The best professional tips for late summer garden colour

September 9th, 2018
Posted In: Garden style & living, Gardening know how

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.

Dahlias in the late summer garden at The Salutation.

One of Steven Edney’s favourite dahlias – Dahlia ‘Pink Pat and Perc’ at the Salutation. I’d love to know why it’s called that – was it developed by a couple called Patricia and Percy? If you know, do tell.

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.

Dahlia 'Hadrian's Sunlight' - dark leafed, single dahlia at The Salutation

Another of Steven’s favourite dahlias – the single-flowered ‘Hadrian’s Sunlight’, which has an RHS Award of Garden Merit. ‘It’s available from Halls of Heddon, which are in the Scottish Borders,’ says Steven. ‘So it can withstand growing quite far North. I think the foliage is particularly lovely as it’s matt.’

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.

Late summer garden colour - ginger lily and helenium

I really love this combination of ginger lily (Hedychium) and Helenium with the large leaves of Melianthus.

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.

The Salutation gardens, designed by Lutyens

There would have been herbaceous borders in Lutyens’ time, too, but many of today’s plants are different.

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.

Cosmos 'Cupcake' - grown at the Salutation

Cosmos is another good late-season flower. This is ‘Cupcake’, growing at The Salutation – I would call it ‘unusual’, but Steven says that it is fast growing very popular!

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.’

Grow cannas for late season colour

With exotic orange flowers,dramatic structure and stripey green/yellow leaves, Canna ‘Bethany’ is a show-stopper for this time of year, especially planted with a low-growing variegated leaf trim.

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.

Canna Bethany - late season colour at the Salutation

Canna ‘Bethany’ close up – I don’t think I could forgo those flowers, however beautiful the leaves!

Tall red amaranth and frothy panicum

Shape and structure – as well as colour. Tall amaranth (an unknown seedling) with Panicum ‘Frosted Sensation’ frothing around its base. Beautiful!

Iresine grown outside for its late summer foliage

This red foliage is Iresine, which is usually grown as a house plant. However, it can be grown outside in summer in sheltered, warmer parts of the UK. Steven says it’s too big to take indoors in the winter, so he takes cuttings every year.

Contrast leaf shape and shade

A wonderful contrast of leaf shapes and shades of green in a foliage-only part of the ‘jungle garden.’

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.

Exotic colours and shapes - persicaria at the Salutation

Persicaria’s slim upright red spikes and mounds of low-growing leaves provide a good contrast to the larger leaves of ginger lily and ricinus in this bed at The Salutation.

‘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.

Pin for reference:

Professional tips for late summer garden colour


4 comments on "The best professional tips for late summer garden colour"

  1. Maggie Morish says:

    Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of exotic plants in my garden because I also thought that they are more difficult to grow. I’ll still be in favour of native plants but thanks to your post, I’m a little braver now to try new things.


  2. Another very good post full of good ideas. I just wanted to say that Halls of Heddon, the world renowned Dahlia – and Chrysanthemum – grower is just a few miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne in Northumberland and not in the Scottish Borders. Well worth a visit at this time of year to see their multi coloured fields and you can place your orders for spring delivery of tubers.

    1. Thank you for letting me know, I’ll correct that. I love the idea of their multi-coloured fields.

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