Although August is the month of holidays and high summer, it is also when the garden can start to become a little careworn. Actually this fading tendency tends to be worst at the beginning of the month and as we go towards September – at Longmeadow at least – it seems to pick up pace again. But it is mostly foliage that is tired whereas the intense colours of the late-flowering herbaceous plants like Heleniums, asters and rudbeckias are as vibrant as anything earlier in the year and the tender cannas, bananas, zinnias, dahlias and gladioli really come into their own and hit their magnificent stride.
The late flowering clematis are towers of flower in our Jewel Garden and the warm (albeit increasingly shorter evenings) are made fragrant by the musty scent of the wonderfully opulent giant tobacco plant, nicotiania sylvestris.
The grass borders shift from greens to a wider range of colours including purples and golds and are moving towards their autumnal gold and tawny shades.
The vegetable garden has courgettes, sweetcorn, French and runner beans, lettuce, carrots, beetroot, chard, shallots, onions and the first maincrop potatoes. All the winter brassicas such as kale, cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli are growing fast and must be protected from pigeons and the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies.
In the greenhouse August is the month when chillies, aubergines, melons, and tomatoes have their best fruit and add a state of sunshine to our northern table. Outside autumn-fruiting raspberries take over from the summer ones that quickly draw to an end and at the beginning of the month the blueberries are prolific and by the end the very first apples are ready to harvest although it is the end of September before most of our 62 varieties are really ready.
Hedge-cutting takes up a lot of our time and all the long grass is cut and where necessary reseeded with wild flowers.
One of the features of August on the English Welsh border is the constant and plaintive mewing of young buzzards (buteo buteo) learning to hunt for themselves. Although they have just left the nest and are only a few months old they are full grown but with the aeronautical skills of an ungainly chicken. They often land on the ground with an ungainly thump and then waddle about, catching little bigger than worms and beetles. Gradually they master the skies until by September they can soar high with their parents – which are never far away – and are catching bigger and more evasive prey.
Along side them we see Black Kites, looking especially for carrion although they are good hunters and the best and most valued summer visitor of all, the Hobby (falco subbuteo). This is the size of a kestrel but has the flying skills and appearance of a cross between large swift and an especially elegant and streamlined peregrine falcon. They cruise round the sky above the garden trying to pick off one of the many swallows and house martins which react to their appearance with massed hysteria, bunching and wheeling in a crowd of 40-50 strong to try and distract the Hobby. However their most common food are the dragonflies that they pluck and eat in the air and at dusk they will also comfortably catch bats, such is their incredible acrobatic skill.
What to do in the garden this month:
CUT LONG GRASS
If you have areas of long grass – especially if they are planted with bulbs like daffodils or crocus, they should have been left uncut to at least the beginning of last month to allow flowers to set seed and bulb foliage to die back. But August is a good month to cut a flowering meadow as short as possible. The aim is to expose areas of bare soil so that fallen flower seeds can make contact and germinate.
This might mean hiring a powerful cutter or using a strimmer – although a scythe does the job as well as anything. Once the grass is cut it should all be raked up and put onto the compost heap (making sure that it is throughly dampened with a hose unless it is a very small amount). It is important to remove all cut grass as otherwise it feeds the soil as it decomposes and this will encourage lush regrowth at the expense of the wild flowers and bulbs. However, as long as the grass cuttings are collected, it may be kept mown short right up until winter.
It is safe now to trim hedges in the knowledge that the vast majority of nesting birds have fledged. Summer pruning results in slower, less vigorous regrowth than a winter trim so clip hedges to the height and shape that you wish them to remain for the rest of the year. Start with the sides, making sure that you have a slight ‘batter’ or outward slope from the top to the bottom. This ensures that the lower section is not shaded by the top growth – which is always more bushy as it gets more light – and the hedge remains fully ‘furnished’ right down to the ground.
Finally, cut the top, using a string strung between canes as a guide. Deciduous hedge trimmings can be mown and added to the compost heap and evergreen ones taken to the council green waste.
Dahlias will keep producing new flowers well into autumn as long as they are deadheaded regularly. The easiest way to tell the difference between a spent flower and an emerging bud is by the shape: buds are invariably rounded whereas a spent flower is pointed and cone-shaped. Always cut back to the next side shoot – even if it means taking a long stem – as this will stimulate new flowers and avoid ugly spikes of stem.
And if you do not have dahlias then deadhead anything and everything daily – nothing else is so effective in keeping summer flowers from lasting as long as possible.
