My monthly Fab Five: October

So, mid-October, there is a nip in the air, and the garden is dominated by the slow but steady leaf fall from our neighbours’ lime and hornbeam trees, which cover almost everything in about half of our back garden. Yes, they make a terrible mess and it’s a lot of work clearing them, so nowadays I have kind of given up on having a tidy garden, and I leave the leaves as a mulch on the borders. Human laziness, I tell myself, is good for the insects, grubs and worms, who will enjoy the cover and will work the rotting leaves into the soil, improving its texture.

I’m trying out a new format for my blog this month, here goes…

My monthly Fab Five: five fabulous things in the garden, month by month.

  1. Dahlias

I almost gave up on growing Dahlias last year – in other words, the slugs almost won. They really had a go at my plants, and those that remained didn’t flower so well. I realise now that the slug damage can be minimised by growing them in pots (and perhaps the chickens helped clear them earlier in the year), so I have got three large pots filled with Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff (bright scarlet), Dahlia Bishop’s Children (shades of red and orange, they are a seed strain from Bishop of Llandaff) and Dahlia Catherine Deneuve (a real sultry sunset orange-yellow beauty). I have also been kinder to them this year, keeping them well watered and feeding them with liquid tomato feed when I remember. They’ve paid me back by bringing a mood-lifting zing to a corner of my garden, near the front door of the house, and I am now an avid fan. Grow them, they will transform October for you.

Dahlia Bishop’s Children
Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff, with Lantana Camara in the foreground

2. Salvia ‘Hot Lips’

Slightly outrageous name, even more outrageous performance from this Salvia, which is sprawling all over the place by my front-of-house bed. Here she is caressing one of my little statues. We got these fellas from a local artist who exhibited in our garden as part of a local art event. Her sculptures looked so at home here that we decided to buy a couple and make them permanent features. Anyway, back to Hot Lips, she really is getting a bit out of bounds, but I’ll forgive her because she is putting on quite a show well into October, and all summer long too. She’ll get trimmed back in spring. I’m really getting into Salvias now, and am trying out some of the purple varieties (Salvia nemerosa Caradonna is a lovely one) in other bits of the garden, but these have pretty much finished flowering. For those who want to help the bees, Salvias have excellent nectar-rich flowers.

Salvia Hot Lips

3. Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

This Japanese Hybrid Anemone had a slow couple of years, but this year she’s really coming into her stride. She’s also flowering her socks off long after her pink Anemone x hybrida sisters have given up. With the light levels really dropping off, she seems to shine out even more, and she’s in a part-shade east-facing border, which seems to suit her well. If you’ve got a shadier spot, I would really recommend this plant. I’ve paired her up with Geranium ‘Rozanne’, growing in front, which is also still flowering. You can also spot Pyracantha ‘Golden Charmer’ in a massive blue pot behind her, am hoping this will grow fast to cover the modern brick wall.

Anemone Honorine Jobert, with Geranium Rozanne

4. Beetroot and Spinach

No it’s not all over in the veg patch! The spinach and beetroot have survived their cross-country journey as seedlings (I sowed them in August at my Mum’s house in Kent, UK and brought them back to Belgium, miraculously they didn’t get squashed in our heavily over-packed car). They were transferred to the veg patch in early September and will be ready for harvesting young leaves from now on. I’ve also got chard growing alongside them, which is my go-to winter veg, it’s virtually indestructible and keeps on giving for months on end. And no, I don’t think it tastes horrible, why do people say that?! It’s perfect for a winter stew with butternut squash, lentils, carrots, you name it.

Young beetroot and spinach in the veg patch, plus a few self-seeded plants

5. Rose hips

No idea what variety this tall shrub rose is, but I do love its autumn hips. I’m not doing it justice with this photo, taken on a dull day, but wanted to include it in my Fab Five this month. It is a perfect fit for the shades of autumn. I haven’t tried using the hips for anything, but have heard that it can be made into rose hip tea, has anyone tried making that?

Well, there are my Fab Five for this month. If anyone fancies joining in with their monthly Fab Five – it can be anything you find fabulous in your garden at this time of year – then do join in or put your favourites in the comments section. Thanks for reading and have a fab gardening month!

Rose hips

Chaos theory in the garden

How much chaos is tolerable in the garden, and to what extent should we strive for order and its accompanying neatness? I’ve been thinking about this recently as I wonder just how many exuberant nasturtiums and calendulas I should weed out of my veg plot. When romantic tumbling cottage garden charm becomes untidy, is it time to be ruthless?

Colourful chaos – there are veg in there somewhere!

Ordered rows of veg and flowers can be both extremely practical and visually appealing, like well-turned out units on a military parade. Each veg group occupies its own space, and as a whole the crisp, clean lines exude efficiency and pride. Weeding and harvesting is easier, and there is less competition for space and light.

A stray calendula provides a resting spot for a colourful visitor.

