July marks the start of cutting back. It starts off gently, deadheading roses, which is an activity I particularly enjoy. They look so much tidier and relieved once you’d done it, and there’s always the hope that it might entice them into another, later flowering. You move onto the aquilegias, again, not too painful a job. They have started to look a bit macabre in a bed full of fresh Mediterranean lavender and extravagant dahlias, so back to the ground they go.
Then, you have to start on the geraniums. Herbaceous geraniums, not pelargoniums, which just need the occasional deadheading. They really do look rather lanky, you tell yourself, or indeed, the lady I garden for tells me. And indeed they do. The flowers have mostly gone, and what were pleasing pincushions in June are now a tangle of leaf and stem in the border. Of course, it depends on the variety of geraniums, some continue to flower neatly for weeks to come. For the early flowering varieties, it’s back to the first joint in their stems, and a thorough clear out of dead leaves. The result looks brutal, but pleasingly so, rather like a military haircut.
Indeed, all this cutting back is for the good. It prevents the plant from wasting its energy on unnecessary growth, and it stops the garden from running away from you. The problem is it feels so terribly autumnal. The glory days of June are gone, taking with them the best of the roses, and leaving the garden a little like a disappointed heroine who has ‘lost the bloom of youth.’ It is Anne Elliot before Captain Wentworth sends her that letter. And while I have nothing against autumn, I love jam making, Michaelmas daisies and conkers, it has something against me.
Something about autumn, the shorter days, the colder weather, the vague sense of decay, puts me in the most awful mood. Living in a house with no heating might have something to do with it. My family used to say they were always rather relived when they could pack me back off to university at the end of September.
When you have to start cutting back geraniums in July, which really isn’t autumn, it seems impractical not to mention indulgent to resign yourself to gloom for five months until December. Thankfully, I have found that collecting the seeds from what I cut back cheers me immensely. Obviously the main benefit is a cheap and plentiful supply of flowers for next year, but somehow storing away little hoards of seeds in jam jars, envelopes, and tea cups persuades me that perhaps an eternal winter isn’t about to set in after all.
This afternoon I was cutting back Welsh poppies in my mother’s garden. A beautiful sulphurous yellow when in flower, the remnants were now a rather tattered collection of stalks, small seed-heads and dying leaves. Carefully cutting them as low as possible I tried not to lose too many seeds in the process before I could shake them out on a baking tray. Some will be posted to my aunt who has just moved to rural Wales, and some will come with me to be sown in my own garden.
That’s the best thing about seeds. They’re the easiest way to share your garden. It’s hard to begrudge someone a scatter of seeds, especially as they post so easily. Just maybe don’t send them abroad, I feel like Customs may not be thrilled. It’s hard to be a selfish gardener, even if you are inexplicably protective of your plants, as the birds and the wind will certainly make sure your specimens aren’t quite as exclusive as you’d like.
Once you’ve saved those seeds, well, it’s almost time to start planting next year’s biennials. Some hollyhocks, perhaps a row of sweet Williams, and of course, plenty of forget-me-nots. And suddenly autumn doesn’t feel so bad after all.