What a strange year it’s been, not only with Covid-19 but also our weather. A brilliant, sunny spring led into an early summer drought, and now we have downpours. In turbulent times, the thing to cling to is nature and gardening, always there and dependable. July is high season in the garden so we should all take the time to slow down and enjoy our plots in full bloom. Unlike the first, fast flush of May and June, July is not so fleeting, and there is so much variety — from roses and shrubs to annuals, herbaceous and exotics — to appreciate.
So, what is looking especially good this month? If I were to pick something with interesting foliage, it’d be Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’, the rice paper tree. It’s a woody shrub, nearly the size of a small tree, with huge lobed leaves that can be as large as 2ft in diameter. Later there will be white flowers but you really grow this to achieve an instant tropical effect. Although exotic-looking, it’s hardy, hailing from the mountains of Taiwan, but I’d add some protection in very harsh winters. I’ve just moved my Tetrapanax from an obscure spot in the garden, where it was being crowded by a melee of herbaceous geranium, to a more prominent position near a new sunken area, and I can’t wait to appreciate it as it develops.
Another interesting specimen doing its thing this month is Sonchus arboreus, the tree dandelion. This odd-looking plant looks like Roald Dahl got his hands on a dandelion, or a scene from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The foliage is wonderful and topped with clusters of yellow flowers. I’ve been watching a specimen Sonchus in Helen Dillon’s new Dublin garden for months now, and this week it was in full, delightful blossom.
There are no shortage of blossoms, either. Abutilon is a stunning addition to a sunny, sheltered garden but most will need to be moved to a conservatory for winter. ‘Ashford Red’ is one of my favourites, with deep-red pendant flowers and handsome, dark-green leaves.
One of the zingiest colours available is from rose campion, or Lychnis coronaria. The bright magenta-pink flowers dazzle even on grey days and these form a beautiful contrast against the silvery-grey, felty leaves. It’s a short-lived perennial but will self-seed. There’s also a gorgeous double-
flowered variety, ‘Gardeners’ World’. The flowers are sterile so it won’t produce any seed, but you can propagate by division or by taking basal cuttings in spring.
Other reliable herbaceous for the July border are Achillea (above), which is so long-flowering; Knautia macedonica, if you love those rich, jewel-like crimson colours, and of course Campanula, for lots and lots of blue and white bell flowers. Eryngium ‘Big Blue’ looks fantastic right now with its electric-blue, thistle-like flowers attracting bees in their droves.
It’s prime season for Nepeta, or catmint, one of those easy-to-grow, delightful perennials. Depending on your space, go for the big ‘Six Hills Giant’ or dwarf ‘Walker’s Low’.
Shrub roses, hydrangeas and lavenders are the backbone of cottage gardens and these all power on during July. The young green heads of the ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea are starting to turn white and I have some delicious purple mopheads — these I keep in pots because I don’t have acidic soil. They’re quite a handy plant for shady areas, as long as you remember to keep them watered. Roses are also pure joy in summer: ‘Munstead Wood’ is looking amazing, with its deep crimson blooms. Named after Gertrude Jekyll’s own garden in Surrey, it’s a classic English rose with a delicious fragrance.
Finally, annuals are sprinkling their magic through gardens — performing best for me right now are bright orange pot marigolds and pale blue Nigella, or love-in-a-mist. These hardy annuals are easy to grow and such good value: if you’ve any bare patches, be sure to get a packet of these and sow this autumn.
For sunny areas, you cannot beat lavender (Lavandula) - the haze of purple flowers always seems to me to be the essence of summer (above).