Wandering through Hampton Court Flower Show earlier this summer, I was distracted by the strong smell of honey. Up until that moment I'd been carefully following the elaborate showground map to find my way to a friend's stall – but, in a Winnie-the-Pooh way, I felt compelled to follow the delicious sugary scent.
Sniffing away loudly, I passed three gold-badge-wearing judges in deep consultation, and slipped by the editor of the RHS magazine The Garden, who was perusing clematis. Where was that smell coming from? The perfume was maddeningly tempting. I doubled back, thinking it was stronger by the clematis. At last I found my answer: a whole stall's worth of trolleys, all loaded with phlox.
Now, phlox is not a plant I'm well acquainted with. Maybe I've avoided it because of its strong association with mildew, a disease to which it has traditionally been prone. (Also, phlox is an unfortunate Latin name. It makes it sound like a trademarked chemical. Athlete's foot powder, maybe? Phlox Your Socks Today.)
But the reality is a substantial plant that still feels dainty, even at more than a metre tall; the fantastic scent; and best of all, bright flowers in a range from white to lilac to deep pink, which keep on flowering. And keep on, and keep on. In fact, since I saw them at Hampton Court at the start of July, phlox have been flowering continuously, conspicuously failing to tire in the normal fashion of late-summer planting. A very persistent plant, as well as a nice-smelling one.
The particularly good show this year may be down to the weather (they tend to suffer less from mildew when they are better watered, and there've been a fair few downpours). But even in a bog-standard year, these are hard-working plants that deserve to come back into fashion. You'll find them on sale in garden centres, but one of the best lists belongs to Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants in Hampshire. It has an especially good selection of the very bright colours, such as "Flame Pink" and "Starfire", both £3.50 (hardys-plants.co.uk).
Phlox are traditional plants, and they look very sweet alongside other cottage favourites. My local park-keeper has them in his garden alongside pretty Cosmos daisies and white Anemones, all holding their flowers high above frothy foliage. But you don't have to grow tall varieties – there is also an impressive range of dwarf types, such as Phlox paniculata "Flame Mixed", which comes as six "jumbo" plug plants from Thompson & Morgan, delivered by September, for £14.99. (And again, these have excellent mildew resistance.)
Make sure you plant them somewhere that can remain a little damp: avoid parched-earth bits of the garden and instead plump for a corner that's sunny mornings or evenings, not both. Add a bit of organic matter such as rotted compost to keep the soil moist, and water well. Then just sit back and enjoy the utterly delectable smell of honey. Mmm.
1. For the truly tasteful
Phlox paniculata "David". A beautiful white phlox, strong-growing and highly perfumed. Will flower until November and shrugs off mildew
2. For the old-fashioned cottage gardener
Phlox paniculata "Franz Schubert". Gorgeous tall bushy growth with big bunches of lilac-pink flowers that look as though they're straight off 1980s chintz curtains.
3. For the summertime blues
Phlox paniculata "Amethyst". A delicious bluey-purple. Looks lovely with salvias or veronicastrums, other long-life summer bloomers. All three phlox are £7.99, crocus.co.uk
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