My weekly drive down to Somerset takes me at least 10 days back in time from London. In the capital, August buddleias are already more brown than mauve, and escapee asters are beginning to suffuse the embankments with the coming season. Greens are darkened, lawns showing wear. They have gone through their cycle already, seed dropped in readiness for autumn germination.
August is transitional. If you have weighted the garden too heavily with roses and the first half of summer perennials, you may be caught between one wave of flower and the next. The berries are ripening in hedgerows, and bindweed is lighting up whatever it has got the better of with its telltale pale trumpets. I must admit to never having the courage to grow it as an ornamental, as they do at Waltham Place, in Berkshire. Where the bindweed can take the wilder places, I like to weave Morning Glory into the garden, ‘Knowlian’s Black’ being a good dark form, or the Morning Glory blue where a lighter colour might freshen things up. As the month cools, the flowers will stay open until they are only just closing at tea time.
August is a month that you need to plan for so that the frayed edges are eclipsed by a little order, with restructured hedges. I have learned to plan the borders with reserves in mind for exactly this moment, with ornamental grasses where they are welcome. Tall Molinia ‘Windspiel’ will bolt up and above the gold of late-blooming rudbeckia, dampening the blaze of yellow by casting its veil. Panicum are also good weavers, but if you are to use miscanthus, remember that with its bold, clumping nature and plumes of flower it needs its own space if it is not to steal the limelight.
I have woven Mina lobata, another half-hardy relative of the bindweed, through the golden-flowered Miscanthus nepalensis for an August lift. With flaming claw-like flowers, it will twine to lick its host in orange, coral and red. I also grow the French marigold, Tagetes patula, rather than the named varieties, because I prefer its rangy growth, which might use a bronze fennel to lean into and rise up out of the border at waist height. The mainstay annuals can cover for a multitude of sins while the garden is readying itself for the autumn.
This year I misjudged the tagetes and mingled it with nasturtiums and sweetcorn in the vegetable garden. They have got the better of the sweetcorn, and the nasturtium are rioting. August was the month I first went to Monet’s garden at Giverny and I saw them running up sunflowers and all but taking the breadth of the paths so that you had to tread carefully where they were not touching.
Once you have a few tricks up your sleeve, and the balance weighted in the right direction, August can be allowed to be a place between two seasons: a time of plenty, of plums weighting branches and the borders full.
Half-hardy annuals should be given room to reach the light early in the season when neighbouring plants are racing. Beware of slugs while establishing young plants.
Read this article on the Observer website.
Photograph courtesy of Alamy for the Observer