks even better with good dark blue-flowered Monkshoods beside it, provided you stop it from running wildly all over them. The tall clear yellow Rudbeckia Herbtsonne is a superb choice on its own, but it is even better if you can get the tall sky-blue Salvia uliginosa to wave around beside it. Like all of us, I regularly lose this fine salvia in the winter but I have come to think that the usual killer is a slug, not a frost. Uliginosa likes damp soil best of all, which is the happiest winter bed for slugs and snails. Since I put down killer bait around it in late autumn I have had better luck.
Above all, there are dahlias. If you left yours in the ground for last winter, you surely lost them all in the cold. Wise non-virgins like me still lift them and store them for the months from November onwards in boxes in frost-proof places. If you have survivors or replacements, try feeding them now with diluted fertiliser from a watering can, Phostrogen being my preferred choice. The flowers are then more prolific, deeper coloured and longer lasting. It is such a quick way to do good. Then, sit back and enjoy a long, multicoloured autumn.