how to get summer colours in an autumn garden

How to get summer colours in an autumn gardenHere’s a useful exercise: walk around your garden today and make a note of what’s in flower and still looking good. Then try to think back to when those plants started flowering. Are there some stalwarts, which have been doing their stuff since June? If so, make a note of what they are.

Especially when we get a long, late autumn, certain plants guarantee you a garden that’s still punchy and abundant until winter sets in. If they also look good all summer, then you get double value. The stormers in my garden this year are argyranthemums, pelargoniums (the zonal and ivy-leaved types), and an odd form of sweet william.

I have walked past trays of argyranthemums in garden centres time after time, turning up my nose up at their compact habit and uptight flower form. Then, in spring 2012, a friend gave me a plant of the deep carmine argyranthemum 'Cherry Red', much more interesting than the widely grown white, which is often trained as a standard.

He had 'Cherry Red’ planted with lavender 'Hidcote Blue' (small enough to be brilliant for pots), and the large-flowered gentian Anagallis monellii (blue pimpernel). All three were in a huge copper at the centre of his courtyard garden. He said the argyranthemum had been in flower for four months and he’d successfully taken lots of cuttings, which had rooted easily. It looked magnificent on that scale, a dome of velvet-textured daisies set against their highly cut and feathery grey-green leaves, but I wanted to put 'Cherry Red’ to the test in a more average-sized pot and see if it still held its own.

I planted it this year with a new nasturtium – 'Cherry Rose'. The flowers of the argyranthemum were great against the lushness of the nasturtium foliage and the pair has been in flower since late May, starting off in a sea of 'Purple Sensation' alliums. The vigour of the nasturtium was in danger of taking over the argyranthemum without a fortnightly clip, but I liked the contrast between the argyranthemum’s deep pink flowers and nasturtium’s coral-pink-orange. But here’s the point: the nasturtium looked wretched by the end of August, feasted on by the plant-munching proliferation of cabbage white caterpillars we’ve all had this season. In the end, we took them out, but to this day, 'Cherry Red’ still looks pristine.

In another pot I’ve combined it with the compact cosmos 'Antiquity', with flowers like a faded tapestry as they age. This has also been a success and both are still looking fresh as a daisy this morning, but the combination is almost too harmonious and perfectly matched: both plants have similar daisy flowers in a practically identical colour and form. Next year, the blue pimpernel would be a good addition for a bit of colour contrast.

Star performer

I’ve also had Argyranthemum 'Crested Merlot' in a pot on its own here, too, and I have found it useful for picking. It lasts well and is ideal for small vases, mixed with the ever-performing dianthus 'Green Trick'. This sweet william relative is perennial, its typical dianthus leaves topped by fuzzy balls of bright apple green, all flower bract, no petal. And it never seems to go over, looking good here since June, even though I’ve picked it hard.

That’s another star performer not enough of us grow. It’s a newish plant I first saw in a vast polytunnel at its breeders in Holland and I’ve been dying to get my hands on it.

For softer colours, I’ve also got Argyranthemum 'Reflection Pink' with the excellent alpine, Artemisia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound’ (AGM). 'Reflection Pink’ has the largest flowers in its family, like Catherine wheels, reminiscent of a soft and beautiful pink marigold. The artemisia gives a silvery brightness and velvety softness as a background to the pink and both plants are compact enough to be ideal for pots. The daisy still looks vigorous and pristine, as if it has weeks, if not months, of performance left to give, and the artemisia is evergreen.

I have high hopes that, brought inside, this pot will still look good at Christmas. This is a definite repeater for next year.

Prize pelargoniums

As the night temperatures fall, I’m thinking more about plants for inside, and you have to give the often-sneered-at zonal and ivy-leaved pelargoniums a chance. The searing fuchsia pink zonal 'Aurora’ has not stopped flowering for a moment on my kitchen window-ledge. I left one plant unshorn in the early spring and wish I’d done that with the lot. This plant is now huge and bushy, covered head to toe in flowers, so much so that I’ve put it in pride of place on my shepherd’s hut steps for all to admire until it gets too chilly. It’s in full flower now, but it was also flowering — admittedly a little less so — not just in June, but in January.

'Aurora’ is, in my view, the nicest of the zonal pelargoniums, but I’m also mad for a couple of ivy-leaved varieties for their petal colour and texture, as well as their length of flowering. Try 'Surcouf', in a similarly brilliant pink to 'Aurora’, and its crimson cousin, 'April Hamilton'. Both flower later than 'Aurora’ but continue until well after Christmas.

These are both brilliant as table centres in a room with decent light, with their trailing flower stems spread out like velvet tresses over the top of the table. 'Surcouf’ is so bright that it is best on its own, whereas the richness of 'April Hamilton’ is good with a contrast – try the sky blue Convolvulus mauritanicus.

With both, you can install them in the middle of the table and use them as a centrepiece for your own version of harvest festival with pumpkins and squash scattered in between. It will look just as good in a few weeks’ time for Hallowe’en or Guy Fawkes night. For Christmas, you can remove the pumpkins and scatter baubles instead.