As we slip past high summer and towards late, it is tempting to take your foot off the gas. This is a time to enjoy the garden, to relax after the hard work, with maybe the odd push-around of the mower to make room for a blanket or deckchair. But as welcome as the laziness of the season may be, those who give up too early are missing out. The flowers of late summer and autumn are particularly beautiful and jewel-like. They are also long-lasting, perennial and repeat-flowering, and when good weather can stretch long and golden into October, it is a shame for the garden to fall into a gentle decline quite so soon. The following plants and flowers will provide rich smatterings of colour every year, just when you think your garden is on the wane.
Late summer’s plants lean strongly towards the hot end of the spectrum, and it is particularly easy to set up a blaze of fire-coloured blooms in your borders. Many of the warm shades are found in daisy shapes. There are heleniums, such as deepest red ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and orange-painted ‘Waltraut’; helianthus (perennial sunflowers) including tall, pale ‘Lemon Queen’; the black-eyed, yolk-petalled Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’; Inula magnifica ‘Sonnenstrahl’, with its fine rays of golden petals; and the little ruffled and plentiful yellow daisy flowers of Coreopsis‘Early Sunrise’.
Solidago, known as goldenrod, has a very different-shaped flowerhead: a plume of fluffy yellow to set your russet and ruby daisies against. Crocosmias produce an elegant arch of flower and their colours run the gamut, from brilliant red ‘Lucifer’to deep apricot ‘Coleton Fishacre’ and chrome yellow ‘Sulphurea’. Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) is a whole other beast again, producing fat, orange, teardrop-shaped papery pods in autumn.
Cooler colours are not entirely lacking as summer draws to a close, and it can be gorgeous to scatter a few droplets of vibrant purple or blue to bring the warmth to life. Asters – yes, more daisies – will bloom all late summer and autumn. Some cultivars are a little pale and wishy-washy but ‘Veilchenkönigin’ is a particularly strong purple. Verbena bonariensisproduces luminous violet pinpricks of flowers that float above and among other plantings.
There is also a range of late-summer pinks and whites that could create an entirely cool scheme, of which Japanese anemone is queen. Its white, pink or purple flowers are borne in great number at the top of tall, waving, delicate stems, and it grows well in shade. Choose pure white ‘Wild Swan’, or double pink ‘Bressingham Glow’. All of these late-summer flowers will help insects by providing pollen; but sedums such as ‘Autumn Joy’ (aka ‘Herbstfreude’) are especially nectar-rich, and their gently domed pink flowerheads will buzz with bees and flutter with butterflies.
Ornamental grasses look beautiful late in the year, when they produce their fluffy flowerheads and their leaves take on autumnal hints. Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ is good in a border. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ grows to just a metre or so and has beautiful silvery-pink flowerheads that will meld with the cool or the hot. Molinia ‘Transparent’ is particularly magical. The light and airy flowers create so delicate a haze that you can even plant them at the front of your border, and gaze through them to the burnished petals behind.
How to make your garden glow
It sounds dull and worthy, but a thick mulch of compost or well-rotted manure will make the whole garden look richly coloured and well-loved, just as it is starting to bleach and fade. It will also seal warmth into the soil. Water well first if the weather has been dry, and then be generous with the mulch.
Pots in borders
Visit the garden centre and look for the quick hits: autumn-flowering bulbs such as autumn crocuses, nerines, cyclamen, gaura, and late-flowering plants such as dahlias and heathers. Slip them into gaps or dull patches in borders, or move them into pretty terracotta pots.
Fire pits, storm lanterns and blankets
As the summer turns to autumn, it is warmth that will keep you out in the garden. This is a great time of year to invest in a fire pit and seating. Storm lanterns will shelter candles from the wind and allow you to gently light the garden as the evenings draw in. Keep blankets by the back door to encourage you to venture outside.