High Summer Colour

31 July 2017

It seems counter-intuitive to say that we want for colour in mid-summer - when the sun is high and the days long.  What about phlox, delphiniums, dahlias?  Billowy, blousy domes of brightness, stalwarts of the suburban garden and loved by British gardeners for centuries.  Surely they hold the cure.  But how to plant for high summer, without reverting to these favourites, how to create contemporary looking borders for July and August, is a harder task altogether.

Recent trends in garden design suit Spring and early Summer, especially Autumn, incredibly well.  The ‘New Perennials Movement’, that continues to sweep the continent, emphasises late perennials and grasses: Eupatorium, Rudbeckia and Calamagrostis are all favourites of these Dutch Old Masters.  But there still always seems to be a slight gap in interest, like an anomalous drop on a line graph, in July and August, and it coincides with the time when (in England atleast) we’re outside the most. 

Good structure is not the problem here, we have the green backdrop, the foliage, the bones of the garden are as fully formed as they will be all year.  What we need is colour, drama, petalled plates of pink, blue thistley globes and scorching yellow spires.  Blocks of Solidago ‘Goldenmosa’, most beautiful before it has fully flowered, will provide hot punch through the summer, too bright for some but soft enough in structure to sit lightly in the border.  A favourite of Vita Sackville-West and so always worthy of a mention.  The bending bowers of Crocosmia, especially ‘Lucifer’, can add a similar level of visual heat and textural variation.

Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Arnhem’ is a subtler choice, beads of deep rose hovering on the upper levels of a planting scheme.  It will start flowering in June and continue through to August.  One of our studio favourites, Achillea - especially ‘Taygetea’ and ‘Terracotta’ - provides broad plates of colour, the pigment shifting beautifully through the season.  Most will flower all summer long, and stay tall in winter for sharp frosty mornings.  The Aster family is also not to be forgotten, we like Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’ planted in broad clumps for summer purples that last.  An Aster cousin, Parthenium integrifolium, with its glossy leaves and delicate white flowers would work well in combination, backed perhaps by the tall, branching and elegant Sphaeralcea 'Newleaze Coral', discovered on a recent trip to Sissinghurst.  Its fine, dusky coral flowers and fringed silver foliage work so well with soft purples and whites.  Perhaps all-summer colour needn’t be so shouty after all.  And if you really love a dahlia, and there’s every reason to, try something like Dahlia x cosmos ‘Mexican Black’ or Dahlia ‘Twyning’s After Eight’.  In other words, keep it simple.

-Elizabeth Tyler