What is wrong with us? For no reason whatsoever we take it into our heads that June and July should be sunny and summer-like when more often than not they are wet, damp and grey, with only momentary glimpses of sun. We don’t carry rain gear, we don’t expect to need umbrellas and we assume that we will spend our free time outdoors soaking up the sun. Are we eternal optimists or eternal fools?
As if all that daftness wasn’t enough, we also insist on growing large numbers of plants that have big heavy flowers that fill up with rain, becoming soggy and wilted. Huge cabbage-like roses, fat double paeonies and open papery poppies were not made for daily drenching. Strong men have been reduced to tears at the sight of rose and paeony buds that cannot even open in the face of continuous downpours. At least when they have had the chance to open you can run out and shake the bloom about a bit to get some of the excess water out. I am well aware, and need not be told that this is a job that makes a gardener look silly, but in fairness, don’t we deserve some chance of enjoying those flowers, having waited over a year for them to come out? So if shaking out the rain helps a bit so be it. But nevertheless, big flowers, shaken or not, are not the flowers for a summer such as this one. The men for that job are the small toughies.
So with this in mind, let’s consider some of the great rain-proof flowers of July and August:
As mentioned already, rain proof-flowers are generally of a smaller, more compact design that can repel water. The first one I would recommend would be astrantia. This is an old fashioned favourite, an easy-to-grow and mind perennial that looks good for months through the summer. A native of south-western Europe, it has been in cultivation since the 1500s. Most often seen in its white-flowered form as Astrantia major, it has papery star-like flowers about 2 cms across with a greenish or pinkish tinge to the centre of the flower. There is a good, dark plum variety called ‘Shaggy’ and another, even more vivid ruby one called ‘Hadspen’s Blood.’ One of my favourites is the variety with white variegated foliage called ‘Suningdale Variegated.’ Astrantia makes a good mound of foliage from which tall stems emerge, each with a starry flower perched on top. The flowers have great shelf life both on the plant and as cut flowers and they will withstand any amount of rain. If you grow the variegated variety, be careful to cut out the leaves that revert to plain green or the whole plant will follow suit. I know. This has happened to me with a plant that I missed out as it hid behind a shrub of hydrangea, slowly reverting over two seasons before I noticed the loss.
Another excellent plant to stand up to the rain is Digitalis grandiflora. This is quite a different flower to the foxglove that we generally think of in either its pink or white versions. For a start grandiflora is a perennial, unlike the biennial fox glove we see more often. It is also a smaller plant, growing only to about 70 cms tall in comparison with the usual meter-and-a-half fox glove. Lastly, the flower colour is the softest dusty yellow. Christopher Lloyd, a great man on colour, said he could never have enough soft yellow in a garden to blend other colours in and grandiflora is a perfect example of a good yellow. I have a drift of about a dozen plants that started life as a packet of seed that gave me four or five plants a few years ago. This is a plant that seems immune to pest or disease and always looks its best. It is also long lived, flowering from June to late August in full sun, partial shade and buckets of rain. Nodding flowers always bear up better to rain than open faced flowers.
A final recommendation is a plant I had forgotten about until recently when I came across it working like a Trojan in a lovely old garden. This is the horned violet or Viola cornuta. Another plant in cultivation for many centuries, it is probably the best of the violets, a ground-covering, moisture-loving beauty. Either grow it from seed or get a little rooted bit from a friend who grows it. It tucks in under the skirts of taller plants, covering the ground, smothering out the weeds and insinuating its way up between the leaves, stems and flowers of the tall plants behind it. It flowers from July right up to September if it is happy and in this weather it will be.