The British may be well-known for complaining about the weather, and not without good reason, but the benefits of all that drizzle are the green fields, leafy trees and gorgeous flowers which fill our gardens in summer. What chocolate box is complete without a lid depicting a country garden, with a riot of color in its garden borders? What tourist brochure fails to show fields of poppies, buttercups and cow parsley to capture the best of England? We may complain about the lack of sunshine, but great summer gardens are made by cloudy days with ample sprinklings of warm rain.
Some of us may be fortunate enough to live in a house with a sizable garden. The really fortunate will also have help in the form of a retired partner, or a part-time gardener to help with the work that maintaining such a garden involves! But how great the reward is when you finally sit down and enjoy the unique environment you have created. Traditional herbaceous borders are usually the focal point of a garden, with a constant array of colors, textures and heights. Tall blue delphiniums, clumps of pink and lilac lupins and bright red arches of crocosmia may form the backdrop to echinacea, penstemons, shasta daisies, flat yellow achillea heads and exotic day lilies. Towards the front of the border, miniature alstromeria will flower perpetually from spring to autumn. What is most surprising in a summer border is that colours that should never be seen together look great in the world of flowers. Shocking pink, golden yellow, scarlet, orange and purple all mix together and look stunning. In summer gardens there are no taboos!
Herbaceous borders are known for their color, but sometimes those planted in a color theme are the most attractive and interesting. Purple and yellow look absolutely stunning together, or pink, lilac and white for a softer, more romantic look. Even though colour is the purpose of the perennial border, a liberal sprinkling of green plants may add contrast to further emphasize the beautiful flowers. Alchemilla mollis has lime green leaves which are delicately frilly – a flower-arranger’s dream, or consider variegated hostas which also produce a few spikes of blue in the summer. Red and green headed sedums and hellebore add their own contrast to their brighter counterparts.
This year’s new plants at the RHS Flower Show at Hampton Court Palace featured many ‘black’ flowers and stems, and they looked great in mixed flower beds. Of course many of the plants were not truly black, more a dark burgundy, but these lovely plants did make a talking point and looked stunning in mixed planters. Look out for the new black poppies with their floppy petals, black dahlias, sweet-faced black pansies and even black leafed water lilies. The pepper plant ‘Black Pearl’ has great dark leaves contrasting with its purple flowers; black stemmed lobelia has scarlet flowers and there is a new euphorbia now available called ‘Blackbird’.
The best thing about a perennial border is that, once planted, it will not cost money to plant every year. As predictable as the seasons, up will sprout new shoots each spring and the gardener’s task is one of dividing and thinning rather than planting and weeding, to keep it looking at its best.
Other summer classics are sweet peas, great as a screen and for cutting; clematis which now come in many sizes and shapes; lilies with their glorious scent, and roses. A true English garden should find space for a climbing rose at the very least, if not a full-blown rosebed. Although roses do not impress from a distance, up close each flower is a true work of art. No wonder they are the favourite flower of artists. Add to that the range of colors and the delicate, sweet scent and you can understand why roses have been a summer favorite for centuries.
Summer is also the time for annuals to make their debut, having been raised and nurtured through the frost to finally be transplanted into beds, window boxes, hay baskets, troughs and hanging baskets. Borough parks make some of the best flower beds to brighten roundabouts, grass verges, park beds and town squares. Geraniums, begonias and fuchsias may be edged with white alyssum, blue lobelia, busy lizzies (which flower even in the shadiest spots), bright marigolds, nasturtiums, petunias and pansies. There is always something new, even among the old favorites. Look for new colours in these old stalwarts and plant them for a change.
Even those with the smallest garden or balcony can include some summer flowers for color with very little cost and trouble. Ready-planted tubs can be purchased from nurseries and even from the local supermarket. All they require is a daily watering and some weekly fertilizer to maximize the flowering period. If you have a suitable container already, such as a tin bucket, a small wheelbarrow, or a sizable container then make your very own unique flower display. Choose a central focal point, possibly a geranium, large begonia or a spiky-leafed dracaena then edge it with two or three small annuals, repeated around the edge. Remember to include a contrast of colors, textures and some trailing plants too such as variegated ivy, trailing lobelia or surfinias to soften the edges.
Another way to appreciate the bounty of summer flowers is to visit one of the many stately homes and gardens which are open to the public. These properties always have formal gardens and a team of gardeners to keep them looking their best. Many properties have lawns with borders, established flowering trees, splendid rose gardens, arbours, water features and perennial borders. Remember to take your camera with you and bring home plenty of ideas for your next summer gardening project!