The lovely month of June
Gardens are abundant and full of promise of long, hot days to come
Bring the garden into the kitchen by making an ice-bowl in which to serve chilled food. Photograph: Richard Johnston
The flowers of columbines (Aquilegia sp) Photograph: Richard Johnston
June flowers: pink lupins. Photograph: Richard Johnston
I s June the loveliest month in the garden? It’s certainly hard to beat for that feeling of abundance and the whispered promise (not always kept) of long, golden summer days to come. Its story is one of fresh foliage and brightly-coloured flowers; tall spires of peppery-scented lupins, peacock-blue delphiniums and slender foxgloves, plump bobbles of purple and white alliums that seem to float above the ground, lacy astrantias, deliciously fragrant Dame’s rocket and frothy Lady’s mantle are some of its brightest stars.
June is also the month when I give myself a congratulatory pat on the back, followed by an even firmer rap on the knuckles. The pat on the back is for the plants now flowering as a result of the seed that I managed to sow this time last year. These include the bronze-pink spires of the perennial foxglove, Digitalis ‘Polkadot Pippa’, a flower I fell in love with after seeing it in the Chelsea Flower Show’s great pavilion. Also the lines of scarlet, pink and sooty-purple sweet William whose whiskery flower buds have just opened, releasing their spicy perfume into the warm summer air. Or the Iceland poppy, Papaver nudicaule, whose crumpled, scented, golden flowers are the result of the seed I scattered generously around the garden last summer. Plus the very last of the fiery-coloured biennial wallflowers blooming since April, and the dainty perennial columbines in bloom since May, whose tiny, shiny, black seed I also sprinkled about the place last summer. And finally, the aforementioned Dame’s rocket, or Hesperis matronalis, a short-lived, easy-to-grow, bee-friendly perennial whose pretty white/mauve/lilac flowers I’ve long loved for their old-fashioned prettiness, the intensity of their perfume and the fact that I’ve grown them since I was a teenager.
But I’m a greedy gardener and so the rap on the knuckles is for all those plants that I forgot to sow last June. Just one packet of lupin seeds would have given me 50 or more plants of what’s turned out to be this year’s must-have flowering perennial. That might have been the ultramarine-blue lupin, ‘The Governor’, stunning when grown in combination with silver foliage plants. Or the yellow-flowered ‘Chandelier’ as used by the designer Luciano Giubbilei in his Best in Show garden at this year’s Chelsea flower show. Or the ivory-white L. ‘Noble Maiden’, or the carmine-red L. ‘The Pages’, all available as seed from Seedaholic, the excellent Westport-based seed supplier. Grown this way, I could have afforded to treat these cottage-garden favourites as biennials rather than the short-lived perennials that they are, planting them generously but discarding them after the last of their tall, colourful flower spikes have faded.
Another plant that does well from an early-summer-sowing is the biennial honesty, whose white or purple, nectar-rich, star-shaped flowers appear in May/June, followed by those stiff, silvery seedheads beloved of flower arrangers. So this month I’ll be sowing seed of the newly available chocolate-leaved variety known as L. ‘Chedglow’, available from Avon Bulbs. A June-sowing also works well for the fashionably dark-leaved cow parsley, Anthriscus ‘Ravenswing’ (Seedaholic). Or the silver-leafed, white-flowering beauty that is the perennial foxglove, Digitalis ‘Silver Fox’, which is available from Sarah Raven seeds. Or the stately, deep-blue flowering perennial, Delphinium x cultorum ‘Tall Black Knight”, (Thompson & Morgan). Or even the scabious-like Knautia macedonica ‘Melton Pastels’, whose pink and claret flowers bloom from July until September (Thompson & Morgan).
One of the very best things about sowing seed of these flowering biennials and perennials now is that there’s no need to mollycoddle the young seedlings in ways necessary at colder times of the year. Instead, many of the plants that I’ve mentioned (wallflowers, columbines, honesty, foxgloves, lupins, sweet William, Dame’s rocket) can be sown now, outdoors and into a well-prepared seed-bed, to be transplanted into the garden this autumn. With the rest, sow seed into trays filled with moist seed compost, growing individual plants on in pots until there’s space to move them into their permanent positions. With a few, (as mentioned above) you can even broadcast the seed into borders or onto pebble pathways; not as reliable a method of propagation, but one that introduces a welcome element of chance and the possibility of some exciting and surprising plant combinations.
But first, a few words of advice … If sowing directly outside into a seedbed, it’s crucial to properly prepare the ground. So dig out any weeds, rake out any stones or other debris, and then make a raised bed, roughly 20 centimetres high. Allow the first flush of weed seedlings to appear, and then hoe on a dry, warm day before raking again. Sow seed sparsely in clearly labelled rows, allowing enough space between the rows for comfortable hoeing. Don’t let the soil dry out. If sowing into pots or trays, cover the compost with grit and then cover with a clear lid or cling-film to preserve moisture (with cling-film, leave enough space for the seedlings to emerge), removing the lid/ cling-film as soon as you spot the first signs of germination. Whether in the ground or in containers, keep seedlings well-watered and take precautions against slugs and snails. Be ruthless, also, when it comes to thinning out overcrowded seedlings; otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of weak, spindly plants that won’t perform as they should.
The results of your labours will be next year’s flower-filled summer garden. That’s something definitely worth a pat or two on the back.