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

Early autumn stars

It’s been raining heavily for days here, but this morning when the sun came out I could really see how the plants had benefited from a good and long-awaited drenching! They looked fresh and full of life, so I took some pics of my top performers right now. Here they are:

Rain then sunshine: a combo that is made for Alchemilla Mollis (Lady’s Mantle), a native of southern Europe. It’s worth having a few plants in your garden for this reason alone, as the leaves look like they are studded with jewels made of pure water! I recently learned that the name Alchemilla is from the Arabic, meaning magical or with the properties of alchemy (the prefix “Al” is the definitive article in Arabic, and a lot of English words that begin with Al are indeed of Arabic origin, including algebra, the Alhambra in Southern Spain, or the dreaded algorithm). In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the droplets of water collected from the plants in the early morning had healing and magical properties. If you look closely at my photo, you can see the hundreds of tiny hairs on the leaves that catch the drops and hold them in place. So, another amazing plant then.

The Japanese anemones add a freshness at this time of year, and look particularly good against the crisp autumn light of early morning. Mine are all in a border facing east, and they were suffering rather from the lack of rain earlier in the season, some even succumbing to mildew. The latest deluge has really refreshed them though, and there are plenty of new button-like buds reaching for the skies. I have the white variety, ‘Honorine Jobert’, which is from the Anemone hybrida group, as well as the traditional soft pink varieties, and a deeper, more intense pink which seems to have popped up of its own accord, and has proved very popular with the bees, so it must be richer in nectar than the others.

Still on the pink theme, my aster (can’t remember the variety) is just coming into bloom now. I always wait for this with anticipation, as it makes a wonderful show of daisy freshness, being quite large now, and reaching over a metre tall. In fact, it is getting very floppy, and hasn’t been looking that elegant, slumped over the lawn, so I have grabbed some spare chestnut fencing to keep it upright. This is why the flowers in my photo are all facing the wrong way, as they were previously trying to flower from lawn height! No doubt they will sort themselves out in a couple of days.

OK, now for some berries, of which I am a great fan. I absolutely adore the golden orange tones of this newly bought Pyracantha ‘Golden Charmer’. It’s perfect for the season, and it’s hopefully going to do a good job of covering a modern red brick wall, which I always thought looked odd as the rest of the house is a more mellow, aged brick. I’ve noticed that Pyracanthas grow really well here, and several houses in the area are densely covered in the cheerful orange, red or yellow berries. This plant also has a great name: from the Greek, “pyr” is fire and “akanthos” is thorn, hence the common name of Firethorn. It does indeed have killer thorns – that should keep the burglars away from my kitchen window! They are native to a wide region, from Southwest Europe to Southeast Asia, and they are a brilliant choice for wildlife friendly gardens, as the summer flowers are loved by bees, and birds enjoy the berries (if they dare come so close to the house to grab them, we shall see…).

Finally, some Skimmia japonica putting on a good show. I’ve acquired two little plants that are growing along the shadier side of my front path, next to a privet hedge. It’s quite a tough growing environment, as the soil is rather dry and a bit shallow here, but these are tough plants to I think they’ll do alright. Skimmia is another native of Japan and China, and here I’ve just got the female plants, as I wanted them for the berries. It will need pollinating by a male plant next year, so I will probably need to get one to be sure that it happens, even though to be honest I’m not so keen on their inflorescence, probably because I associate them with municipal parks and Tesco car parks!

Compensations of the season

Harvesting time for these red grapes

August is over, September is upon us, and there’s a bit of a feeling in the garden, and maybe more generally too, that the party’s pretty much over. Things just look a bit tired, with many plants having given their best and others struggling on gamely but clearly not as fresh and vigorous as they were earlier. Well it happens to the best of us.

Davis UC-82 with some courgettes

So it’s not the most exciting time of year in the garden for me, but there are as always compensations. The first and most obvious is the harvest of late summer fruit and veg. I’m having a good year for tomatoes, with all three of my seed-sown batches doing well and tasting delicious. Miel de Mexique, from an organic seed packet I bought in the garden centre here in Brussels, is a lovely juicy sweet cherry tomato which comes from Mexico, as the name implies, and is a good choice for drought tolerance, although I water mine frequently as I grow most of my tomatoes in pots. Next is Davis UC-82 (odd name but great taste) a nice, deep red, reliable plum-shaped tomato, that’s good for passata and tomato soup. Finally I was given some beautiful beef-steak Portuguese tomatoes as seedlings. We are really enjoying these roasted in the oven with onions, garlic, squashes, mushrooms….yum. They were thirsty plants, but well worth the effort of a bit of extra watering. The combo of the different types and sizes worked well, one to try again next year.

The delicious Miel de Mexique

Another great hit this year is the sweetcorn: what an amazing thing it has been to see these grow from their single corn seed into little seedlings, which I remember anxiously protecting from the cold by taking them into the shed each night in April when it got very chilly, then developing into towering majestic 5-6 foot tall plants and finally the miracle of a corn (or “ear”) from each of the seven plants in my little patch! They taste so delicate, sweet, with a soft melt-in-the mouth texture. The variety, Golden Bantam, is an heirloom one that became popular in the early 1900’s in the US, at a time when only white corn was considered good enough to eat, but Golden Bantam changed that. The seed company says they are robust plants producing two corns/ears per plant. Well I only got one per plant, but I’m still pretty pleased with them! I think I will grow sweetcorn every year from now on, they are the supermodels of the veg patch.

Sweetcorn a little earlier this season

On the fruit front, we’re well into the apple season now, and here it’s been a mixed bag. We have two trees, a very old Cox variety and a 3 year old “Reine des Reinettes”, a very old French variety which is known as “King of the Pippins” in the UK. The old tree seems to be giving up, and we’ve hardly had anything from it, and those we do have are far too high up to reach, so what is up there is for the birds and the wasps. Our 3 year old Reine des Reinettes, however, is coming on strong, and we’ve enjoyed the slightly sharp but very juicy fruit, with its very pretty red-blushed skin.

Reine des Reinettes

On top of that, we’ve got a very big grape harvest coming up. The bunches on the vine, which grows alongside a section of our front path, are looking very healthy this year, and are now turning a gorgeous deep purple colour. Last year I made grape jelly with them, which turned out well, so I think I’ll do the same this year. As I’ve been vegetarian for over a year now, I don’t plan to eat the jelly in “the traditional way” with meat, but there are plenty of other combos: great with goat’s cheese and oatcakes; spread on toast for breakfast, or on a tea cake or Victoria Sponge…it also gives a good, sweet flavour to sauces and stews. Yes I know it’s full of sugar and bad for you, but we are only talking a teaspoon or two at a time here!

There’s another activity that makes me realise all is not quite over yet in the garden, and that is taking cuttings and offsets. There are new plants to be had, and they are right there growing in the garden, all one needs to do is take a cutting, cut some leaves off, add to a vermiculite-compost mix in a small pot and then wait for roots to form. I’ve done this with some rosemary, and might do the same with catmint (such a useful little plant) and a stupendous purple berberis growing in a nearby front garden: I’m sure the owner won’t miss a couple of sprigs of that. For me, berberis has the most breathtaking autumn colour, I have always wanted one, and damn it I will find a spot for it somewhere!

So, even if bits of the garden feel a bit drab, it’s worth reminding ourselves that there is lots to look forward to, just around the corner.

To finish off, here is a snapshot of what’s still looking good for the time of year.

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…