Between the exuberance of early summer and the calm of the autumn there can often be something of a slump in the garden. The key to avoiding that mid-July to end of August tired and washed-out look is forward planning. One of the best ways to put some sparkle back into the garden is with summer-flowering bulbs, tubers and corms, all of which need to be planted now.
Lilies and Dahlias, both available in a wide range of colours and sizes, are common standards for high summer, but there are many more tubers, corms and bulbs that will add pizzazz to the summer garden. Most of these are South-African natives, and need rich soil that is very well drained. If your garden is heavy clay, dig lots of horticultural grit into the area where you are planting the bulbs. Nurseries and garden centres are full of summer-flowering bulbs at the moment but, before you buy, check that they are fat and firm. Steer clear of desiccated, dried up bulbs and those that are squashy or soft.
Summer-flowering bulbs are easy, trouble-free plants to grow. Some bulbs can be left in the garden for years, others are tender and will not survive British winters. It is possible to lift the tender ones in the autumn, and store them away, protected from mice and frosts until the following year. But bulbs are very cheap, so I avoid this palaver and treat most tender bulbs as annuals, buying fresh ones each year. Hardiness is dependent on where you live. In the south-west all of these bulbs will survive the winter; in the north-east probably only the crocosmia will. Don’t be stingy with the numbers you plant. Even in a small garden, it is much more impressive to have a couple of dozen of the same bulb rather than a collection of lonely individuals.
There are summer-flowering bulbs to fit whatever style of garden you have: flamboyant Gladioli and crocosmias, elegant Galtonias and Crinums, exotic Eucomis, and cottage-garden anemones and nerines.
Gladioli are much maligned plants, probably because they are usually seen trussed up in the regimented rows of unimaginative municipal planting schemes. While the large, blousy blooms favoured by Edna Everage are difficult to use in the garden, there are smaller, more delicate cultivars that are at home in relaxed, natural planting schemes. Planting them closely together, about 10cm deep, amongst shorter plants will help limit their tendency to flop over. I grow the dark red G. ‘Black Jack’ through a silver-leaved artemisia: the two look great together and the artemisia helps support the tall glodiolus.
Gladioli are available in almost any colour you can think of, from subtle pastels to the hottest reds and oranges. Planted now and at weekly intervals until the end of May they will flower from June through to the end of September. Amongst shorter ones, I grow Gladiolus ‘Flevo Laguna’ (80cm tall), which has bright chartreuse yellow flowers with a purple edge. A gorgeous plant, but its colours are not for the faint-hearted. Much more restrained is Gladiolus calianthus: its drooping maroon-centred white flowers don’t even look like a classic gladiolus, and it has the bonus of being sweetly scented.
Crocosmias have the same fiery presence as gladioli. The common bright-orange Crocosmia x crosmiflora forms an untidy mass of sagging foliage and short-lived flowers. Modern hybrids are much more upright and will flower throughout the summer and into October. C. ‘Emily MacKenzie’ has soft orange flowers with a red centre and bronze buds. The largest flowers (soft apricot with a paler centre) are on C. ‘Star of the East’.
If the boldness of Gladioli and Crocomias are too overwhelming for your garden, plant Galtonia candicans. Its 90cm tall flowers are like an elongated hyacinth with white waxy bells. The fresh green foliage and the whiteness of the flowers are a combination redolent of Spring and bring a freshness to the garden in summer that few other plants do. There is a pale-green-flowered form, G. viridiflora.
The dangling white trumpets of Crinum powellii ‘Album’ have a similar simplicity and, if you get your nose close to the flower, a spicy perfume. The species, C. powelli is pale pink. Both forms have long tatty leaves, so it is best planted behind other plants, to hide it messiness The bulbs are amongst the biggest you will see, up to 20cm tall, and should be planted with their tips at soil level. In the wild they thrive in dried up river beds, and so will tolerate poor drainage
For an exotic look plant the pineapple flower, Eucomis bicolor. At home with cannas, gingers and bananas its fat stems are covered with clusters of green and cream flowers resembling, as its common name suggests, a pineapple. The flower is topped by a cluster of leaves that might have inspired Bart Simpson’s hairstyle. A modern hybrid, Eucomis ‘Zeal Bronze’, has glossy chocolate-coloured leaves and dark maroon flowers. Both grow to about 50cm tall, but E. pole-evansii will reach about 1.2, making it a very spectacular plant. Eucomis have the advantage of needing none of the mollycoddling that other tropical-looking plants do, and are hardy in well-drained soil.
Anemone coronaria are much more at home in cottage-style gardens. They are widely grown by the cut-flower industry for romantic raffia-tied posies. The most widely-grown cultivar is the dark blue A. coronaria ‘Mr Fokker’. I also grow a much more understated cultivar, A. coronaria ‘The Bride, which has white-with-a-hint-of-green flowers. The bulbs look like fossilised prunes and should be soaked overnight in tepid water before you plant them.
Nerine bowdenii takes the colours of summer into the muted tones of Autumn. Their bright-pink flowers cluster at the top of leafless stems. To thrive, the bulbs need to be planted in the hottest, driest place you can find and, once established, will grow into large colonies. Most other species of Nerine need to be grown in pots and over-wintered in a greenhouse, but cultivars of N bowdenii are hardy. I find the pale pink, almost white, form, N. bowdenii ‘Albivetta’, very vigorous and robust.