This is the time I start deciding on changes to the garden later on in the year, and at no time does it need a bigger revamp than now. It’s been a disappointing year, colour-wise, as have so many other gardens; I tend to rely on tubs and hanging baskets of bedding plants for temporary effect, and as I write this, most of these are only just beginning to show any signs of life.
The roses haven’t performed well, despite their spring promise of a magnificent show, as they were devastated early on with the worst infestation of aphids I’ve ever seen (I usually let nature take its course and some beneficial insect generally gobbles them up before they do any real damage, but, sadly, not this year) and now they have been stripped bare by black spot. Assuming this won’t be the only wet summer we’re ever likely to see, I need to add plants that will give colour regardless of the weather.
This year my lilies have been one source of salvation. Lilies are such useful plants. Depending on when you plant the bulbs, they will either flower early or later, and even though their flowering season is short, with careful planning there should be some in flower from June till August. Lilies will thrive in tubs for several years providing they are fed and watered properly, and this is how I use most of them in my garden, which is too closely planted in most areas to grow them in the soil. I always buy a few new ones every year, pop them in cheap containers, then place these between the permanent subjects so they get immediate extra height and, when they flower, the blooms will stand out above the surrounding shrubs and perennials. When they need repotting, I find a bit of spare ground and replant them directly in the earth, where, after a year or two to recover, they will naturalise and start flowering again.
The other saviour this season has been the hydrangeas. I am always thoughtful about these as they need just the sort of soggy summer we’ve seen so far, or copious watering, otherwise the bushes struggle and the flowers are small and insignificant. This year the ones in the border are magnificent, with huge heads and a much longer flowering period than usual, so I’ve decided to forget bedding plants in some of my larger tubs against the cottage wall and replace them with hydrangeas. There are so many different varieties and forms that this doesn’t have to look like a monoculture, and they will always be assured of enough moisture as there is an automatic watering system around the cottage which is programmable to give exactly the right amount at the right time (or not, if there is enough rain for it to drip off the thatched roof and onto the containers below).
August is a good time to visit gardens and other horticultural establishments and pick up ideas. I saw a tunnel of ripening apples and pears some years ago at a National Trust property, and thought how good this would look at my kitchen garden, which is unfortunately three miles away, but does provide the incentive to get away from home, if only to weed and plant and harvest. There is a path between two vegetable beds which leads into a small orchard, originally flanked by fan-trained and step-over fruit trees that were planted about twelve years ago for photo-shoots when I was writing one of my ‘grow your own’ books. It was an easy matter to erect a series of cheap arches – the kind that rust and collapse after a few years, but in this case it won’t matter as the trees will support themselves before this happens. By allowing the top shoots to grow up so they could be tied in over the arches, a functional planting has been converted into an attractive tunnel of blossom in spring and accessible fruit in the autumn. It’s possible to train all kinds of pliable young trees in a similar way – laburnum and willow are the most popular, but any ornamental tree with non-brittle wood can be used.