Does your garden peak too soon? If so, try these autumn flowering plants
TJ Maher and Simon Kirby’s country garden looks utterly wonderful well into November
Patthana, a garden in Kiltegan Wicklow. Photograph: Richard Johnston
If I were to compare the average garden to a party (stay with me), then it would be fair to say that many are what you might call ‘peak-too-sooners’. In other words, whilst wonderful in early summer, by mid-autumn they are a dispiriting huddle of spent flowers and fading foliage, their brief moment of glory an all-too-distant memory. Happily that’s not something that could ever be said of Patthana, the small(ish) country garden of TJ Maher and his partner Simon Kirby, which is situated in the heart of the rural village of Kiltegan in Co Wicklow.
The first time I saw this gorgeous garden was in late autumn, yet despite the lateness of the growing season Patthana was aglow with colour, scent and the happy buzz of visiting pollinating insects.
Indigo-coloured salvias, scarlet dahlias, ember-orange tagetes, magenta-flowered perennial geraniums, brick-red sedums, fragrant tobacco flowers, violet verbena and lacy-white hydrangeas were just some of the treats that greeted me alongside the fiery-hued autumnal foliage and fruits of choice trees and shrubs including mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), euonymus and katsura (Cercidiphyllum).
What I didn’t see were the sorts of plants that offer a brief seasonal explosion of colour before quickly fading away to leave a big ‘hole’ in a planting scheme. “In a small garden like ours the gaps they leave behind are just too visually ugly so over the years I’ve learned to use varieties with a really long season of interest”, explains Maher.
Top of his list are autumn-flowering plants that attract pollinating insects, a subject on which this organic gardener is utterly passionate. But Maher also chooses plants for their long-lasting beauty, scent and texture, weaving them together to form a charmingly colourful matrix of autumnal foliage, flowers, fruit and berries. The result is a garden that looks utterly wonderful well into November.
If you’d like to inject some of that seasonal magic into your own patch, here’s a useful shortlist of Maher’s favourite plants for autumn interest. And if you’d like to see Patthana in all its autumn finery, then Maher will be giving a walking tour of his garden on September 17th and 24th (2pm and again at 5pm).
Plants for autumn
Hydrangeas: These fast-growing, hardy, deciduous shrubs are one of the stars of Patthana in autumn, contributing lots of large, decorative flowers and handsome foliage. Maher’s favourite varieties include the popular Limelight (“a much less floppy growth habit than Annabelle”), the pink-white Hydrangea paniculata ‘Vanille Fraise’, the two-toned Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky’ and the long-flowering white-bloomed Hydrangea paniculata ‘Phantom’. Give them plenty of space and a fertile, moist but well-drained soil in a sunny or lightly shaded spot.
Geraniums: Not all varieties of hardy geraniums were created equal, but the best flower their socks off all summer long including Geranium ‘Ann Thompson’ whose magenta-coloured, dark-eyed flowers appear in Patthana from June right through to October as does the pale-blue flowering Geranium ‘Rozanne’. Hardy and floriferous, these clump-forming herbaceous plants will tolerate a wide range of growing conditions but are happiest in full sun/light shade and in a moist but free-draining soil.
Tender annuals: Tender annuals are used generously in Patthana where they add oodles of autumn colour. Amongst Maher’s favourites are Tagetes ‘Cinnabar’ ex Great Dixter, a stately, floriferous annual with ember-coloured flowers that appear from July until the first hard frosts. Another is the tall, pale-flowered Nicotiana ‘Fragrant Cloud’, which flowers right into November, while several varieties of Cosmos including the dusty-pink ‘Versailles Tetra’ and the scarlet-pink ‘Dazzler’ are also woven through its borders. Maher raises these plants from seed sown under cover in spring, transplanting them outside in early summer after all risk of frost has passed.
Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’ (synonym Sedum ‘Autumn Joy): This fleshy-leaved, pollinator-friendly perennial is another star of Patthana’s autumn borders, with long-lasting dusty-pink, flattened flower-heads that slowly age to brick-red. A sun-lover that likes a free-draining, not overly fertile soil, it grows to an average height and spread of 60-75cm.
Cercidiphyllum ‘Heronswood Globe’: A more compact form of the deciduous katsura tree, its elegant foliage turns glorious shades of golden-pink in autumn and smell of toffee. Likes a well-drained, fertile soil in sun/light shade. A great tree for a small garden.
Dahlias: Tall, single-flowering dahlias reign supreme at Patthana, prized by Maher not only for their graceful, naturalistic bloom but also because they attract pollinating insects. Maher raised his from species-type, spring-sown seed, growing many of them on in pots that he plunges into Patthana’s borders in early summer and then lifting them in November to bring them under cover Readers can source seed from specialist suppliers such as UK-based Chiltern Seeds (chilternseeds.co.uk).
Salvia ‘Amistad’:This statuesque Argentinian variety of frost-hardy salvia reaches a height and spread of 1-1.5m x 90cm and produces its sooty-stemmed, magenta-coloured flower spikes from May until the first frost. Classified as frost hardy, Salvia ‘Amistad’ needs winter protection in cold gardens but it’s a small price to pay for months of sumptuous colour.
Euonymus planipes: Another brilliant deciduous shrub/small tree that Maher wouldn’t be without. It produces a mass of lipstick pink/orange fruits which contrast gloriously with its crimson coloured new growth and crimson-pink autumn foliage. Tolerant of most soils as well as shade, it reaches an average height and spread of 2.5-3m.
This Week In The Garden
Now that night-time temperatures are beginning to drop, using a layer or two of garden fleece can really help to prolong colourful flowering displays. Stock up on it at your local garden centre or if you already have some, pop it in the washing machine on a short cycle before putting is somewhere to hand in the coming weeks if frost is forecast.
If you’re planning on lifting dahlia tubers later this autumn to store them somewhere frost-free, then try to make sure that all plants are properly labelled now before the first harsh frost blacken the flowers. Use lengths of fine wire threaded into the eye of the labels to tie them low down at the base of each plant. If you don’t know the varietal name, even a brief description of height and colour is always useful.
If you sowed seed of hardy flowering biennials such as wallflowers, sweet William, sweet rocket, honesty, and forget-me-nots earlier this year, then September is a great time to move the young plants to their final flowering positions while both soil temperatures and moisture levels are still high.
Dates For Your Diary
Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th September, Mount Stewart Gardens 2-Day Planters Seminar with guest speakers Matthew Biggs, Stephen Lacey and Mary Keen, pre-booking essential, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mount-stewart/features/planters-seminar-2017; Sunday, September 24th September (11am-5.30pm), Woodville Walled Garden Harvest Festival, Woodville House, Kilchreest, Co Galway, see woodvillewalledgarden.com.