This breast-beating is bad for morale. I need to find other culprits. It's partly August's own fault. It is crazy to come straight after July, when we are so often away from home for weeks. And I blame the weather, but only because everyone always does. It hasn't really been at fault, although it was dry when I was sowing seed and germination has been poor.
Then the accursed rabbits ate two successive plantings of runner beans. That problem, I hope, will eventually be solved by Joshua, a black and white kitten who joined the workforce two weeks ago. The children have been feeding him rabbit-flavoured cat food to put him in the mood.
But Joshua isn't shaping up as a hunter. He acts very fierce with feet, when you come down for an early-morning cup of coffee, but outside the house he flees even from flies. The bed by the Aga was a mistake. It has made him picky about being out of doors, even though he was born on a farm.
Weeds are my biggest problem, particularly bindweed. It is throttling the raspberries, and has buried the potatoes and the two new fan-trained pear trees. We cleared a short section of the potato patch. Under the bindweed, two toads, a frog, a slow worm and four long-nosed shrews had been enjoying its cool canopy. I abandoned that job, not wanting to disturb any more squatters, and started to cut back plants on the bank. A flail of shears and secateurs exploded with the ill temper born of guilt. You can hear that irritating admonition echoing down from childhood: 'You've got no one to blame but yourself.'
Another problem of the August garden is that so many plants are reaching the end of their tether. Many of the ground-covering geraniums are at their floppy worst and need hard cropping. Geranium psilostemon, which I have too much of (it self seeds profusely), is splayed all over its neighbours; cutting it back reduces it to a more manageable clump of new leaves, already growing from the centre.
'Johnson's Blue', 'Mrs Kendall Clarke' and others of that kind also need attacking; as does alchemilla, which has changed its brilliant acid yellow tint for a tired khaki. Last year I used it to line one of the paths up the bank, setting the plants about a foot back from the path edge. It was not enough: in the past six weeks, the path has gradually disappeared.
At first, this seemed romantic, though damp round the ankles. Then it became mildly irritating as the dampness turned to a wet swishing round the calves. (You trip over stems and spill coffee down your front.) Now I am ready to tip weedkiller over the lot; secateurs at least saved the alchemilla from that. Angelica too was well past its sell-by date, moving, during our holiday, from the statuesque to the seedy. It has now been hauled, upright but decayed, to the bonfire, sprinkling little time-bombs as it went. Will I remember next spring, how hateful angelica is in August? Will I once again allow too many seedlings to hang on to their borrowed homes to the detriment of neighbouring plants? I expect so.
Cutting back hard helps the look of an August garden enormously. It restores form to geraniums, alchemilla and catmint, and resuscitates plants that have been too heavily overlaid, or invaded, by neighbours. Buddleia 'Lochinch' should be at its best this month, with fresh plumes of lavender-coloured flowers set off by grey leaves. Mine had been spoilt by an 'Ispahan' rose that had flopped into it; now, the rose has been severely reduced and the buddleia can move freely in the wind.
The 'American Pillar' rose which I have not been severe enough with in the past, also received tough treatment. It is a vigorous rambler and, because it is growing on a window- less west wall of the house, it has been left too much to its own devices. Bred in the United States in 1909, it is no longer fashionable. The pink of its flower is considered too bright, the growth too coarse; but it is a tolerant plant, and one of the few we inherited from our predecessors, so it stays.
I had been too tentative with it, though; it requires to be cut back hard each year. Now the stems that had stretched 30ft and tangled at attic level, are bonfire fodder. The single new shoot looks lonely on the long, high wall, but there would have been more if I had been tougher earlier.
All this cutting, weeding and tieing-in is the garden's equivalent of housework: when it is done, the effect is much the same as vacuuming a carpet strewn with the weekend mulch of crumb, mud and dog hair. But dissatisfaction may stem from more basic defects. Perhaps there is not enough going on in the garden throughout the year. I wondered whether I had pushed in too much stuff to perform in the first six months, to the detriment of a display in the second.
Overall, I think not, but the August effects need to be expanded. More annuals, which are at their peak now, are required. The cornflowers I sowed directly into a border on 4 May are good, but three times too few; and I should have put twiggy sticks between them earlier, rather than trying, rather unsuccessfully, to prop them up now; in a cornfield they can lean against their hosts' rigid stems. If you sow cornflower seed directly into the ground in September, plants come on stream earlier in the season, and can flower from May. But my garden is busy enough then, so I will stick to the relatively late sowing for an August display.
An annual anchusa for the same border - 'Dawn Mixed' (Thompson & Morgan, 99p) - is a disaster: a muddy mixture of blue, pasty pink and dirty white on a squat and over-leafed plant. On the other hand, the annual phlox, recovering heroically from its May rabbit attack, is brilliant. I must have more of this, too, next August to fill in around blue Salvia patens, indigo Lobelia syphilitica and grey Euphorbia myrsinites. I used Phlox drummondii 'Hazy Days' (Dobies 65p).
Perennial herbaceous phloxes, once the mainstay of an early August garden, can be problematic. Eelworm is the cause. Plants become stunted, then die. You must start with disease-free stock, which is easier said than done. Phlox maculata varieties generally are cleaner than forms of the more common Phlox paniculata. Annual phlox gives the same brilliant range of colours, though not the height or bulk.
Annuals and tender perennials made up the bulk of the planting in the superb, formal beds at Kingston Maurward, near Dorchester in Dorset, which I visited this week. It is open daily (1pm-5pm), admission pounds 1. Verbenas, diascias, felicias and argyranthemums were combined with the striking annual Salvia superba and pale acid yellow snapdragons. The yellow was what kicked the beds into orbit; a sleepy mixture of grey, pink and white is far more usual.
The other necessity for a bold August garden is hydrangeas, though they are the quickest of shrubs to flop in a drought. They need rich, damp ground, and not all varieties grow well. I am disappointed in Hydrangea arborescens 'Grandiflora', whose habit is lax and droopy with greenish white flowers in rounded heads: not at all grand. I am wondering if thinning out the stems more ruthlessly might help.
It is odd how telepathic plants are in this respect. If threatened with the chop after a long period of unsatisfactory behaviour, they suddenly flower or fruit or colour - or whatever else you had been waiting for - then stop again. But that one glimpse of glory is enough to get you hooked again, and thus the delinquent gains a stay of execution.
So 'Grandiflora', you have been warned. I understand that a newer, better variety called 'Annabelle' - raised in the town of Anna, Illinois - has stronger stems and larger flower heads. Perhaps the threat of a new competitor will rouse my present hydrangea from its
Some plants never disappoint. Hydrangea villosa is as glorious as ever, with velvety long leaves, tall elegant habit, rich lace-cap flower heads, and an overall deep mauve effect. The sight of it, when I got back from holiday, was the only thing that stopped me putting in for an immediate transfer as football correspondent.Reuse content