I hate August. Or rather, I hate August in the garden. I think it's because for so long I was somewhere else and didn't have to face it. When I was a child, we spent the whole summer in what would now be called a "shepherd's hut", in a cornfield that ran up to the edge of a cliff in Pembrokeshire. We called it a roadman's van. It had bunks at either end and a wooden ladder up to the door. My mother adored it and so did my brother and I. It was just slightly more secure than a tent, but equally liberating.
For 14 years we took our own three girls to Pembrokeshire, until they discovered the idea of going abroad. Then we did a sequence of summer holidays planned around Mediterranean sailing schools. This meant that every night the girls could go to a beach barbecue arranged by the school, fall madly in love with their sailing instructors and be saved from the public embarrassment of eating with their parents at the taverna on the quayside.
When we were no longer subject to the tyranny of school holidays, I started to go to a rented cottage on the west coast of Scotland in August, usually to work on a book. Now I go in October, when the rowans flare out brilliant red against the grey rock, and the flat faces of the boulders are smeared like an artist's palette with encrusted lichens in tawny brown, orange, silver and pewter.
Unfortunately it means that there's no longer any escape from what's going on here at home this month. I remember writing (and it was quite recently) about gardening not necessarily being about control. But that was in June, when all seemed dreamy and just about manageable. Now the verbascums, once as upright and stately as any grand duke, are lolling drunkenly in all directions, having snapped their stakes in the wind that seemed to blow non-stop last month. Underneath, a few hopeful violas are still trying to claim their right to the space at the front of the border.
And the foxgloves! I loved them at first, especially the apricot-coloured ones that are still self-seeding from a crop I initially grew eight years ago. The self-seeding happens very readily if you mulch with your own compost, as I sometimes do. Homemade compost is full of seed, but when they sprout, you usually find there are more of the things you don't want than the things you do.
Anyway, the foxgloves were fantastic. Now, in August, they – like the verbascums – are falling about all over their neighbours. They have a surprisingly small amount of root for a plant that can be more than two metres tall, and the dry weather made them more than usually unstable. I want the seed to ripen and cast itself around; but on the other hand, looking at the mess unnerves me. So I've pulled them up, cut off the stems just beneath the first seedpods, and hung them upside down in the shed, with a paper bag tied round the stems to catch the ripe seed. Later, I'll scatter it around at the back of the flower garden.
I've done the same with the opium poppies, which came up this year in a superb array of colours. But now, though most of the round, pewter-coloured seedheads are still splendid, the foliage has died off and hangs from the stems in drab rags the colour of dishcloths. In a posh garden, they'd go around stripping off the hideous leaves and leaving the seedheads. But we're not posh – and I haven't the time. So I've yanked out the most prominent poppies and hope that they, too, will shed their seed into the paper bags tied around their heads.
But getting rid of those two eyesores scarcely touched the problem. Parsley has flung itself madly up to seed. Courgettes have swept off the course I had planned for them and are plunging in among the sweetcorn.
I cut the flowerheads off the parsley quite quickly, because by doing so, you can persuade the crop to limp on a bit longer, producing fresh leaf. I need it to: the new supply, sown in June, is not yet robust enough to face the scissors.
But what about the rose, trained against the wall of the house? New growths are whipping out wildly over the terrace, shouting "Yah boo sucks!" at me and catching in my hair. "Compassion" it's called, an apricot-coloured climber, bred in the Seventies. Compassion? It's got about as much compassion as a drone missile. That rose requires ladder work, which I'm not very keen on. Or perhaps it requires a saw. At the base. So the whole thing would screech to a sudden halt and serve it right.
Snakes of wisteria have now wound their way underneath the guttering and into the roof. Sometimes I can get at those from the upstairs windows, or from the attic. The growths there go on growing, but they are white with lack of light, pushing their way hopefully past old leather suitcases that I can't bear to throw away (but can't bear to hump through an airport, either). The wisteria has to be dealt with every summer, but I always forget. Fortunately, what isn't cut back now can be tackled next February, when the list of jobs-to-do is shorter.
One of the problems of the August garden is that so many things are reaching the end of their tether. Many of the ground-covering geraniums are now at their floppy worst and need hard cropping. So I'm about to explode into a barrage of clipping and shearing with the ill temper born of guilt. You can hear that maddening admonition echoing down from childhood: "You've got nobody to blame but yourself."
And it's true. I have a cavalier attitude to staking and a tendency to allow plants their heads. I also made an over-optimistic estimate of the amount of ground I could keep under cultivation. But nemesis awaits – and at the top of the bank, I am building a very big bonfire and, when the wind is in the right direction, I shall set fire to it and dance with joy around the burning pyre. Meanwhile, battle with a very large Cornus mas looms. Wish me luck.
WHAT TO DO
* Many of the traditional summer jobs such as planting out broccoli and other greens have been difficult as the ground is so hard. Now the plants are likely to be of a size where it's now or never.
* Baby beet, French beans, carrots and courgettes all need harvesting regularly. All are better young than mature. Globe artichokes planted as slips this May should be cropping well now.
* Deadhead flowers frequently. This will stop them wasting energy and moisture on producing seed. Deadheading petunias is an unpleasantly sticky task, cleaning up violas far more pleasing.
* Nasturtiums may need more than deadheading. Blackfly have been abominably abundant and predators are obviously stretched out on deckchairs rather than gobbling up pests. Wash them off with a hard squirt from a water hose.
WHAT TO SEE
* Tomorrow (10.30am-4.30pm) there's a specialist plant sale at Renishaw Hall, near Sheffield, and a tour of the vineyard (11am) with winemaker Kieran Atkinson. On 23 August, Renishaw hosts a food and crafts fair with more than 20 local producers. Admission to the garden is £6.50. For more information, visit renishaw-hall.co.ukReuse content