Late summer colour for all gardens: garden designer, Susan Begg, recommends ten plants to guarantee an Indian Summer whatever the weather.
It surprises me that there’s still a tendency amongst some gardeners to believe that gardens are all over by the end of July. Although I grew up weeding with my Grandmother, an avid grower of roses who adhered to this view, I came of age as a gardener in my own right during a time when late season perennials were the ‘It’ plants.
Drawn to their intense colour and natural appearance, from the beginning they were part of my planting palate. It didn’t occur to me that I was breaking any rules or gardening in a way that was terribly different to anyone else.
I now know from working with clients and speaking to other gardeners that my view is slightly adrift of the mainstream. And I’d like to encourage you to swim with me, away from a place where June is the peak in the garden to somewhere that the season lasts from February right through to October.
Where it’s always an Indian summer and the low light of September hits a mass of colour and form.
10 Fail Proof Late Season Plants
Agastache ‘Blackadder’ is a sociable plant, it likes to be planted in groups and it mingles well with other plants. Its tall, texturally inviting spires form a skyline of dark, smoky violet bottlebrush flowers growing to just under a metre tall. Each aromatic stem is spaced in such a way that it makes an impact whilst still allowing plants growing behind, or adjacent to have their say. It’s adored by bees and will flower merrily from Jul – Oct. Leave the flowerheads on through winter for additional interest. Flowers: Jul-Oct. Height: 90cm.
Achillea millefolium ‘Red Velvet’
Each year I forget how much I love this plant until it flowers, then I’m smitten all over again. The flat flowerheads resemble a dish of crushed strawberries, deep velvety red as the name suggests but with warm tones often lacking in red flowers. These warm tones make it easier to use in combination with other plants and it will blend easily with salvias, nepetas and low growing grasses like Nassella tenuissima. It retains its colour well unlike many achilleas but it can flop so support from other plants or gentle staking is a good idea. Another bee friendly plant. Leave overwinter. Flowers: Jun – Sept. Height: 60cm.
Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Red Thunder’
There are an increasing number of Sanguisorba available, some in deep chocolaty tones but this is still my favourite. Early in the season pretty, delicate foliage grows to about knee height. Then in mid-summer berry like baubles grow tall and true on thin grassy stems forming an alluring veil that wafts gently in the breeze. It looks wonderful with delicate grasses like deschampsia. Together the flowerheads dance, adding a valuable sense of movement and charm to the garden. Flowers: Jun – Sept. Height: 120cm.
Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’
It would be hard to imagine a late season garden without the daisy like presence of heleniums. They are such simple, happy flowers. Again there are masses of different heleniums out there but I like the toasted, biscuity orange shades of Moerheim Beauty – think Ginger Nuts and blood oranges. This plant is key to achieving that warm Indian Summer glow in your borders. Slugs love it so the trick is to pop a half-hoop support around it in spring (I’m a lazy gardener so I leave mine in all year), this allows the plant to grow strong and upright, making it less of a target for slugs who prey on weak plants. Flowers: Aug-Sept. Height: 60cm.
An incredibly useful grass that is often overlooked in favour of the statuesque Molinias and Calamagrostis. It grows to knee height in a fountain of soft, arching leaves that have earned it the name Pheasant’s Tail. It’s evergreen, adding a wonderfully soft structural presence year round with the added attraction that the leaves change colour throughout the seasons. Flitting from dense, matt green and ginger, to soft pinks and reds. By Christmas it appears as a washed-out pale shortbread colour. In late summer it produces a mist of tiny pink flowers. It can self-sow on free draining soils but is no more of a pain than usual weeds. Totally worth it. Flowers: Aug-Sept. Height: 75cm.
Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’
Periscaria is something of a beast, but one that can be tamed and brought to heal within the bounds of a well-kept garden. Some might consider the foliage – big leaves held on slim but sturdy stems – rather coarse but given space and planted in combination it’s a winner. Colourwise, the foliage, a blur of pinks and dusky greens, is a great foil for other plants and the deep raspberry red spires are enough to make you forgive the plant’s shortcomings. Don’t be afraid to trim stems encroaching onto other plants to keep it within bounds. The flowers last forever in a vase. Flowers: Jul-Oct. Height: 1.2m.
Actaea simplex ‘James Compton’
Actaeas are worth growing for both foliage and flower. A monotony of green, no matter how vivid the flowers, fails to fulfil the potential of any garden. Adding a spot or two of dark foliage gives instant depth and complexity to a planting scheme and Actaea is particularly effective contrasted with pale, soft colours. The fine foliage is similar to the dark elders yet it surprises in late summer with spikes of scented, bottle brush flowers in sooty white with the palest pink flush. Good for semi- shade. Flowers: Sept-Oct. Height: 150cm.
Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’
Such is the vigour of the Japanese anemones that they have a thuggish reputation. Thankfully ‘Honorine Jobert’ has vigour, and manners. A handsome plant for shade and tricky spots, this white anemone will sing out from dark corners where it will be happy to sit amidst ferns and less starry groundcovers. Delicate in appearance yet tough as old boots this is a plant you’d have to work hard to fail with. Flowers: Aug-Oct. Height: 1m.
Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’
The late season isn’t all about perennials, there are many shrubs that have a lot to offer through autumn. Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen,’ might have worked its socks off throwing forth delightfully huge big cones of white flower throughout summer, but it has been holding back a big finale. For the oak leaved hydrangea puts on quite a show. I first saw this plant during a September visit to the garden of the hugely influential designer Mien Ruys, in the Netherlands. Its striking autumn colour stopped me in my tracks and it has been one my top plants ever since. Flowers: Jul- Sept. Height: 2m.
Clematis is often grown for the large, showy plate sized flowers that abound on summer flowering varieties but there is a clematis for every season, as the aptly named winter flowering ‘Jingle Bells’ demonstrates. One of the best for the late season, if you have the space to let it romp away, is the vigorous, sweetly scented Redheriana. Bold vine like leaves hang from long, twinning stems that snake hither and tither, easily covering unattractive walls and buildings. In late summer dainty, pale, creamy yellow flowers – that look a bit like cowslips – droop nonchalantly from the lax growth. It has deeply romantic appeal, as though nature were slowly taking over. Suits big spaces. Flowers: Jul-Oct. Height 3-6m.
Tips on planting.
Keep in mind that a single plant on its own makes little impact regardless how hard it works. Instead of buying one each of several different plants, buy 3 or 5 (7-9 if gardening on a grand scale) of a single plant. Group them together, planted at the recommended planting distance and you will achieve a much stronger effect.
Allow perennials to stand through the winter. The seedheads and the skeletons of many perennials hold structural interest that can last right through the season. Their presence is also beneficial for insects, birds and other wildlife. Cut back hard in February before bulbs appear.
Susan Begg is one half of Semple Begg, a successful garden and landscape design practice that brings together the combined talents of Nicola Semple and Susan Begg. They have a reputation for innovative planting design and garden schemes throughout Scotland and the North of England.
If you enjoyed this post and know of anyone keen to make their garden more beautiful, then please ‘like’ and ‘share’ this post using the social buttons.