Late summer bloomers

Plants that bring a burst of colour to gardens as autumn approaches, writes JANE POWERS

Plants that bring a burst of colour to gardens as autumn approaches, writes JANE POWERS

IT’S HARD NOT to feel slightly cheated as another indifferent summer slips into its latter half, and we’ve suffered through the usual mix of grey skies and rain, with the odd smattering of sunshine and heat. But this is Ireland, a morsel of land marooned off the west coast of Europe, where the Atlantic ocean has the main say in what happens here. Unpredictability, with a leaning towards the grey side, is our lot. However, this same ocean, with its ameliorating effect on the temperature, often gives us an extended summer (or what passes for it) and autumn.

This means that there is at least another two months’ worth of cheer left in the garden. In other words, while brightness may be lacking in our skies, we can make up for this deficit with some late-performing plants in our beds and borders.

One of the best books on this subject has just come out in a paperback edition: Marina Christopher’s Late Summer Flowers (Frances Lincoln, £16.99/€19.50). First published five years ago, it is still completely relevant today, aside from one or two name changes: the foxglove family, for instance, which used to enjoy the delightfully mediaeval name of Scrophulariaceae (because some of its members were supposed to cure scrofula) has since changed its name to Plantaginaceae. But as plant nomenclature is almost as changeable as the Irish weather, many gardening books are bedevilled by this problem.


Marina Christopher classes late summer flowers not just as those that bloom now, but also those that have flowered earlier and are currently sporting showy seed heads (such as the football-sized Allium cristophii), and those that have a pleasing architectural silhouette (such as teasel). Like all good, thinking gardeners, she is as happy to celebrate a plant’s senescence as its glory days.

Still, she cautions that it is nearly impossible to create a border that is beautiful in all seasons. For those who have the space (and many country gardeners do – unlike we townies), dedicating an area to late flowers is the best plan, especially if it can be situated where the last rays of the evening sun shine through it and tinge the plants with fire.

Many of the plants that flower late are north American prairie plants: perennial sunflowers, echinacea, and Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium). These bloom at the end of the season because they face much competition in their native habitat, where it takes months for them to build up the energy to flower. Other plants come from extremely cold regions in Canada, and from the northern former Soviet territories where the ground takes a long time to warm up. Still others include the late-flowering grasses, among them the Chinese Miscanthus sinensis which has spawned hundreds of covetable cultivars.

The author describes a great number of plant species and varieties (from the spiny Acanthus to the very poisonous Zigadenus – an efficient deer and rabbit repellent) suitable for late gardens. These are gathered in the 100-page plant directory in the second half of the book This is invaluable to anyone planning a late summer and autumn display. But, the first part of the book should not be skimmed over, as it explains the business of what plants need, and how they should be managed. Matters under discussion include soil type, drainage, propagation, and how to create an ecologically-balanced habitat where beneficial insects help to make a healthy environment.

Marina Christopher is a botanist, as well as a nursery woman (at Phoenix Perennial Plants in Hampshire). She dispenses her scientific knowledge in a palatable manner, so that the facts regarding why plants do what they do are both interesting and easily digested.

All of this helps us to understand what is some of the most practical information in this book: ways of extending the season, other than by just planting late bloomers. The aim of almost every flowering plant is to reproduce itself by seed. As soon as it has made enough viable seed, the plant stops producing flowers. Therefore, deadheading, which thwarts a plant’s attempts to make seed, is the most obvious way of keeping it in bloom. Other methods include selective pruning, successional sowing, using short-lived perennials as annuals, and disbudding. The results, though, says Christopher, may not always be as you expect or hope, depending on the weather and other variables. This kind of honesty is reassuring and appealing.

One of the best late summer and autumn gardens in Ireland, incidentally, is behind the barn at The Bay Garden, in Camolin, Co Wexford ( where Iain MacDonald has gathered together a vibrant and interesting community of late perennials and grasses. It is a large area, more spacious than most people’s gardens, but its maintenance is minimal: the whole lot is cut to the ground annually with a hedge clippers, and the debris is thrown onto the compost heap.

Six perennials for late colour

Actaea simplex 'Brunette'

Anemone 'Honorine Jobert'

Aster 'Little Carlow'

Helenium 'Moerheim Beauty'

Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus'

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'


Today, Saturday August 13th, 2-5.30pm

South County Dublin Horticultural Society summer show at Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Hall, Marine Road, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin