Summer is traditionally the domain of the perennials. The shrubs have shrunk into the background and allow a broad range of herbaceous plants, from traditional cottage favourites to bold exotics, to take centre stage. Bees and butterflies gorge themselves on the glut of nectar produced by the flowers, each vying for their attention and trying to outshine their neighbour. Don't be mistaken- the spectacular sensory treat is actually a bitter fight to survive and breed; we are privileged to be able to enjoy it!

Not everything that flowers in summer is bright and bold; move away from the limelight and enjoy 'Lady's Mantle', Alchemilla mollis. Sadly this gem is grubbed out by many snooty gardeners who see it as a weed, and granted it is prone to liberal self seeding, but this is a plant that I could never be without. .

The large felty jagged-edged leaves are the perfect foil against which to enjoy the foam of acid-green flowers during summer, and each raindrop from a summer shower is caught and displayed like diamonds in a jeweller's cabinet

Alchemilla in it's various species (there are several in cultivation- all worth a look) is the epitome of a plant which is quietly charming, and as such seems a little out of  place in the summer garden dominated by colour. Another similar oversight, in my opinion, is Aruncus dioicus ('Goats Beard'). A little rough maybe for the finery of the traditional herbaceous border, this species emerges with corrugated soft green leaves every spring, is topped with interesting sprays of pure white flowers in early summer, then glows with warm russet shades as it dies back in autumn. It is perfectly hardy and amenable to most soils and aspects, providing the soil does not dry out during summer.

The spidery flowers of Aruncus dioicus

 In this picture the Aruncus is shown with two other largely unknown perennials, both of which deserve recognition. Firstly the more visible pinnate leaves (actually hiding the Aruncus leaves!) belong to Aralia californica, just one herbaceous species of a genus best known for the shrubby Aralia elata ('Devil's Walking Stick'). Each year the herbaceous Aralias grow to a reasonable size and provide bold foliage which act as a perfect foil for summer flowers (Aralia flowers are quite dull in themselves), but as summer gives way to autumn the leaves take on tones of deep red and golden yellow, acting as a backdrop for glossy black berries produced after the small white flowers. Unfortunately Aralias resent being divided, but they can be grown easily from seed. Also in this picture is Datisca cannabina, so called 'False Hemp'. In damp spots this species can reach a spectacular height, but mine only ever makes it up to about 5ft (1.5m). The appeal of this species is the effect of the long leaves massed along each stem which in turn is topped with a crown of tiny acid-green flowers. If you have the room, and the damp site, I would strongly advise you to try it. Interestingly Datisca cannabina is closely related to Begonias, not that you would guess by looking at it!


In summer 2009 I finally had flowers on my Asphodelus albus, a plant that I have been growing for several years without a single flower. The flower spike is branched much like a Verbascum, but with larger white flowers and a red stripe along each petal.

The flowers of Asphodelus albus emerge like a firework in the summer garden,
yet each flower posesses a quietly refined beauty.

 I can't be sure what triggered the flowering- was it the age of the bulb, or a reaction caused by the coldest winter in 20 years?! Either way this species has grown strongly for me in an open spot with moist but free draining soil.

In the same area of garden I have managed to persuade a colony of Dactylorhiza majalis 'Blackthorn Strain' to flourish. If you are familiar with other species of Dactylorhiza you will know that these orchids are prone to dying out where they are not happy, which has earned them a reputation for being difficult; I believe that they are easy to grow but exacting in their requirements. D. majalis 'Blackthorn Strain' is a very distinctive orchid because it grows so big- mine typically flower around 3ft (90cm) tall, with about 6" (15cm) of bright purple flowers. The key to success is a light application of liquid fertiliser once or twice in spring; this bulks them up without burning the roots.

The tiny flowers of Dactylorhizas are a treat for anyone who examines them closely.

One of my favourite summer shrubs is Decaisnea fargesii, which is, according to Roy Lancaster, known in China as 'Cat Poo Tree'... anyone who has ever seen mouldy cat poo will see what I mean. The famous blue 'cat poo' seed pods are a feature of autumn- in early summer the tree is adorned with the most beautiful hanging trusses of spidery bell-shaped flowers which demand to be admired.

The flowers are more attractive than the common name would suggest.

Despite an exotic appearance D. fargesii is pretty hardy, although can suffer in windy locations. Late frosts can also cause problems for young shoots. Ultimately the species can reach 20ft (6m) tall, making a decent sized small tree, but it is not exactly fast growing so takes a while to get there! Meanwhile it makes an excellent shrub with an upright habit which associates nicely with many other garden plants.

Deutzias are real showgirls in the summer garden- an amazing display of pink or white flowers lasts for weeks. There are several excellent cultivars around but my favourites are D. x hybrida 'Mont Rose' with it's large heads of strawberry ice cream pink flowers, D. calycosa 'Dali' which was collected by Roy Lancaster in 1984 and has large star-shaped white flowers with each petal stained pink, and the dwarf mound forming D. crenata var. nakaiana 'Nikko'.

The showgirls: Deutzia x hybrida 'Mont Rose' (left) and D. calycosa

I have found all three of these Deutzias to be easy to grow and very tolerant, but I wonder why they aren't very popular... maybe many gardeners think they are too dull to take up room when out of flower? For me the display of flowers is such an important part of the garden in summer that I just plant other things nearby which take over the display as the Deutzias fade into the background for the rest of the season.

