Garden Refreshers

This area of my shade garden is heavily underplanted with spring bulbs. If you bend down and pull apart the hosta, you'll still find the withering leaves, happily now hidden by broad circles of green, gold and blue.

My grandfather used to say that anybody could garden in the automatic abundance of June: it was the rest of the year that tested the gardener’s mettle. This is especially true in August, when the heady display of spring and early summer flowers is past, and the border has a tendency to revert to a depressing green monotone before being enlivened by a burst of fall flowers latter in the season. Nor is lack of color the only problem: unpleasant gaps appear as certain early bloomers, like spring bulbs or bleeding heart, turn yellow and loose their foliage with agonizing slowness as they go dormant in the heat. One day your garden is lush and full – two weeks later the bed resembles a decaying block of Swiss cheese. What’s the hapless gardener to do? Given my penchant for the past, faced with these same problems a few years ago I decided to take a look through some of my favorite Victorian garden guides for a solution. To my delight I discovered that these wonderfully inventive gardeners had developed a whole series of methods to keep gardens looking good great right through the summer season. Here are a few of my favorite tips:

Going Going Gone
Some of the biggest offenders in the August garden are the decaying leaves of daffodils and other late blooming spring bulbs. This foliage, which we greeted with such eager anticipation in April, now hangs on like some three-month-old houseguest who has long overstayed his welcome. Of course its completely taboo to cut of the miserable, yellowing leaves, because they are the means by which daffodil returns energy from the foliage to the bulb to power next year’s show: cut off the leaves, and the result will be little or no bloom the following spring. If you have endless time and boundless energy, you may want to run around like Martha Stewart suggests and tie up all the wilting leaves in pretty little knots: I however, who have neither, prefer a much less anal solution proposed in the crinkled pages of an old Victorian seed catalogue: plant your daffodils and other late spring bulbs in wide swathes through the garden, and then plant hosta (known a hundred years ago as plantain lilies) on top of them. By the time the hosta emerge, the daffodils will have long since finished flowering, and the large, umbrella like leaves of the hosta are perfect for hiding the decaying foliage of the bulbs. If you know a bit about the habits of these plants, you may be wondering how this scheme could possibly succeed, as hosta generally prefer shady conditions, while most spring bulbs need full sun to bloom well. The answer lies in choosing the right site: daffodils and other bulbs can often be planted in many areas of the garden that are quite shady in the summer, but remain in full sun well into the spring, until the leaves of trees and shrubs appear overhead. By June, these areas are in bright shade, which is perfect for hostas, and sufficient for the slowly dying foliage of the bulbs. For those of you who may shy away from this idea because they think hosta too drab or boring, it’s time to take another look at this wonderful plant. These ain’t grandma’s hosta anymore — recent hybridizations have produced hundred of new varieties with leaves ranging from near white variegations to cool blues and bright chartreuse that literally light up a dark corner of the garden. While this solution won’t work everywhere – hosta would fry on a baking southern exposure for example – there are varieties that will take quite a bit of sun, so this wonderful hosta/bulb combination works well in a wide range of garden areas.

Peas and Sticks
There are other wonderful early blooming plants such as, delphinium, peonies, lupine and the like, that produce a spectacular display in the early part of the year, and then sit dumb and dreary taking up valuable space for the remainder of the season, with only the memory of their past and future glories to commend them. Why not borrow another Victorian trick to brighten up these areas, this time from the pages of Gertrude Jeykll, the famous British garden designer. Jekyll gave a lot of thought to the problem of continuous bloom, because keeping the border in flower was considerably more difficult in the England of the late 1800’s than it is today. This was because many of the continuously blooming annuals we now rely on hadn’t yet been developed, and also because many of the summer and fall perennials we now depend on for extended bloom, such as rudbeckias, liatris and boltonia, are actually North American natives which didn’t become common in European gardens until much later. (Nor do they do well in English gardens, but that’s another story.) Jeykll’s solution to areas of the garden that had fallen out of flower was an ingenious one: grow annual vines up and through established plants to provide dashes of ready color. The process couldn’t be simpler: Jeykll liked to use flowering Sweet Peas, that great Victorian favorite, which she sowed among the stems of hardy perennials. As the vines grew, they twinned around the woody stems like trellises. If a little extra support was need, a dead stick or bit of branch was pressed into service. The result was a wonderfully natural display of flower that maximized every bit of precious garden space. Jekyll used sweet peas, which thrived in the cool English summers. In much hotter Boston, I’ve never had great success with peas, as they have a tendency to peter out once the weather warms. Gardeners outside of the North and Northwest may want to substitute such heat loving favorites such as asarina, cardinal climber, hyacinth vine, moonflowers or Spanish flag, depending on your needs and color preferences.

Annual Understudies
Here’s a last idea that was common in the last century, but is only practiced today by the most savvy gardeners. Instead of planting out all of your annuals into the garden in May and early June, keep some back and plant them in pots. I learned this trick from my grandfather, and I now grow a fairly wide selection of flowers for this purpose. Among my favorites are zinnias, both the regular kind and the creeping variety, marigolds, petunias (especially the old fashioned, scented “bedders”, dwarf cosmos, nicotiana, spider plant, annual lavatera, and dusty miller, but really any heavy and continuously flowering annual will work. As for pots, I generally like to use lightweight plastic 8-12 inch containers, as some moving around will be required, but once again, that choice is up to you. When you’ve finished potting up the annuals, place these containers in full sun in the cold frame, next to the back door, or on the deck, (anywhere you can tend and appreciate them) keeping them in readiness for their moment of fame. The trick here is that you really need to baby these containers like the budding starlets that they are: water regularly with a high potency liquid fertilizer like Miraclegro to promote rapid growth, lush growth, and keep the plants well pinched back and full. Then, when the inevitable holes in the border appear, whether because something didn’t grow as planned, or because of accidental demise, such as when the rabbits decided to level the early phlox this year, you can simply dig a quick hole and sink one or more lush pots right into the ground. If your plants are big and full enough, the results can be really extraordinary, especially if your garden needs to look great for some special occasion. You’ll find your lovely annual understudies will look as though they have been there from the beginning of the show, when in reality they have just appeared for the curtain call, as you ready for shouts of “bravo, bravo” from your friends and neighbors, and an inevitable bow to your sage and savvy gardening ways.


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