Jane Powers offers some advice on keeping the show on the road in the garden all through the season
We’re entering the most optimistic part of summer: the next three weeks are the brightest in the year, and our gardens are looking their best. Leaves are still fresh and healthy, and most of our plants still have plenty of buds waiting to bloom. Life is good.
Summer gardens need constant care, though, if they are not to run out of steam or fall foul of pests or diseases. With our long summers and mild autumns, our beds and borders need to perform at a high level for months.
Vigilance is your best friend in this season: try to make time every day to walk around your garden and see where attention is needed. Just ten minutes in the morning before the business of the day commences will make a world of difference. This is long enough to do simple tweaks, and to make note of longer tasks that can be done in the evening or on a day off.
Quick tweaks include the likes of deadheading, weed-pulling and pest disposal. When deadheading — that is, removing spent blooms — do it in such a way that you don’t leave decapitated stalks sticking up as reminders that there was once a flower here. Snip stems off at the base. In cases where the plant produces a spray of flowers (roses, for example), carefully prune back the whole truss to a leaf bud on the branch. Plants that produce ornamental seedheads should be kept intact: among these are poppies, peonies, alliums and some irises.
Thuggish weeds such as bindweed and couch grass need to be kept under constant control. The former can wreak havoc if left to its own devices, tying your plants together with its fast-growing, twining stems. As regards pests: keep an eye out for slugs and snails, especially around the eminently edible, emerging foliage of plants at ground level. A few greenfly won’t do your plants any harm, but if you see large colonies building up, grit your teeth and wipe them off with a tissue or a gloved hand.
Keeping the show on the road in the coming months also means finding plants that will flower all summer, as well as having a good number of later-blooming species. Among those that put on a prolonged performance are penstemon (spires of pink, wine or mauve bells), *Knautia macedonica* (tiny deep-red or pink pincushions on long, wiry stems), astrantia (white to wine-toned, very decorative, sculptural flowers) and many members of the hardy geranium family. *Geranium* ‘Rozanne’ is one of the best, making great mounds of lavender-blue flowers. For drier soils, the tall, purple-topped *Verbena bonariensis* is invaluable. The long stems (which can grow to two metres or more) are slender and understated, so it can be placed anywhere in a bed — front, middle or back — for a kinetic display that sways with the breeze.
There are loads of plants that produce colour and interest starting in July and extending well into autumn. Consider some of the late daisies such as rudbeckia, echinacea, perennial sunflowers (*Helianthus*), and sneezeweed (*Helenium*). Dahlias are brilliant for providing a mad, blast of colour until frost lays them low. The larger the head, the more likely they are to flop, so choose small or medium-flowered ones such as ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ (blood red), ‘David Howard’ (deep orange) and ‘Twyning’s Revel’ (peach suffused with cherry). Michaelmas daisies or asters — which have white, pink or mauve flowers — are another way of stretching the garden into autumn.
Late July and August are prime time for the crocosmias, the garden relatives of the orange montbretia that inhabits ditches in the south west of this country. *Gaura lindheimeri* is another plant that is late to the party. It bears fluttery white or pink flowers, as if troupes of butterflies are air-dancing around the stems.
Among the ornamental grasses, the huge miscanthus clan is the best for multi-season interest. The feathery plumes, in shades of silver, pewter, pink and wine, are hoisted in late summer, and persist until spring. The leaves and stems turn a warm golden brown in winter, and give structure to the garden during that quiet time.
If you’ve chosen the right plants for your soil and conditions (see pages 6 and 7), you shouldn’t have to worry much about watering your garden, except for newly-planted specimens. If you do need to water, do it in the evening, so that the moisture doesn’t evaporate quickly. Give a good long drink so that the water goes far into the soil, encouraging the roots to travel deeply. Lawns don’t need watering, unless they were sown this spring. The grass may go a little brown in droughty weather, but it will green up as soon as there is rain. Six easy cheats to make your garden shine all summer
■ Keep a few pots of plants waiting in the wings so that you can slot them into gaps in your beds.
■ Don’t worry if your lawn is a bit weedy. Instead, keep it looking neat by keeping the edges neatly trimmed and well-defined, and invest in a good quality walk behind lawn mower.
■ Plants in containers need more water as the summer progresses, and as they grow more leaves and roots. Stand them in pot saucers so that no water is wasted. Remove the saucers in autumn.
■ Feed containers weekly. Liquid tomato feed is a great all-rounder.
■ Take loads of photos of your garden, and make notes of what works and what doesn’t, so you have a record for the future.
■ Visit other gardens for inspiration. Don’t be afraid to borrow ideas.
The compost in containers can dry out in warm weather and shrink away from the sides. Rehydrate by gently lowering each pot into a large bucket of water. Immerse completely and remove when the bubbles stop rising. Don’t leave the pots soaking for more than an hour or two, as you don’t want to drown the roots. If the container is too large to lift into a bucket, use tepid water to remoisten the compost.