Garden ramblings: August

Butterfly sitting on an Aster

Expert Stowe Gardener Anna Tolfree discusses the trials and tribulations of working in a landscape garden in the height of summer, with lots of hints and tips along the way.

What do you want when you visit a garden?  Think about it carefully and we’ll come back to it.

August is a great month for herbaceous borders that are at their peak and bursting with colour and scent. The long grass in the Grecian Valley will be cut and the crop taken off as hay and the rest of the gardens will be getting cut with mowers and strimmers.

A perfect day's view across the Octagon Lake at Stowe
A view across a lake with bright sky reflections of clouds in the water to golden style temples at Stowe

It is at this time of year that I start to think about going boating. I have three islands on the Octagon Lake that I tend to once a year; this involves strimming, pruning to keep views of the urns and a lot of laughter because I cannot row! 

It’s a very basic metal boat that can just about sit four, but then we also have to fit on strimmers and pruning equipment so there are always the jokes whilst rowing over about whether we will sink this year or not. My team and I can normally get all three islands completed in one day so it’s not a difficult job, but certainly an unusual job that not many people will have the opportunity to do.

Ice breaking on the lake at Stowe
Two gardeners in a metal boat heading to one of the islands at Stowe.

It’s at this time of year that I also start to look out for pruning jobs for autumn and winter. Any dead trees and branches that I note now and mark can be felled or cut off in the later months of the year. I write lists of jobs I want to complete over the colder months so that I can make sure I fit everything in.

It is also the end of the nesting season in August so any pruning can be started sooner if time allows, but it’s always a good idea to double check the tree or shrub that you are about to prune just in case there are late nesting birds. The flowers in sleeping wood are still looking good with annuals still going strongly like Calendula and Dianthus and the herbaceous plants like Asters, Daylilies, Hollyhocks, Verbena and Rudbeckia.

So have you thought about it?  We’re all different, some of us want to feel a connection with the place, maybe by an emotion of delight that it gives us as we walk past borders bursting with colourful herbaceous plants and shrubs with beautifully neat grass paths to walk along and admire the flowers.

Stowe is considered the birthplace of the 18th-century landscape garden in Britain
The Palladian Bridge at Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire

Some will go for a place where their children can run around and play without worrying about keeping off the grass. Some will go to see modern gardens which are very different from our ‘typical’ idea of an English garden with large neat lawns, clipped hedges and large herbaceous beds, and with more hard landscaping and modern sculptures.

Then there are some who make sure there is a café and a shop with a garden so they can have tea or lunch. It is this last group I think we are all in and we try and make sure it has at least a café for maybe a cup of tea and a delicious piece of cake, but, and I say but, because I now question myself for doing this. After I read a recent article it made me think.

It suggested that gardens are now becoming glorified visitor attractions or theme parks. We are so busy trying to cater for everybody and make sure we have everything a visitor could want even before they get into the garden, i.e. shop, café, playground, book shop etc. The garden visit almost becomes a last thought.

A gardener mowing the lawns in summer

For me personally I am passionate about gardens and gardening in general (I truly love my job) and although I may go into the café when I first arrive to have a cup of coffee, but then I am normally desperate to get out and see the garden I have chosen to visit as I cannot wait to immerse myself in the plants and flowers that are within the garden.

I try and see what story the designer maybe trying to tell me too, whether it’s a long avenue bordered with hedging to draw me down towards an open view over parkland or to an urn or statue at the end. This is what gardening is all about for me, it’s telling a story.

A middle aged man with brown hair and glasses, is pruning a laurel bush. In the background you can see a semi-circular temple across a lake called the Temple of British Worthies.

 You look at your own garden right now; It tells its own story. Don’t believe me? Every plant or shrub you have put in is something that you like (I hope - otherwise why have you got it?), you may have got those plants from various different places, maybe a garden you visited, local garden centre, a cutting from a friend or relative of a plant that you liked and all of it is personal to you.  You could say it is your personality but in a real form. Garden designers are always trying to tell a story and it’s up to you to listen and look for it….that’s when I get my connection to a garden and take real pleasure from visiting it.

Happy Gardening!