There are no military parades in my plot this year, it’s more like an improvised demonstration of unruly students. A bit messy for sure. The amazing thing is that the veg still pull through, mingling with the flowers and popping up cheerfully yet haphazardly here and there.

Broccoli pops up!

There’s something lovely about seeing the veg like this, mixed in with everything else. You start seeing them as plants in their own right, with beautiful leaves, striking forms and interesting fruit. The grey-blue brocoli pictured here is a wonderful contrast to the greener growth around it. It has a strong presence and its flower head is not only edible but interesting, like a sedum.

Sweetcorn going strong.

One of the biggest stars for me this year has been the sweetcorn. I have just seven plants, grown from seed. They look as statuesque and handsome as any bamboo, and mine are just starting to show their feathery flower-heads. Beneath them is a magnificent courgette with massive marbled leaves, a great contrast with the tall, straight stems of the corn.

Courgette and corn combo.

Apart from the interesting effects of mixing the veg up with other plants and flowers, there’s also the value to wildlife. This year I planted some colourful varieties of echinacea and some salvia right by my veg area, and the bees and butterflies love them. The borage was also a huge hit with the bees, though it did get out of hand and sadly I had to pull a lot of it out. Perhaps it’s just a bit too unruly for a small space, and next year I should try to plan a separate borage patch nearby.

Echinacea and butterfly
The bees loved the salvia, backed by day lilies.
A dwarf sunflower – there is almost always a bee in here!

So overall, I’ve embraced a bit of chaos in my garden this year. The veg are still coming on strong, the flowers are doing their thing and the insects are definitely at home. It would be a good idea to keep a few straight lines in for paths and tidy up the edging, but apart from that I think I prefer my unruly students to the neat parades of veg, disciplined as they are.

Cottage garden favourites

My front path is at its best in May and into the beginning of June. The roses are in full swing, and they look really good now with their cottage garden companions: Nepeta (cat mint), alliums and geraniums.

Nepeta, geraniums and alliums jostle with the roses

I’ve chosen these plants for three main reasons:

  • They attract pollinators, especially bees. This area has been buzzing non-stop ever since the Nepeta came into flower in early May.
  • They are pretty drought tolerant. This is a hot south-facing spot, and our summers, even our springs it seems, are getting drier and drier. It seemed like a good idea to minimize watering.
  • They hide the extremely straggly, downright ugly legs of the old roses, and make a romantic unashamedly cottage garden colour combo of soft pinks, blues and purples, offset by the gentle creamy yellow of Rosa ‘The Pilgrim’ further up the path.
The soft and delicate Rosa ‘Heritage’ against Nepeta

A year ago, this part of the garden looked completely different. Both sides of the path were long strips of lawn, interspersed neatly with the established roses that were already here. As this is one of the sunniest sections, it felt like a wasted planting opportunity, and mowing it was a pain, involving complex contortions with the mower to get it around the roses and along the narrow strip.

Looking up the path towards the house. The exuberant soft yellow rose is Rosa ‘The Pilgrim’, a David Austin English rose.

I love the way the Nepeta tumbles over the path, it is just the right height to brush against and I love rubbing my hands through it as I walk past for that aromatic Mediterranean scent. I have to be careful not to rub a bee by mistake, as they are here all the time. This variety is Nepeta faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’, which isn’t particularly low as you can see. It’s a fantastic value plant, as it is so easy to take cuttings and make new plants, and it will flower again later this season if I take the shears to it soon. I will definitely take some more cuttings too, as I think it would be nice to have another patch of this blue fuzziness repeated further up the path. You can also make tea from the dried leaves and flowers, although I haven’t tried this yet so if any readers have any tips on that, I’d love to hear them.

The alliums, all Allium ‘Christophii’, are adding a nice little bit of spikiness to this soft and gentle theme, and they hang above the other plants at just the right height. I am so glad I moved them here, before this they were rather sad and uninspiring in an east-facing border and are much happier here in full sun. I remove the seed heads around now because they tend to flop over, and hang them in the house to dry and hopefully use for Christmas decorations.

As for the other part of this trio, the pink Geranium, this was given to me by my mother-in-law, from her country garden in Kent, England. I don’t know the variety, but it is a wilder form of geranium, loved by the bees but with a tendency to grow outwards energetically, baring it’s centre. This isn’t the best look to be honest, but it doesn’t show up too badly here with all the other planting, and can be remedied by cutting back hard when flowering time is almost up.

While it always feels like such a pity to cut back the Nepeta, the good news is that a large patch of lavender is just coming into flower at the bottom of the path, making a perfect nectar bridge for the bees, who will soon to moving on to that. They have also been feasting on the bramble flowers, and it looks like we’re going to have an incredible harvest this year, and an early one too – the fruit is already setting and it’s only early June. I will freeze some so that there will be plenty for apple and blackberry pie in the autumn, probably one of the most divine ways to enjoy blackberries, hot from the oven with lots of cream! Yum, yum…