As September slips into October, it’s easy to think that for the garden all that’s left is ‘seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness’, as the days gradually shorten and the colourful extravaganza of high summer fades. But is it really all over for the garden? The truth is, we’re all a little bit guilty of making the annual charge down to the garden centre in spring to buy whatever’s in flower, in a desperate bid to shake off the winter blues and get some colour into our lives. Consequently, many of us have gardens that look fantastic in spring and early summer but by September it’s all starting to look a bit like the party’s over. So if you want a garden that’s less Usain Bolt and more Mo Farrah now is a good time to start planning for next year. With some forward thinking, gardens can sail through to November with all guns blazing. However, the choice of late season plants can almost be overwhelming so to get you going here are a few strong contenders that we grow at Sissinghurst for you to consider.
Asters, or Michaelmas Daisies as they are better known, are wonderful plants for late summer and autumn colour, flowering all the way through September and October. Most originate from North America with just a few European and Asian species. At Sissinghurst we grow at least 26 different cultivars and species. Many of these were introduced by Pam and Sibylle, Vita’s Head Gardeners, in an effort to extend the season of colour especially in the Rose Garden. Even Vita with all her experience as a gardener hated the Rose Garden in August writing in 1955 ‘The roses have flowered as never before, and now they have been succeeded by masses of white lilies. It won’t last much longer for August is always a bad month here….’ Now the Rose Garden contains some lovely asters including Aster ericoides ‘Pink Cloud’, A. ericoides ‘Blue Star’, A. ‘Violet Queen’, A. ‘Purple Cloud’, A. divaricatus and A. lateriflorus var. horizontalis which lift it to new heights in the autumn when the roses have long since finished.
In the Moat Walk, Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ is flowering all the way from the crescent down to the moat, creating a starry lilac haze and has been performing like this since August. In the Purple Border, asters such as the rich purple ‘Cliff Lewis’ and deep pink ‘Carnival’ have stepped in to keep the colour going. Meanwhile, Aster turbinellus waits in the wings to flower later in October. Plan to have at least one or two in your garden and your borders will already be warming up to becoming long distance runners.
Dahlias originate from Mexico and are a brilliant late summer and autumn flowering plant. Many gardeners pass them by, associating them with the competitive world of horticultural shows and certainly some are well suited to this role with their perfectly formed pom-poms and uniform petals, but that shouldn’t deter gardeners from giving dahlias a chance. There are many cultivars out there that look amazing in a mixed border and will really lift the garden in September and October. Dahlias are fun, vibrant and give an intensity of colour that is hard to beat. It’s like having a little bit of Mexico in your garden.
At Sissinghurst, dahlias abound. In the purple border we grow ‘Pink Michigan’, ‘Requiem’, and ‘Edinburgh’ whilst in the Cottage Garden there is ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, D. coccinea, ‘David Howard’ and ‘Brandaris’. I also like ‘Dovegrove’ which has single, deep magenta flowers and ‘Twyning’s After Eight’ with its white flowers contrasting with dark foliage. We don’t have these at Sissinghurst but they are two of my favourites so I will give them a mention.
But be warned! Dahlias are tuberous plants and because they are native to Mexico, these tubers may need to be lifted and stored over winter. Cold, wet winter soils are the nemesis of dahlias so only leave the tubers in situ if you have very free draining soil and live in a mild area. We lift all of our dahlias except Dahlia merckii, storing them in bark over the winter.
Heleniums originate from North American and are clump forming perennial plants. They are tough, totally hardy and easy to grow. We grow Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ in the Cottage Garden which has attractive coppery-red daisy type flowers but there are many other cultivars with beautiful variations in flower colour.
I like Helenium ‘Chelsey’ which I saw growing at RHS Rosemoor last year. The flowers are crimson flecked with yellow and it grows to about 80cm. At Rosemoor, it was grown with other late flowering perennials in large clumps and the overall effect was stunning. Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flower’ is also popular due to its long flowering period from June-October. It was found growing as a seedling in the Sahin’s trial ground in Zeeland, Holland and was selected by Kees Sahin in 1996 because of its abilty to flower for months. The flowers are a bright orange and sunshine yellow with each flower being a unique mix of colours and it’s self-supporting too. What more can a gardener ask for?
Finally, don’t forget to buy one to two grasses for the autumn season. Stipa gigantea looks amazing in the low September light shimmering in a golden haze. I also love Pennisetum villosum and Pennisetum orientale in the Rose Garden as they add a change of texture to the border. Miscanthus nepalensis is another good choice with long, graceful, silky tassels that reflect the mellow sunlight of autumn. It’s not grown at Sissinghurst but I’ve seen it in other gardens and love it. Some gardeners do not find it totally hardy but a sheltered spot and good drainage will give it a fighting chance to get through a British winter.
And finally, if you would like to see some of the plants I’ve mentioned then, of course, come to Sissinghurst but I’ve also listed a few other great gardens that should give you some extra inspiration too.
Other gardens and nurseries to visit in Autumn.
Le Jardin Plume, Normandy, France. (for grasses)
Old Court Nurseries and The Picton Garden (for Asters)
Great Dixter (for dahlias)
Rousham Garden (for the dahlia bed, 150 feet long)
RHS Rosemoor (for a fantastic combination of late season flowers)
Knoll Gardens and Nursery (for grasses)
Helen Champion – Gardener