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  • Sue

August in a French garden

It's August - usually hot and dry and the month that is traditionally seen as the French holidays. However - there are still things that you can be getting on with in the garden.

The basic garden tasks for this time of year remain unchanged;

Water and feed pot plants when you can,

Dead head annual flowers to keep them going for as long as possible,

Keep on top of weeds as they set seed with incredible speed in the dry days of late summer. Pick the summer abundance of plums, raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes, chillies, beans, etc.......

But for August's To-Do List this year, I thought I would look more closely at another aspect of this month in a French garden - it is the tipping point of the year, when the garden stops getting fuller and greener and begins to go "tobacco-y" and desiccated. Suddenly the structural value of grasses and seed heads begins to dominate. And you need to cut back spent plants appropriately to take advantage of this.

Major renovations taking place in one of our borders as two huge phlomis plants are removed.

My own routine is as follows

First I cut back the stems and leaves of bearded irises (if I have not already done it in July). Once you have done this you can clear away dead leaves and weeds which have been hiding around the rhizomes (big fleshy tubers the leaves sprout from) and scrape away any soil which may be covering them. The tops of bearded iris rhizomes need to be exposed to the sun now if the plant is to flower well next year. As bearded irises are summer dormant now is the ideal time to divide them. You should do this about every 4 years - or when they become overcrowded. Space the tubers out more generously, enriching the earth under ones you are replanting in the same place. It is also the ideal time to give away surplus iris rhizomes to friends. Full details are available here:

Bearded iris which have become congested. They have been cut back and will be lifted, divided and then either replanted or given away.

Then I turn to euphorbias. Those beautiful acid yellow or orange red flower heads are now brown and on hot days you will have heard the seed heads popping as they scatter seeds far and wide. They need to be cut off from the base to allow the new young stems to look their best. But take care, all euphorbias exude a sticky white sap which is toxic. If it gets onto your skin it can cause blisters and if you should be unfortunate enough to get it in your eye you will most likely end up in Urgence (A&E in English). Always wear gloves and long sleeved shirts when tackling your euphorbia flower heads.

The brown seedheads of Euphorbia characias which will be carefully cut out

By this time of year our Acanthus mollis leaves are also turning brown and spotty so I pull them away, leaving the tall flower spikes still standing. These are now lovely in their own right, but are also developing black bean-like seeds which can be planted now to grow new plants. Just pop about a seed (or two) in the middle of a small pot filled with decent compost, keep it moist and within a few weeks you should have tiny sprouting leaves. Acanthus have tap roots and do not enjoy being disturbed, so one young plant per pot is ideal - if both seeds germinate, pull out the weaker one. Then, when the young plant is big enough, transplant it straight into the garden and voila - a large, architectural plant will soon be yours for virtually nothing. Once the seed heads are over - later in the autumn - they can of course be removed and composted.

Acanthus mollis flowers die to reveal beautiful capsules containing shiny brown seeds - which easily germinate if pushed into a small pot of compost.

I also removed the flowers of Stachys lanata (Lambs lugs) so that the lovely silver, felty leaves can look their best - which they continue to do for the rest of the year if you are on dry ground.

Lavender can be cut back at the end of the month - but do not cut into the old, leafless wood as the lavender will not regrow. Aim for grey balls of lavender, cut as compactly as you dare because it is a plant which quickly runs to legginess after a few years unless it is very tightly managed.

Remove any other dead or decaying leaves and flowers - making sure that you keep architectural seed heads in place - both for birds to eat and for you to enjoy. Compost what you can so that you can return all of that spent growth back into the ground next year.

At this point the garden may start to look a bit unbalanced - you can see what has done well this year and what is struggling. There will be gaps and there will be invaders. In our garden we have two large, overgrown Phlomis fruticosa shrubs (Jerusalem sage) which dominate the border to the detriment of more attractive plants. I don't particularly like the yellow flowers which clash with the rest of that particular border's colour scheme - so they will be cut back too and, once I have got them down to a manageable size, I will dig them out completely and enrich the soil they were growing in by adding plenty of home made compost and/or well rotted manure. The gaps they leave will be replanted in the autumn.

All of this cutting back exposes areas of bare earth - so you can tackle any weeds which have been happily establishing themselves undercover all summer. The cleared ground also allows tiny cyclamen hederifolium to reveal their flowers (ours send up their first flowers in August - and to me this is the first signal that summer is disappearing fast). They are followed in September by colchicums (autumn crocuses) and yellow flowered stenbergia lutea, which is not a crocus but is a member of the daffodil family.

Finally - once you can see what areas of your borders have been laid bare by your August cut backs you are ideally placed to carry out any autumn planting of spring flowering bulbs and perennial plants for next year. And so the seasons roll on from one year to the next......

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