Tomatoes are coming up to their prime harvesting period but to extend this and make sure that all the current green tomatoes fully ripen over the coming month or so there are a few things the tomato grower should do now. The first is to strip off the bottom half of the leaves on each plant. This will let in light and air so that the growing fruits get more sun and also he extra ventilation will reduce the risk of disease. This process can be continued weekly until there are no leaves left at all. Reduce the watering unless it is very hot to avoid the fruit splitting but keep up a weekly feed of liquid seaweed or, if you can make it, home-made comfrey feed. Both are ideal for maximising flower and fruit production.
As August progresses semi ripe cuttings taken from current season’s wood that has started to harden off are increasingly available and also increasingly likely to root quickly. In principal it is best to take cuttings in the morning whilst the plant is full of moisture but in practise it is something best done as and when you are minded to do it.
Always choose healthy, strong, straight growth free from any flowers or flower buds. Once you have taken material from the plant and placed it in the polythene bag go and pot them up immediately.
Strip off all lower leaves and side shoots so that only an inch or less of foliage remains. Cut the bare stem to size with a sharp knife or secateurs and bury it in a container of very gritty or sandy compost.
Put this somewhere warm and bright but not on a south-facing windowsill as it may scorch. Water it well and then keep it moist with a daily spray from a hand mister to help stop the leaves drying out before new roots have time to form. You will know that the roots have formed when you see fresh new growth. At that point the cuttings can be removed from the pot and potted on individually before planting out next spring.
MAKING NEW STRAWBERRY PLANTS
After the early strawberries finish fruiting – usually the middle of July – they put their energy into producer new plants via runners. These are long shoots with one or more plantlets spaced along their length. As the plantlets touch the soil the put down roots, establish quickly and so the plant regenerates itself. By pinning them to the soil or onto a pot with compost in it and then separating it from the mother plant these can be harvested as new plants that will have more vigour than the parent and keep your stock replenished and refreshed. I dig up and compost the parent plant after four years as their productivity rapidly declines after this and they often accumulate viruses.
By the end of August the rooted plantlets are ready for planting out into a new bed that has had a generous amount of compost added to it as strawberries are greedy feeders (they should always be planted on soil that has not grown strawberries for at least three years to avoid possible viruses). Space these at least 12 inches apart and ideally twice that to allow for maximum growth and productivity. Keep them well watered and mulch with more compost in autumn.
SOWING AUTUMN SALAD CROPS
Sow hardy salad crops such as ‘Rouge d’hiver’ and ‘Winter Density’ lettuce and Corn Salad, Rocket, Land Cress, Purslane, Mizuna and Mibuna. Make one sowing now for harvesting in October and November and another in a month’s time that will crop in the new year if grown under cover. Either sow them into plugs that can be transplanted as seedlings or sow direct in rows. Thin the seedlings as they emerge and keep them weeded and well-watered.
To avoid woody, leggy plants, lavender should be pruned every year. The best time to do this is as soon as the flowers start to fade, which, depending on the variety, can be any time between midsummer and the end of August. But do not wait for the seed heads to form or the flowers to turn brown as you want to allow the maximum amount of time for regrowth before winter.
Cut back hard to a good compact shape but be sure to leave some new shoots on each stem – lavender will often not regrow from bare wood. These new shoots will grow fast and provide an attractive and healthy cover to protect the plant in winter and provide the basis of next year’s display.
Growing your favourite plants from seed is easy and practically without cost. Not only will this give you dozens of free plants for future years but also spares to give or swap with friends and family and August is the time to begin collecting seed from your garden.
Use brown paper envelopes – A5 is the idea size – and either carefully cut the seed heads and upend them into the envelopes, seed head and all or else place the envelop over the seed head, seal it and then snip the stem off and store it upside down. Label each envelope clearly with the date, name of the plant and, ideally, the position in the garden, and store them in a cool, dry place.
After a week or two the seeds should be dry and can them be sieved, cleaned and stored in sealed packets. For longer term storage a plastic tub with a tight lid stored in the fridge is ideal.
WATERING CAMELLIAS, AZALEAS AND RHODODENDRONS
Camellias, Azaleas and rhododendrons form their flower buds in late summer and autumn. In other words the display that they give you next Spring is largely determined over the coming weeks. If they are too dry the buds will not form properly and those that are made quite often subsequently drop off in the spring before flowering as a result of dehydration the previous autumn. So give them a good soak – with rainwater if at all possible – especially if they are growing in a container, and do so each week for the next couple of months.