Gardening column: Which flowers have survived the summer?

17 August 2018

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I AM seated outside with my laptop, watching a dozen sparrows gathering seed from the honey-blonde panicles of the golden oat grass, Stipa gigantea. The flower stems, at seven-foot tall, dance in the lightest breeze, and stoop under the weight of the birds as they hop along these moving high wires. Even without the avian acrobats, it is a lovely sight that encapsulates the end-of-summer feel to the garden.

Hailing from the dry stony soils of southern Spain, Portugal, and north­rn Morocco, the grass has loved our exceptional weather, as have others. Eragrostis elliottii “Wind Dancer” is as light and airy as the stipa, but shorter, at around three foot, and with blue-grey tones rather than old-gold ones. Calamagrostis x acutiflora “Karl Foerster” has a stiffer upright habit and punctuates a prairie border where the violet flowers of Verbena bonariensis shine out among the dry poppy seed-heads and the bleached flat plates of Achillea “Terracotta”.

Agapanthus have had a superb summer, with their blue and white flowers and unstintingly green strappy leaves that have maintained a perky freshness while their neighbours sulk. A new variety called “Twister” is particularly eye-catch­ing: large heads of trumpet flowers, each sporting a blue base and flared white petals.

Often described as thirsty plants, my dahlias I have found to be remarkably tolerant of dry conditions. I stick to the single-flowered cultivars such as the “Bishop” and “Happy” series beloved by the bumble­bees.

Just as evergreens give structure to a border in winter, they can fulfil a similar function when, all around them, plants are setting seed early and beginning to die back. My three Chusan palms have been happily sending out new spiky fans of leaves with no watering. The evergreen oaks — the holm oak, Quercus ilex, and cork oak, Quercus suber — have also grown more than usual over the summer. They have the potential to grow slowly into sizeable trees; so I give them a trim each September.

The strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, has kept an apple-green freshness to its leaves against a browning backdrop, and my mimosa tree, Acacia dealbata, has gathered steam and sends out new grey-green ferny leaves with abandon.

Globe thistles, or Echinops, have done particularly well this year. Their perfect metallic blue spheres were highlights of my July flower border and were a feature of a show garden by the nursery-owner Sue Beesley at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Tatton Park flower show. They have gone over now, but their spent flower-heads still stand tall, and this is precisely why Sue had selected them. Her garden was called “Don’t Chop Me Down”, and showcased peren­nials, including sedums, echinacea, dierama, rudbeckia, and grasses that add interesting shapes and structures to a border from summer to winter.

For a garden to look good at the end of a long, hot summer, you need a mixture of plants immune to the drought and those that look good even in dormancy.

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