If I had the room I would love to grow a Lilac Tree, Syringa vulgaris, and in particular the cultivar 'Sensation'. This is a cultivar I have admired for several years for it's beautiful purple flowers edged white and it's delightful perfume.

Syringa vulgaris 'Sensation'

Unfortunately for me Syringa is a bit like a larger version of the Deutzias in that there is a spectacular display of flowers for a few weeks followed by dull foliage, but whereas I can mingle Deutzias with other plants it is difficult to hide a Syringa out of season, especially at a height over 20ft (6m)! Of course if I grew one up to be a small tree I could scramble a clematis through the branches to take over after the flowers have faded.

I do have something of a weakness for Hydrangeas, especially Hydrangea aspera and it's various subspecies and cultivars. One of my favourite shrubs of all time in the garden is H. aspera subsp. sargentiana, a potentially large species from deciduous forests in Asia. Every year it is lovely to go out into a shady corner of my garden and rub the large coarse hairy leaves and admire the dainty head of lilac flowers surrounded by pure white bracts. As my plant grows it's light brown peeling bark will become more of a feature. 

Hydrangea aspera subsp. sargentiana. Note the felty texture and red edges to the leaves.

Almost the complete opposite of H. aspera subsp. sargentiana is the beautifully refined H. involucrata 'Plena'. This species looks, at first glance, like a smaller version of H. aspera until the observer notices that the tiny white sterile bracts are double. This Hydrangea is the perfect choice for a gardener seeking an unusual and characterful shrub for a partly shaded spot, not least of all because it is a relatively small growing species! It should be noted that H. involucrata 'Plena' differs from H. involucrata 'Hortensis' most notably in the double bracts in which the former is smaller than the latter, and appears a less 'blousy' double.

Hydrangea involucrata 'Plena'- in many ways the epitome of elegance

For those who prefer the more traditional Hydrangeas I would very strongly recommend H. macrophylla 'Mirai'. I have heard that 'Mirai' is an old cultivar, but I note that it currently has plant breeder's rights (PBR) against the variety in the RHS Plantfinder. Either way 'Mirai' is an attractive plant for two reasons- it bears beautiful red/pink flowers and it flowers on both old and new wood, so if you're not into pruning regimes in your garden you won't miss out! The other H. macrophylla cultivar I grow is 'Pia', a miniature ideal for a carefully chosen spot. This has done very well for me at the front of a woodland bed where it flowers quite happily every year. A word of warning though, this cultivar can occasionally throw 'full sized' sports and these must be removed to retain the miniature 'Pia'. Unfortunately some nurseries do not spot the sports when propagating, so in some cases the miniature 'Pia' is in fact a full sized 'something else'!

Two fine Hydrangeas- 'Mirai' (left) showing typical strong colour, and the perfect bloom of 'Pia' (right). I no longer keep 'Pia' in the trough as pictured; after several years it is now big enough to be out at the front of a border!

Most gardeners have spent time weeding out brambles and would be loathed to actually plant them! It is said, though, that one man's weed is another's garden plant, and certainly several Rubus species grow quickly and take up rather a lot of room, but also they can be surprisingly useful and attractive shrubs. There are Rubus suitable for a small garden, but just for a moment I would like to discuss larger species.

Rubus spectabilis ('Salmonberry') is native to North Western America, where it grows as a large shrub with bright pink flowers, rather like a species of Rose. Whilst the species itself is not unattractive it is the cultivar 'Olympic Double' which is seen most often in the UK. As well as the large 2" (5cm) wide double flowers in strong pink borne late spring or early summer, gardeners (and blackbirds!) are treated to delicious raspberry-like fruits in autumn. This is probably the easiest Rubus to justify space for in the garden- it has enough colour and charm whilst remaining rugged in appearance that it would be a fantastic addition to a semi-wild garden. Just make sure that you get to try it's fruits! 'Olympic Double' makes a shrub up to 20ft (6m) tall in time and is fully hardy.

Beautiful flower for a bramble!

Other species of Rubus make excellent groundcover and are valuable for steep banks or covering ground between trees. My favourite, and the most remarkable in leaf, is R. ichangensis, a vigorous species with heart shaped leaves, shiny and silver in the silver leaved form. The species itself is widespread in China, and well is well adapted to survive in a range of environments. I grow the silver leaved form of the species which I first met at Pan Global Plants in Gloucestershire where it grows in a corner of the walled garden. I found the mass of silver leaves rather attractive, and the ornamental potential of this species is enhanced by the strong wine-red new shoots which emerge vertically each spring before falling over and heading off to colonise a new area. This is a species for an established shrubbery where the gardener sees the ornament of this species instead of a workload keeping it under control.


For a genus dominated by woody plants a herbaceous member is a welcome diversion. R. rosiflorus 'Coronarius' is, I believe, one of the most intriguing plantsman's plants I have ever known. I say herbaceous- mine stayed evergreen through frosts of -10C and thick snow, and the stout stems are very bramble-like are not typical of herbaceous plants on any level- this is herbaceous in a technical sense. The thorny mass bears the most exquisite flowers of cream, with a hint of apple green, in early summer then again occasionally throughout the year. Then, just for amusement, often as one flower dies away another emerges, phoenix-like, from the centre to continue the display. A combination of unrivalled beauty and vicious thorny mayhem make this a plant to quicken the pulse of any plantsman. Let there be no question- this is a plant for the serious gardener.