The July Garden by Keith Cowley
How the garden changes in just a month! The much needed rain in June has given plants a real boost of growth although the wind at times seemed to want to lay all that growth on the ground! Still whenever are gardeners completely happy with the weather? However, most gardeners are usually happy with their gardens in July. Many plants are looking at their best and all the hard work earlier in the year will be paying dividends both in the ornamental garden and in the vegetable patch or pots. There is still plenty to do to keep the garden looking good but the long summer days and evenings help a great deal. Most of all, like June, July is a month for enjoying the garden, relaxing in it and, in my case, finding the shady places!
Some of the June favourites are still doing well- the Geraniums of course, Campanula, Centaurea, Erigeron, Potentilla, Roses and Spiraea while others such as the Foxgloves and Philadelphus are beginning to fade away. Some of the Foxgloves may have secondary flower spikes lower down the plant and if the main spike is cut off as it finishes flowering the secondary spikes will continue to bloom and produce plenty of seed for next year. With the Philadelphus, shoots which have flowered this year can be cut back to young growth lower down which will provide the flowers for next year. On well-established plants a few of the oldest shoots can be pruned back almost to ground level to encourage new shoots to grow from the base.
As we enter July some of the stars of the show in our garden here in South West Wales are, in the herbaceous section Penstemons, Hemerocallis and Hostas and in the shrub section Buddleja, Hydrangea, Hebe and Hypericum. The summer plants in pots on the patio are also beginning to put on a show with dwarf Dahlias, Pelargoniums, Nemesia, Felicia, Argyranthemum, Bidens and Petunia showing lots of flower colour. The Sweet Peas have also been supplying scent and colour for the house for a couple of weeks now and as long as they are given plenty of water and liquid feed and the flowers are picked regularly so that they don’t produce seed they will continue to flower for many weeks to come. In the pond the early flowers such as the Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) have all finished but the water lilies have begun to produce the first of their magnificent, if all too short-lived, flowers and the water Iris is not too far behind.
One of our most striking plants in July is without doubt the Penstemon. We grow a few different varieties and they are literally full of flower as I write. A particular favourite is P. ‘Sour Grapes’ with its lilac-blue and pink tubular flowers with creamy-white insides with purple lines which presumably lead the bees to the nectar. Each flower spike has up to 20 flowers and I quickly counted over 20 spikes on just the one plant! Another good cultivar is P. ‘Raven’ with its reddish-purple flowers with white and dark purple lines within the tube. We grow it next to Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ which, although this has nearly finished flowering, the dark purple, finely-cut leaves look really good against the Penstemon flowers. It is these combinations of plants which really make gardens work but I have to admit that most of the time they occur by happy chance and not always by careful design! Penstemons can suffer in hard winters and taking soft wood cuttings in August as insurance is always a good idea if you live in a cold district. However, having said that I can’t remember the last time the we lost a Penstemon and all we do is leave the top growth on through the winter and only cut the plants back to young growth in the lower half of the plant in late March/early April.
Perhaps this is a good point to admit that the more I look at flowers and try to describe colours the more inadequate I feel! My wife, Teresa, and I had a long discussion over coffee the other day about flower colours and I have to say that we didn’t always agree! So apologies for my ‘male’ colour descriptions, I would take them as guidelines only and try to see the plants for yourselves or at least good photographs of them!
I know that the Hemerocallis is not perhaps in the same league as the Penstemon but it is a plant which requires very little attention but still produces lots of colourful, exotic blooms in yellows, oranges and reds at this time of year. Individual flowers do only last one day, hence the common name Day Lily, but there are so many flowers this doesn’t seem to matter.
