Late summer colour: Best steps to get a vibrant season’s end

The summer has been a washout but it can be rescued. Here are tips for adding some end of season colour to your garden.
late summer colour
Late summer colour: Flowers are a bonus rather than the main event.

The rain has lashed against the windows on a regular basis throughout this ‘glorious’ summer. Gale force winds and sad sodden lawns are now home to handfuls of fallen leaves. After the most miserable summer for what seems like decades, autumn is just around the corner and the usual cheery pockets of late summer flowers are looking rather forlorn.

So this September, try to appreciate the huge role that berries and coloured foliage have to play in slowing down the garden’s gradual decline into winter dullness.

While most flowers have disintegrated into windblown rotting stumps, the saviours are proving to be trees, shrubs and grasses.

Mahonia Aquifolium Atropurpurea
Late summer colour: Mahonia Aquifolium Atropurpurea.

Looking out of your window to see the beacon of robin red berries on a cotoneaster, often dismissed as a dull shrub for car-parks, but in reality a year-round performer, thanks to its evergreen foliage and tolerance of being pruned within an inch of its life.

Cotoneaster is complemented perfectly by the glossy leaves of Mahonia Aquifolium Atropurpurea, which over the next few weeks, will increasingly become tinged with scarlet. Mahonia also responds well to harsh pruning.

acer atropurpureum palmata
Late summer colour: Acer atropurpureum palmata.

Acers are one of the trees that garden experts seem to refer to when quizzed about autumn colour and understandably so, because the Japanese maples really do have a fabulous variety of foliage colours and, most importantly, tend to hang on to those leaves despite a wet summer, although do try to site them away from fierce winds.  Try acer atropurpureum palmata, you can plant or sit in a large container and position near the most sheltered wall of the house.

Variegated dogwoods can provide much needed brightness, especially on a cloudy day. Cornus alba sibirica Elegantissima has striking leaves striped creamy white and lime-green. In winter, its new wood is a striking bright red, beautifully exposed once the leaves have fallen.

Ceanothus Autumnal Blue
Late summer colour: Ceanothus is a solid end of season performer.

Ceanothus Autumnal Blue will flower from midsummer into October.  Like all ceanothus, don’t expect it to live forever, but they add a cool blue into the garden at a time of year when there is so much emphasis on the hotter hues in the colour spectrum.

Grasses can be the stalwarts in any garde and really come into their own in these starker months. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’, which has feathery seed heads tinged dusky pink, above long golden stems that arch gracefully and unlike some other miscanthus, seem to be less battered by the wind even in very open locations. They will stand on guard, providing texture in the borders, until next spring, when you can cut back as new shoots emerge.

Fuchsia magellanica
Fuchsia magellanica.

There is plenty to be positive about with your garden shrubs and trees, and it is pleasing that a few summer flowers are still performing, including the hand-sown California poppies and clematis ‘Polish Spirit’, which flowers off and on all summer until the first frosts hit. The same is true of the hardy fuchsias, which living in containers seem to have rather enjoyed this cooler and wetter summer, perhaps not surprising considering that they really do not like being too hot and dry. Fuchsia magellanica ‘Variegata’ is covered in masses of pendant blooms. What they lack in size they make up for in the vibrancy of the dark pink, wonderfully offset against the sage-green leaves edge in cream.

In most summers, you need to keep a close eye that lobelia cardinalis doesn’t droop in the heat, but this has been its most spectacular season for years. With tall spires of ruby red flowers, lobelia is happy in damp heavy soil – even to the point of being waterlogged – and planted well can deliver a colourful burst of these dramatic perennials.

Sedum spectabile
Late summer colour: Sedum spectabile.

Sedum spectabile, the ice plant, positively relishes baking hot conditions, but is hardy enough to cope with iffy summers, with the added bonus that it is likely to bloom late. You can look forward to its broccoli like flower heads opening out into pinks, purples and reds in the coming weeks.

People tend to be a bit snobbish about nasturtiums, maybe it’s because they are so easy to grow. They are popular because they tick so many boxes: can be raised easily from seed, puts up with drought, wet, blazing sun or shade and keeps going well into autumn.  

Empress of India is perfect for this time of year, bringing its wonderful dark purple tinged leaves and prolific blooms of cardinal red.  It has enough impact to hold its own in a mixed bed. Try to mix your planting among a couple of shrubs, some day lilies, various annuals and some spaghetti squash, the nasturtium will help bring them all together, weaving in and out and making the other colours, textures and shapes gel better.

This year’s summer is a reminder not just of the need to plan for the later months, but to rely more on shrubs and trees to provide seasonal colour.  Sure, late summer flowers are wonderful, but given our unpredictable climate, let’s view them as a possible bonus, not the main event.

If you found Late summer colour: Best steps to get a vibrant season’s end interesting, you’ll find more tips for adding colour to gardens in autumn on our Gardening channel.

Tags: , Last modified: August 23, 2023

Written by 8:05 am Gardening