Gardening: Late summer colour

Posted on: 13 September 2011 by Maxine Farmer

Maxine Farmer brings tips for adding some end of season colour to your garden.

California poppyAs I write this, the rain is lashing against the windows, gale force winds are hurling handfuls of leaves on to a sodden sad lawn and I’m clutching a hot water bottle. After the coldest summer for almost two decades, autumn has definitely arrived early and the usual cheery pockets of late summer flowers are looking rather forlorn.

So this September, I’ve really come to appreciate the huge role that berries and coloured foliage have to play in slowing down the garden’s gradual decline into winter dullness.  

While most flowers have disintegrated into windblown rotting stumps, the saviours are proving to be trees, shrubs and grasses.  

Just outside my office window I can see the beacon of robin red berries on the cotoneaster, often dismissed as a dull shrub for car-parks, but in reality a year-round performer, thanks to its evergreen foliage and tolerance of being pruned within an inch of its life.  It is complemented perfectly by the glossy leaves of Mahonia Aquifolium Atropurpurea, which over the next few weeks, will increasingly become tinged with scarlet. Like the cotoneaster, it also responds well harsh pruning so I have squeezed three specimens into long but narrow eighteen inch border in front of a low wall. 

Acers are one of the trees that garden experts seem to refer to when quizzed about autumn colour and understandably so, because the Japanese maples really do have a fabulous variety of foliage colours and, most importantly, tend to hang on to those leaves despite a wet summer, although do try to site them away from fierce winds.  I have an acer atropurpureum palmata that lives in a large container against a North-East facing but sheltered wall of the house and is currently clothed in port-wine leaves.

I also think that the variegated dogwoods provide much needed brightness, especially on a cloudy day. A favourite of mine is cornus alba sibirica Elegantissima, which has striking leaves striped creamy white and lime-green.  In winter, its new wood is a striking bright red, beautifully exposed once the leaves have fallen.

CeanothusCeanothus Autumnal Blue will flower from midsummer into October.  Like all ceanothus, don’t expect it to live forever, but I love the fact that they add a cool blue into the garden at a time of year when there is so much emphasis on the hotter hues in the colour spectrum.

Grasses, which have been stalwarts in my garden all summer, really come into their own in these starker months.  I’m a huge fan of miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’, which has feathery seed heads tinged dusky pink, above long golden stems that arch gracefully and unlike some other miscanthus, seem to be less battered by the wind, despite the very open location in which I have planted the specimens.  They will stand on guard, providing texture in the borders, until next spring, when I will cut them down as new shoots emerge.

While I’m relying on shrubs and trees, I’m pleased to note that a few summer flowers are still performing, including the hand-sown California poppies and clematis ‘Polish Spirit’, which flowers off and on all summer until the first frosts here in the South East. The same is true of the hardy fuchsias, which living in containers seem to have rather enjoyed this cooler and wetter summer, perhaps not surprising considering that they really do not being too hot and dry.  Fuchsia magellanica ‘Variegata’ is covered in masses of pendant blooms.  What they lack in size they make up for in the vibrancy of the dark pink, wonderfully offset against the sage-green leaves edge in cream.

In most summers, I have to keep a close eye that lobelia cardinalis doesn’t droop in the heat, but this has been its most spectacular season yet, with its tall spires of ruby red flowers, happy in the damp ditch in which I have planted a whole swathe of these dramatic perennials.

Sedum - Ice PlantSedum spectabile, the ice plant, positively relishes baking hot conditions, but despite recent weather, is still going strong in my garden, with the added bonus that it is only now starting to bloom, presumably delayed because of the lack of sunshine.  I’m looking forward to its broccoli like flower heads opening out into pinks, purples and reds in the coming weeks.

People tend to be a bit snobbish about nasturtiums (is it because they are so easy to grow?) but I’m a huge fan because they tick so many boxes: can be raised easily from seed, puts up with drought, wet, blazing sun or shade and keeps going well into autumn.  This year, I’ve discovered Empress of India, which has wonderful dark purple tinged leaves and prolific blooms of cardinal red.  I have planted it in a bed which is itself a bit of a hotchpotch: a couple of shrubs, some day lilies, various annuals and some spaghetti squash and the nasturtium somehow brings them all together, weaving in and out and making the other colours, textures and shapes gel better.

But these late blooms are the icing on the cake.  This year’s summer has reminded me not just of the need to plan for the later months, but to rely more on shrubs and trees to provide seasonal colour.  Sure, late summer flowers are wonderful, but given our unpredictable climate, let’s view them as a possible bonus, not the main event.

About Maxine

Maxine Farmer is a professional writer and garden designer, and has had articles published in The Daily Telegraph, Housebuilder & Renovation, and the RHS’ members magazine, The Garden.

She developed her passion for making the most of challenging gardens by moving to a riverside plot that not only floods regularly, but is often bone dry in summer.  Since the mid-1990s, she and her husband John have experimented with plants that are able to survive these extremes.  The garden has been featured in national newspapers and magazines.

Maxine has also created a website for fellow gardeners who have gardens that flood:  She occasionally provides gardening consultancy and is available to speak at garden clubs.

To ask Maxine a gardening question, please email

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