It’s the back-end of summer and your garden may be looking rather tired; as I do, frankly, five weeks into the long school holiday with two kids. By mid-August, the gorgeous, floriferous peak of early summer stalwarts is long past. The wisteria, geraniums, aquilegias, alliums, foxgloves, bearded irises and roses have ‘gone over’, and either been cut back or left to decay elegantly. Although some are followed by attractive seedheads, the borders can seem somewhat lacklustre. With cool autumn days still weeks away (we hope), it is natural to want to extend the flowering period and make the most of what remains of the season’s warmth and sunshine.
The easiest way to create a late summer flowering border is to buy your plants in August and September. Go to a garden centre and find plants that are in the main display area. These plants will be flowering and looking their very best now, and the garden centre staff will have done all the work of selecting them for you. Make sure you choose the right plants for the right place (read the label!) Get a trolley and start loading it up. See how different plans look together, experiment with different combinations, pick what you like and then take them home. Easy.
With this in mind, last year, I designed a new island border to provide late summer colour. Island borders have the effect of creating lawn paths that invite you to walk on and around the garden. A tall border makes you want to explore, to find out what’s behind it. And you can hide back there, enjoy a private moment alone, or with someone else! It’s fun to be hidden from view, surrounded by plants. Gardens can be wonderfully secretive places.
The spring and early summer flowering plants and bulbs that I chose included: tulips, irises, alliums, aquilegias, penstemons, a rose and a small cherry. I also specifically sought out plants that would flower from late summer until October. I chose a classic cottage garden colour scheme of herbaceous perennials with white, pink and purple flowers, and foliage plants like heucheras. And I considered texture and shape, with the aim of creating a border that would be pretty, light and airy. I designed the planting to gradually rise in height, asymmetrically, to create more interest.
Asters are an obvious choice if you’re looking for late summer to early autumn flowers. One you will probably know well is the white Michaelmas daisy. But the Asters I really love are the New England varieties. These are easy plants to grow and cope well with dry conditions, without suffering from mildew or attacks by any pest. When in flower, they are truly loaded with daisy-like blooms in shades ranging from the palest lilac, to vivid violet, the richest magenta or bluest purple. They provide a bold brush stroke of colour at a time of year when nothing else can match them. They like a sunny position in well-drained, sandy soil, so they’re perfect for my garden. I have a few. Some varieties grow very low and are good for ground cover, others form lovely clumps, and some are taller and grow straight-up. They’re also popular with bees, day-flying moths and butterflies because their open flower shape makes a great landing pad for pollen-seekers. What’s not to like about asters?
I bought two for the new border:
Aster amellus ‘Rudolphe Goethe’ (pictured above) has vibrant, dark lilac-coloured flowers with rich yellow centres, on a nicely-formed mound of mid-green leaves. Mine has been flowering for a month now and is still going strong. I planted it next to a pale pink mop-headed hydrangea and they make a pleasing combination of flower colour and form.
Aster laterifloris ‘Lady in Black’ is more shrub-like, with tall, fine, almost black stems and delicate little leaves. From September to October it is covered in tiny pink flowers with magenta centres. The foliage looks great at the back of my border, arching over the dark pink gaura, and it will look even better when the flowers are out.
Other perennial plants that fit the bill for late summer colour include: phlox, gauras, sedums (ice plants), salvias, solidago (goldenrod), verbena bonariensis, buddleja (butterfly bush), agastache, echinacea, rudbekia, heleniums. For a shady spot, you can try persicaria, hydrangeas and Japanese anemones. And if you use annuals too, like gaillardia or good old sunflowers (they needn’t be giant!), you’ll have even more choice.
A year later, my island border looks well established. I may do some tinkering. I’m not sure I like the goldenrod; it self-seeded from elsewhere in the garden, it’s a bit too yellow and eye-jarring. It may have to go. I’ll certainly cut off the flower heads before it can set seed. But I like the height it gives the border. I may replace it with delphiniums, or maybe a stipa gigantea, or perhaps an obelisk covered in a late flowering clematis. The joy of gardening is in this endless tinkering.
Pictures (top to bottom): island border last year (x2) and this year, hydrangea and aster, echinacea, gaillardia.