with Charlie Wilkins
ONSET OF AUTUMN
The way I see things, an Irish summer is a bit of a hit or miss affair with occasional sunny breaks daily, usually between the hours of 5pm to 7pm! However, for the remaining majority it seems we are forced to live with dampness and wind, swaying trees, and sodden ground. Here in Glanmire in this mercurial temperate climate of ours, we live out our gardening lives in low light levels, unseasonal temperatures, and rainfall which ranges from foggy mists to drenching downpours. So much so that sometimes, I think summer is simply an abnormality, a disparity, a distraction from the constant, a rarity even. In recent years it goes from winter flood to summer drought regularly, this Covid- filled year being no exception.
Summer is our most longed-for season and if it comes at all, expect it in May with a watery reflection in mid-September. Whichever and whenever, it is usually short, pithy, and fleeting, whilst winter seems to be habitual, the norm, a fact of life. That is, until the garden and mother nature combine to put on a supreme effort and amend the dismal monochrome of wet and damp to fancy dress hue. But sad to say, this only happens occasionally
My garden and yours may now be showing the earliest signs of the cooler, more subtle days of autumn, but there’s still much to admire in the line of hot colours and gentle movement. The Orb spider and its exceptionally prolific offspring are once again busy silently criss-crossing shrubs and plants with inescapable webs, whilst the scented phlox, potted lilies, and roses continue to release their perfume along with honeysuckle, which now boasts berries as well as flowers. All these, individually and collectively, define a time and shape life-long memories.
In my book however, there are three great plants that define best the onset of autumn, and all have blue in their colouring! Ceratostigma willmottianum (a mouthful in any language) has deep blue plumbago-like flowers from late July (in warm gardens) until the first frosts. A superb specimen grows in a cosy, sunny, and well-drained site in Fota Arboretum (near the entrance to the rose garden). It was so good when I first saw it that I felt obliged to invest in a specimen and was lucky enough to source one at Hillside. My advice on the planting of this beauty would be to incorporate plenty or grit, chippings, or small gravel into the chosen position. You cannot overdo the application rate no matter how heavy-handed you might be. This grit will bring it safely through winter wet and dripping misery. Have a look at it first in Fota, and if you go on to source one, expect it to grow to under one meter in height and spread.
Perovskia atriplicifolia is another which is hard to pronounce but it is no bother to place if you have the kind of spot suggested for the Ceratostigma. It’s my second choice and boasts tiny, fluffy, lavender blooms on new white stems which are aromatic when brushed against. Rising to a metre or slightly more, it can be cut back hard in spring, so it never really outgrows its allotted space.
This is also true of Caryopteris, my third choice for late summer. Small purplish flowers over grey foliage, are two of its most treasured characteristics, but it is not nearly grown as often as it should be. Like Perovskia, it too has aromatic leaves so those with visual or mobility impairment should try to secure at least one (preferably Ceratostigma) of the trio mentioned.
THE GARDEN IN AUGUST
SCENT: More than taste, a remembered smell carries layers of memory and meaning. Crushed leaves of catmint, the peppery smell of phlox and the sensuous perfume of lilies are sensations which induce moments of intense pleasure. Hot lavender leaves, cut so swiftly with shears, will hardly shrivel and die in the afternoon sun without arousing within you a sense of wonder, well-being, and sheer timelessness. Yes, all these are plants that span the generations, a familiar flower like lavender, often planted, most times neglected, is still a choice for the connoisseur. Trim it back after flowering and let it develop into a rounded dumpling mound of grey foliage.
DEAD-HEADING: Gardens can easily slide into premature decay after July and regular dead-heading is essential to prevent this. For certain plants, such as the non-repeat flowering roses, the aim is purely cosmetic. But many plants, including dahlias, cosmos, penstemons, and many species of late flowering salvias can be induced to flower indefinitely if none of their spent blooms are allowed seed. There are rare instances where it is acceptable simply to snap off spent flowers with finger and thumb and this is the case with day-lilies. But, in general, secateurs or a stout pair of scissors are needed. It is essential to trace the stem of a spent flower beck to some definite point, as any bare stalks you leave behind will disfigure the whole plant. This point will be where a new shoot or a fresh flower arises or is likely to arise. With a plant such as Salvia superba, you can sometimes remove a number of spent blooms with a single cut. Others must be removed one by one.
PHLOX: It is not generally appreciated that phlox have a second season of flower, shorter stemmed may I add, but still very welcome towards the dewy month of September. Simply pinch out their first heads of bloom as they fade or cut the stems to a lower pair of leaves then give two liquid feeds at fortnightly intervals. The pale blues and lavender blues look best during this second flowering for they give the impression that smoke is in the air along with the first of the autumnal mists. When cut for indoor use, the scent of phlox can be slightly rank, though it will still be found ideal for flower arranging.