The best professional tips for late summer garden colour
Have you run out of gardening steam by the time you get to the late summer garden?
I know I do, which is why it was always so inspiring to visit the top professional garden, The Salutation in Sandwich. The Salutation is now closed, but its award winning former head gardener Steven Edney shares his tips for late summer garden colour with The Middlesized Garden.
Firstly, when does a late summer garden start and end? My definition is that it starts with the first dahlia opening (usually around mid-July). It ends with the first frosts, when the dahlia foliage collapses into a blackened heap. .
So the ‘late summer garden’ equates to ‘the dahlia season’ in my opinion, although Gardeners’ World defines it as September and October. I visited the Salutation in early September, and it was glorious. There’s clearly no excuse for saying that ‘the garden is over’ at this time of year.
Which dahlias for your garden?
Steven says that single dahlias are the easiest to grow. ‘They don’t need staking, and they’re more drought tolerant.’ As most of the UK had a nine-week drought this summer, this is worth knowing. The Salutation is particularly famous for its dark-leaved dahlias, such as this beautiful ‘Hadrian’s Sunlight’ dahlia below.
However if you want to grow dahlias as cut flowers, the showier double, pom-pom, cactus and other varieties last better in water, he says.
To find out more about dahlias, their history, classification and how to grow them, I can recommend Dahlias, a beautiful book by Naomi Slade, with stunningly beautiful photographs by Georgianna Lane. It features several hundred different dahlias, in glorious colour. Just as seeing a plant in its natural habitat can teach you how to grow it better, finding out more about your favourite plant also helps you understand it.
(note: links to Amazon are affiliate links, which means I may get a small fee if you buy, but it won’t affect the price you pay. Other links are not affiliate.)
But the late summer garden is more than dahlias
I’ve always relied on lots of dahlias to carry a late summer garden off. However, visiting the Salutation has opened my eyes to the other dramatic plants available around now.
The Salutation house and garden were designed together by Edwin Lutyens in 1912, and much of his original layout remains. Although he was famous for his partnership with Gertrude Jekyll, this is one of the few houses and gardens completely designed by Lutyens himself. Restoring a historic garden isn’t like renovating a period house. Gardens grow and plants change, as does the weather, pests and diseases. So head gardeners try to carry on with the spirit of the original garden designer rather than planting exactly the same plants he or she planted.
Steven and The Salutation’s interpretation of Lutyens’ spirit is that he was always innovative and open to new ideas. So Steven has introduced unusual varieties of common plants. And he’s also created some exotic areas. Ginger lilies, cannas and large-leaved plants give shape as well as colour to the late summer garden at The Salutation.
Why unusual varieties?
Most professional gardeners today would like us amateurs to buy more unusual plants. It’s important for diversity. And I see complaints on Twitter that too many ‘top 10 plants for…’ lists reduces the popularity of otherwise excellent plants that don’t happen to make the list. If people don’t buy a wide range of plants, then growers don’t grow a wide range of plants. Everyone gets less choice in the end.
But it’s not just about having more choice. There are lots of unusual varieties at The Salutation, such as Canna ‘Bethany’ (see further down this post). That’s partly because Salutation is in a particularly dry area and is almost coastal. So Steven needs plants that will grow well in such conditions, as well as heritage varieties. He says that people can be frightened off by the label ‘unusual’ or ‘rare’ because they assume that it means ‘difficult to grow.’ In fact, rare plants are no more likely to be ‘difficult’ than their common cousins. ‘We now label plants as “seldom grown”, rather than “rare”‘ he says.
(Read Australian gardening expert Stephen Ryan on buying and growing rare plants if you want to know more about having unusual varieties.)
Cannas are easier than you think
Exotic, colourful and sculptural, cannas are getting fashionable. But many people worry about their hardiness. Steven says that if you live in the milder parts of the UK, you should be able to leave them in the ground over winter. ‘Once the foliage has collapsed with the frost, we fold it over the plant to help protect it, then we pile mulch on top.’
The main problem with cannas, according to Steven, is that they are ‘quite greedy’. They need an extra thick pile of manure as mulch and lots of water. ‘If people have trouble with their cannas,’ he says, ‘it usually boils down to feed or water.’
He says that they are mainly sun-loving plants, but will often grow in light shade. ‘If the shade is too heavy, they may not flower,’ he adds. ‘Although you’ll still have the foliage.’
Steven also uses cannas as a summer hedge, creating private spaces in the gardens with a row of cannas that grow to around 6ft high. In winter, the foliage dies down so you get the light. It looks wonderful. Now where can I grow a row of cannas…???
Remember the shape, structure and foliage
‘Think about the shape of the flower and the foliage when planning for late summer garden colour’, says Steven. ‘You’re going to live with the leaves for months, while most flowers only last a few weeks.’ That’s what makes cannas such a great plant. He says he’d still grow them for their wonderful leaf patterns even if they never flowered.
Persicarias are another good late summer garden plant
Persicarias are good as a contrast to the vivid colours and showy shapes of dahlias and cannas. Steven considers persicaria to be an excellent late summer garden plant – he describes it as ‘wispy, elegant and bombproof’. It’s another plant that’s growing in popularity, and there are RHS trials due from next year.
‘Persicarias will cope with temperatures down to minus 20 celsius, with full sun, with light shade and a range of soils from heavy, wet clays through to light, sandy or silty soils,’ says Steven.
More glorious late summer garden here:
Take a stroll around The Salutation in this video – it really is looking beautiful.
The Salutation hotel and gardens are now closed. But you can see head gardener Steven Edney’s own garden with his partner Lou Dowle, when it’s open for the NGS on 30th Sept 2018 – it’s a wonderful tropical garden in East Kent.
Sometimes also open at the same is Canterbury Cathedral head gardener Philip Oostenbrink’s garden, which featured in The Middlesized Garden’s Why a Successful Small Garden Needs a Big Idea.
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