Hostas have become much more popular in recent years with the introduction of many new cultivars. We grow ours for the leaf size, shape and colour but in July their lilac-blue, mauve and white flowers begin to appear. They are easy to grow especially in moist, shady areas as long as you can keep the slugs and snails off them! Ours in the ground are in a shady slate bed where they experience very little damage. Other plants are in pots with a gritty top dressing which also seems to do the trick. We’ve been particularly pleased with the Hostas growing in a new type of pot – the Vigoroot pot from Haxnicks who make a range of very useful sundries for the garden. They are light green in colour and are made from a felt-like fabric made from recycled polyester, plastic bottles and clothing fabrics. As they are porous they allow the compost and the roots to “breathe” and when the roots reach the edge of the pot they are “air-pruned”. In other words the root tips as they are exposed to the air die off which encourages fine, feeder roots to grow along the length of the rest of the root. This keeps the plants in really good condition as it not only gives them more feeder roots but it also prevents the main roots from becoming too long and the plant becoming root bound. This means that they can stay in the pot for longer before repotting becomes necessary. Our Hostas, now in the second year in the pots are doing really well and we are definitely going to get some more pots and try other plants in them.
In the shrub section I am going to start with the wonderful Hydrangea. Ours at the beginning of the month are only just starting to show some colour but they promise so much more! As I sit in our shady front garden out of the hot sun I can count more than forty flower heads on one of our blue Hydrangeas which is on about 3-4ft high and a little more across. In another part of the garden which is more exposed two older and larger shrubs were damaged a little by an air frost in April but they have recovered well and are also full of flower heads. To avoid damage from late winter and early spring frosts we leave the old flower heads on the plants over the winter and only remove them when we think the risk of frost has passed in late March/early April. This year we got it wrong but as someone said at the end of that great film “Some like it Hot”, “Nobody’s perfect”! The most widely grown Hydrangeas are the Mopheads (or Hortensias) and Lacecaps of H. macrophylla. The Mopheads have large, almost spherical flower heads of sterile flowers whereas the the Lacecaps have flattened flower heads with small fertile flowers in the centres, surrounded by larger sterile flowers. Colours range from white to pink, red and blue or some combinations of these depending on the soil. Both groups, with the exception of those that are white flowered, are peculiar in that they are subject to colour changes in response to the acidity or alkalinity of the soil as measured by the pH value. This is because the pH of a soil influences the availability of aluminium ions. Crimson varieties remain so in neutral soil (pH 7) but become violet in acid soils (pH less than 7). A pure blue on acid soil will become pink on neutral soil. In neutral soils flower colour can be influenced by the addition of a blueing compound eg Sequestrene of Iron. A more certain method of successfully growing a blue Hydrangea if you don’t have an acid soil is to grow it in a pot in ericaceous compost and to water only with rain water. As their name suggests Hydrangeas do best when water is plentiful and with their big leaves and shallow roots they are one of the first plants to show you that the soil is getting dry. They are also a woodland plant and are therefore happy in some shade.
There are also other species of Hydrangeas which are good garden plants. We grow H. paniculata (there are several cultivars available) which have generally white or pinkish-white flowers on conical shaped rather than round flower heads. These produce their flowers on the current season’s growth so they are cut back in spring to within a few buds of the older wood. H. macrophylla, on the other hand, flower on older wood so these are pruned lightly , usually only cutting just below the old flower heads to a strong pair of buds. They can be hard pruned if they are too large or have a poor shape but this usually means that there will be few or no flowers that year. We also grow H. quercifolia (the Oak leaved Hydrangea) with its large, striking leaves, which colour up really well in the autumn, and its conical panicles of white flowers which become pink with age, as do many of the related H. paniculata. Finally I must mention the climbing Hydrangea, H. petiolaris, which is a woody climber with white flowers and is particularly good on shady walls and fences.
Another July shrub which can rival even the marvellous Hydrangea is, of course, the Buddleja, often aptly referred to as the Butterfly Bush. Actually not all Buddlejas are attractive to insects but B. davidii, B. alternifolia and B. crispa certainly are. I suppose the most commonly grown species is B. davidii of which there are many cultivars. My personal favourite is B. davidii ‘Black Knight’ with its dark purple flowers. When we moved here just over three years ago we inherited a lovely Buddleja which I think is B. davidii ‘Empire Blue’ with its violet-blue flowers with orange eyes forming long, almost drooping, conical panicles. The flowers also have a fragrance although to me it is not particularly pleasant. However, the bees and butterflies love it for its abundant nectar and they will be all over it from July until the last flowers fade. We try to keep it flowering for as long as possible by dead-heading but it is not an easy job as there are so many flowers and although we cut it down to about 3-4 ft each spring by July it is 8-10 ft high! This hard prune is vital as the flowers form on the current year’s growth.
