Diarmuid Gavin: Midsummer dreams - The low-maintenance shrubs that dazzle in July
I've been enjoying tending the garden we've created at Dublin's Dundrum Town Centre - pitching up early on a daily basis, examining what's looking good, deadheading spent rose blossom, and wondering how to keep the display in tip-top condition until September.
By midsummer, gardens and borders can be tricky. Much of the herbaceous colour is in full performance but the spring-flowering shrubs have given their best. However, there's still a whole category of plants that we tend to under-value. Summer-flowering shrubs create some structural background in the garden for much of the year but when they shine, they dazzle.
Generally, they are low-maintenance, with just an annual mulch and feed and an annual prune needed to keep them from growing too big and for optimum flowering.
Hypericum is one such shrub. It forms a pleasant but nondescript evergreen bush most of the year, but when it is clothed in bright yellow flowers it is so cheerful. It's a most undemanding plant that will grow in almost any soil, and the only maintenance it will require is an annual good chopping back, almost to ground level in April. Even this isn't necessary, but it will help to keep its shape and promote more flowering. 'Hidcote' with its yellow flowers is the most commonly grown variety, but I'd also recommend 'Rowallane' with its deeper, more golden flowers. It's also known as St John's Wort and has been used herbally for centuries to alleviate depression.
The hardy fuchsia (pictured above) is also in full bloom now, hedgerows dripping with its jewel-like ruby red and purple flowers. It's a lovely choice for an informal hedge and is also available in pale pink and white if you prefer a calmer colour scheme.
Another exotic shrub, but not so hardy as fuchsia, is Callistemon, the bottlebrush shrub. Best planted in coastal areas, or perhaps in the protection of a city courtyard garden, this Australian native looks pretty ordinary most of the year but right now is covered in spikes of crimson red flowers that look just like a bottlebrush (pictured below). Because of its unusual appearance, it could jar in a pastel cottage garden scheme of pale blue campanulas and white rambling roses. I think it would be more at home in a tropical colour scheme, paired with orange daylilies, scarlet crocosmias and yellow kniphofias (red hot pokers), for example. Lightly prune blooms off after flowering.
Buddlejas divide opinion among gardeners. Some associate all buddlejas with the invasive B. davidii seen across railways and derelict buildings, while others will swear by its wildlife-friendly nature. Also known as the butterfly bush, there's no doubt that its nectar is irresistible to moths and butterflies, and what nicer sight on a hot summer's day than watching them flutter around your garden? They're so easy to grow and will only require a good cutting-back in spring. If you have the space, go for strong colours like 'Royal Red' (a dark red-purple) or 'Black Knight', the darkest flowering buddleja. But you can also get dwarf versions such as 'Buzz', which will be compact enough for a pot on a balcony or patio. Remove flowers when spent as they look messy once they're finished.
Lavateras are a superb way of filling empty spaces and providing lots of summer flowers, with little maintenance required. Perfect in a cottage garden, at the back of a border or as summer hedge, there's every shade of pink from the palest 'Barnsley' (which is also available in dwarf form 'Barnsley Baby' for the container garden) through to the deep, rich pink of 'Burgundy Wine'. And for the impatient gardener, they have the huge advantage of maturing extremely fast.
Other midsummer shrubs you could plant for easy-care gardening include lavender for scent and purple-blue flowers, Caryopteris 'Heavenly Blue', and some curry-scented Helichrysum. So, if the many tasks of the herbaceous borders such as dividing, staking and deadheading aren't for you, consider some of these colourful shrubs instead.