Diarmuid Gavin: Super troupers
Beat the August slump with these superstar performers, guaranteed to perk up your planting
I've been away from my garden for a couple of weeks and I wasn't sure what to expect when I got home. The hot weather and lack of rain, along with the hosepipe ban, have been tough on plants.
I had taken some precautions some years back by realising that, in the future, we may have a problem sourcing water for our gardens. So I installed water butts which collect rainwater when it's freely available from the roofs through the gutter system. This year, that paid dividends.
Every evening, a friend spent a couple of hours making sure that the new planting and trees that are establishing were given a good drink. When the saved water was gone, he turned to the garden ponds, and the one which isn't planted was drained. So, while the lawn isn't looking its best, my garden plants have survived! And all the lawn needs is a few more showers and it will soon green up again.
It was interesting to see which plants had weathered the drought best. With prospects of increasingly hot and dry summers, gardeners may have to be flexible and choose species better adapted to these conditions.
A regular problem coming into August can be a lack of colour - many plants reached their flowering zenith in July and there can be a bit of a slump in the garden during this month. The ground is dry, many perennials are now putting their remaining efforts into seed production, and there is a natural lull between now and the next phase of beautiful flowers that arrive in September and October, when early autumn-flowering anemones, rudbeckias and sedums come into their own.
So, here are the stars of the August garden, the troupers who soldiered on through the drought and will keep your plot colourful all month and beyond.
Agapanthus or African lilies (above) are the glamour plants of August - luxurious, flamboyant flower heads atop lush, sturdy stems. 'Northern Star' is a relatively new cultivar with spherical heads of flowers which resemble the deep blue of the Aegean Sea in colour. It's also one of the more hardy Agapanthus but could do with a protective mulch in colder areas. If you'd like something even more dramatic, search out 'Black Magic', whose almost black buds open to a dark, inky purple. They're good in well-drained sunny positions but try to keep them moist after flowering to help buds develop for next year.
Repeat-flowering roses can start to emerge again in late August, but one that seems to keep going all summer long is Rosa 'Ballerina'. It's a modern shrub rose which has lots of small, single pink flowers held aloft in trusses, a bit like a hydrangea. It makes up for its lack of great fragrance with profuse flowering. I have found it disease-resistant and a trouble-free, easy rose.
Hardy geraniums or cranesbills are excellent groundcover plants; one of the best performers is Geranium 'Rozanne'. I know I've mentioned her a few times before but it's worth listing her attributes once again - she's drought-tolerant and has shrugged off the recent lack of water with aplomb, producing even more of her blue-violet blossoms. Forming a nice rounded mound of light marbled green foliage, this plant keeps flowering profusely until autumn and will do well in most situations.
When lavender finishes flowering, Perovskia or Russian sage takes up the reins and produces an equally beautiful purple haze of flowers with aromatic silver-grey foliage. It loves the sunshine and dry, sandy soil. I've seen it planted en masse beside a busy road, which indicates its tolerance to pollution, and it will also do well beside the sea. You can prune it quite hard in late spring if it's getting a bit floppy. The most commonly grown variety is 'Blue Spire' but there is also a dwarf version called 'Little Spire', best if your space is limited.
Salvia (inset, above left) is another great choice for bridging the flower gap during this month. Salvias (or sage) are happy in sunny, dry conditions, and if you keep deadheading and give a regular liquid feed, they'll keep on flowering. 'Jezebel' is a choice cultivar with bright red flowers that are a beacon for bees and butterflies.
Other plants that will keep your garden in bloom this month are Verbena bonariensis, cosmos, echinaceas and dahlias, all of which greeted me with smiling flowers on my return!