My third shrub which I would like to suggest for the July garden is the Hebe, an evergreen plant which needs no such pruning. There are many species and cultivars of this shrub and they are suitable for a wide range of sites and flower at different times. Some are excellent early summer flowerers such as the one we grow close to a small leaved flowering Cherry, Hebe ‘Black Beauty’. It starts flowering towards the end of June with its dark, purple-blue flowers above glossy, darkish green leaves, the young ones of which are reddish-purple beneath. This is its fourth year in the garden and it is now at least three to four feet high and wide and like most older Hebes is starting to look a little bare lower down. As Hebes don’t usually take very kindly to pruning I am going to take some semi-ripe cuttings later in the summer and I have already “layered” a low branch to try to get it to root. With these as insurance I will cut the whole plant back next April to new growth low down and hope for the best! Other good summer flowering varieties include H. ‘Great Orme’ (pink), H. ‘Bowles Variety’ (mauve-blue), H. francisiana ‘Variegata’ (green leaves with cream margins and pink-tinged purple flowers) and H. ‘Midsummer Beauty’ (lilac-purple).
My final shrub which is certainly earning its place in our July garden is the often overlooked, evergreen or semi-evergreen Hypericum (St. John’s Wort). We have several inherited plants which have all burst into flower to welcome in the new month. Their bright yellow flowers with very prominent, orange stamens light up corners of the garden and are always popular with our bee friends. I’m not sure of the variety but popular ones are H. ‘Hidcote’ which grows up to 4ft (1.2m) high and 5ft (1.5m) across and H. calycinum (Rose of Sharon) which is a dwarf shrub which makes very good ground cover even in shade. This variety is best cut down to ground level in spring. Other Hypericums can get rather large and some are prone to rust but I have always found that they respond well even to hard pruning, best done in spring but I often clip ours back after flowering with no ill effects.
As you would expect there are lots of other lovely flowering plants for the July garden so if you can why not have a look at what is looking good at the Old Railway Line, either in person or on line. You will not be disappointed and I know that they will give you a warm welcome and a safe experience.
As for last month the jobs for July can be found in the Blog archives. We are going to be concentrating on watering when we have to especially for pots, new plants and the vegetable garden. We put in a few extra water butts last year and these have already proved their worth in the dry April and May. We don’t water the lawn as it seems a massive waste of water and we know that the grass will recover naturally even after long, dry spells. However, we do try to keep it green for as long as possible by raising the cut on the mower and by avoiding cutting it if we can in hot, dry weather. It was given a feed in April but now is not too late if you didn’t get yours done especially now that we have had some rain. In the greenhouse we can now concentrate on the tomatoes which have their first fruits on and are nearly to the top of the canes. Regular watering, shading on really hot, sunny days, pinching out side-shoots, tying in, damping down and feeding two or three times a week is all they need! However, it is worth all the effort when you can pick your own fruit straight from the plant as we already have from some of the outside bush tomatoes- ‘Tumbling Tom Yellow’ being the first. The first few courgettes are also coming along now from plants which we grew from seed in late March. I think lots of water and feed is the key as well as picking the courgettes before they get too big to keep the plants cropping. We have been eating our own salad crops for weeks now, have also been enjoying Sugar Snap peas and are looking forward to French and Runner beans which are already in flower.
Well that’s it for July except to say to remember that most of the hard work in the garden has already been done and July is a time to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labours.
Next month, glorious August, is a month that many gardeners feel is not one of the best but I hope to show you that there are some wonderful, late summer flowering plants which would grace any garden. Before then I will post some blogs on topics which I hope you will find interesting and informative, starting with one on Hardy Geraniums. If you have any suggestions for future topics or questions about past ones please feel free to get in touch.
Until then keep well and enjoy the July Garden.