- Mt Lebanon Magazine - https://lebomag.com -

the late-summer garden

This is the season of wilting heat. Mirages rise off sizzling blacktop, and gardening energies wither. This time of year, weeds gain Sampson-like strength, and the glorious gush of spring and early summer color blooms only in our memory. We wish we could dump the drudgery of garden work on the compost heap of low priorities. But there are ways to outwit the constant call of garden chores and still reap abundant rewards.

Instead of spending a steamy Saturday cutting the lawn, consider instead cutting the amount of lawn area. Create borders at the property’s edge or build new island beds in either front or back yards. Rely on flowering shrubs, decorative grasses and even boulders or other features to create an eye-pleasing vignette and lessen lawn maintenance.

CLETHRA [1]
Summersweet (Clethra)

No denying, a perennial bed and annuals provide color and interest, but at a cost in watering, deadheading and dividing as the summer and years roll on. Shift dependence to less demanding but more substantial flowering shrubs. In the spring, actively flowering specimens beckon. The landscape budget can be blown in an afternoon. Invest some of the money on summer bloomers to quench the thirst for cooling color when it’s needed most. Airy spikes of Clethra (Summersweet) perfume a small, late-summer garden that stays moist and sheltered from high, hot sun. Where sun tends to scorch, Buddleia in lasting hues will thrive and adds a bonus of bees and butterflies galore. Maybe even a hummingbird or two. At the end of the season, cut off spent flower heads to prevent self-seeding and plant only a non-invasive cultivar such as one from the Lo and Behold series.

Hydrangea [2]
Hydrangea

Hydrangea—from humungous snowballs to delicate blue lacecaps—perform surprisingly well in shade and in sun, too. They resent dry, infertile ground and will need ample moisture and a top dressing of compost or manure. Or choose the subtle, pale blue blooms of caryopteris that carry on their discreet show well into late summer. Each of these and many other summer performers will provide splashes or dabs of color, with little more than the initial planting. No need to deadhead, but gathering some blooms for indoors will be irresistible.

The movement and interest grasses create, especially in the late summer garden, make them especially worth the investment; but they offer even more. They are light on maintenance, prone to few pests and diseases and tolerate drought. If left standing, some are stunning even in the winter while providing food and shelter for wildlife. With little more than shearing with the hedge trimmers in fall or spring, they delight in various colors, heights and habits. The sedges—technically not a grass but a look-alike—are worthy low edgers, and others, like the lemony gold of Hakonechloa, will brighten a shady spot. The tall wands and seed heads of pampas grass tower in the sun and are good in the border for creating privacy while the dusty red waves of Karl Foerster Grass (Calamagrostis) move like feathers in a breeze.

Karl-Foerster-grass [3]
Karl-Foerster-grass

Watering means time and effort in the garden, not to mention expense. Often cited as the most efficient watering method, drip irrigation systems are becoming readily available for the home garden. Simple to assemble and install at an ordinary outdoor spigot, a maze of flexible small-diameter tubing gets water right to the roots of flowers, shrubs and even container plants. These highly efficient, low-cost systems conserve water by delivering it where it counts.  One drip at a time. Add a timer for a few dollars more, and watering becomes carefree.

New England Aster [4]
New England Aster

Whether resorting to more conventional watering or the drip method, mulching helps retain moisture. It also provides cover for the drip system and cuts down on weeds. Don’t overdo. Thick mulch defeats the purpose by keeping water out and smothering plants that need air, just like humans. Overmulching also creates nesting places for rodents, insects and disease.

However fastidious the mulch, weeds are inevitable. To save frustration, don’t weed when soil is dry. Do it after a rain when roots will lift easily. Or water beds in the evening and weed the next morning. With dawn arriving early, there’s time for short-stint garden duty most days before work. Weeding becomes daunting when weeds are well-established. Get them often and early, before the job grows toilsome.

Any task is easier if tackled in stages, especially the larger garden jobs. Work in sprints: shop for plants; gather tools and supplies; prepare the soil; plant. Breaking the project, into steps over several days or work sessions, proves the adage, the sum is greater than its parts. The job seems easier, and it’s less tempting to take shortcuts on any one of the steps in the process.

Start with good soil. Double-digging, where gardeners plunged to a depth of 18 to 24 inches, removed soil, amended it with plenty of organic matter and replaced it, is back-breaking work. But nothing makes a garden grow better. If you take the time to do it, you will be rewarded for a lifetime. But it may not be a practical approach for the overworked. In ground that consists of subsoil with a few inches of surface turf or topsoil, or when dry, root-ridden ground abounds, resort to container gardening and a top-grade potting mix. Deep brown or green containers will blend into the background. Use varying heights, lowest in front, and stage them in areas where poor soil repels all effort to coax even meager results.

Where ground is workable but infertile and where flowers are a must, feeding is unavoidable. Forget dragging out the hose and bucket to mix a liquid brew. Use in-ground, time-release fertilizers. They last longer with fewer applications. Dig in leaf compost and well-rotted cow manure to provide added nutrients and improve water retention. The payback will be worth the effort.

Wild Ginger [5]
Wild Ginger

Sometimes, despite fervent care, the flowers we hoped would flourish peter out or die altogether, and we feel our time and money wasted. To better the chances of success consider Pennsylvania native plants. They are lovely, grow well in our soil and resist diseases and pests. Many are well-suited for dry, shady sites—like wild ginger (Asarum) and bugbane (Cimicifuga). But others enjoy sun and bloom despite our hot and dry late summers. Among them are Helianthus, Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium) and New England aster. For moist and partly shady corners of the garden, summer Phlox takes off along with tall Coreopsis and Turtlehead (Chelone).Heuchera and perennial geranium grow in most conditions, given a bit of relief from the day’s hottest sun. They bloom in early summer, but their foliage is pleasing and fresh into fall despite flagging heat.

From left: Huchera, Joe Pye Weed, Phlox and Coreopsis [6]
From left: Heuchera, Joe Pye Weed, Phlox and Coreopsis

High summer need not spell drudgery in the garden. There’s no need to sacrifice the lure of a cool drink in a shady nook or a beautiful summer landscape because it’s too much work and it’s just too hot. With thoughtful choosing and planting, a summer garden can be full of color and will repay minimal effort with bountiful dividends.