When it's too hot for physical labor, take a stroll through the garden and let your brain go to work.
Planning, planting, weeding, watering, more weeding, mulching, composting. The list of garden projects spans all seasons. What starts out during the winter in eager anticipation explodes into a flurry of excitement and enthusiastic activity during spring and early summer. Only one event compels this frantic endeavor to slacken -- the clear and unmistakable signals of summer. The signals of the season are marked by the calendar and, most importantly, the weather.
The arrival of the heat and humidity of summer forces the gardening pace to slow. Flowers often come to a standstill and vegetable production may be temporarily halted. Grass, even weeds, do not grow as rapidly as they had earlier in the season.
The summer weather also makes gardeners move a little more sluggishly. The higher the temperature, the less the energy they have. The heavier the air, the slower their steps. Often the buzz, bites and stings of insects literally chase the gardener inside. Now is certainly not the time for intense garden activity. What better opportunity to kick back and appreciate your earlier labor. What better time for lazy strolls through the garden enjoying its fragrances, sounds, and beauty.
The avid gardener does not rest too long in this blissful state, however. Take advantage of this leisure time to plan the fall flower garden. With pencil and paper in hand, walk around the garden. Make note of the condition of all the plants. Later this fall you may want to add more of those plants that are thriving and avoid those that have succumbed to mildew, blight, drought, heat and other maladies.
During one of my garden strolls last year I noticed the tall phlox were growing in an area that had become much too shady for abundant bloom and much too crowded for healthy plant growth. Their blooms were sparse and their leaves no longer green. The lack of air movement encouraged the formation of unsightly powdery mildew along the leaves. I moved these specimens to a sunnier place in the garden with plenty of open space. I have noticed the circulation of air around the plants seems to have controlled the formation of mildew this year. I will have to wait a few more weeks to see the effect of the move on bloom size.
Identify areas in the garden in which overcrowded perennials have demanded too much space and may need thinning. Vacant areas may be the perfect for these extras. Write down the new locations so you will remember your intentions. I have decided to move a portion of black-eyed Susans that, in their vigorous spreading, are blocking a sprinkler head. Their next home will be an empty space in the top tier of a new garden area.
The day lilies that I planted several years ago have outgrown their boundary and are popping up within the path that borders their bed. While there is a certain charm to this intrusion, the path needs to be clear. Later this fall I will dig up the wandering day lilies and give them to my neighbor in thanks for his giving me a few wheelbarrows full of some left over top soil.
On the move
Generally, fall is a perfectly suitable time to move plants known for needing occasional division, such as iris, day lilies, and cone flowers. If your garden is mature, you may find plants left over even after filling in the few bare spots you might have in your garden. Friends and neighbors will gladly take the extras for their gardens.
Determine which plants, although healthy, have not done as well as expected. Perhaps they need a more suitable location in the garden to help them flourish. It may be they need more sun, greater protection from the wind, or better soil drainage. One of my plants, a royal standard hosta, started the year in healthy lushness as it unfolded its grand green leaves. Today its leaves are shredded-battered and beaten by big, sharp, spikes of rain leaking from the gutter above it. I know the ultimate solution is to fix the gutter. For now it somehow seems easier and less expensive to move the hosta away from the menacing culprit.
Sometimes more than one move is necessary to find the perfect place for a plant. I have three miniature rose bushes in my garden. Two of the plants have produced hundreds of tiny pink roses each season. The third bush has not been so generous in its flower production. To coax it along I have moved it twice in the past few years.
The first move came about when it failed to set any flower buds. The second move last fall was an improvement though not a cure. The small plant is loaded with flower buds. However, I have yet to see any roses in bloom. Shade is no doubt responsible. This year I will move it once again in search of an ideal location for showing off its lovely pink flowers.
Finding fall jobs
As you continue your note-taking tour through your garden, note the maturation of the compost pile. Continue to add to it and turn it as needed. Fall is the ideal time to spread aged compost into the soil. Its organic magic will work within your garden beds throughout the winter.
Every gardener knows some sort of task can always be done in the garden. Not all projects involve plants. List chores that need to be done around your garden -- chores better done during the cool days of fall rather than the hot days of summer. For example, does the trellis need rebuilding or repainting? Do the bricks along the garden path need replacing? Is the sitting bench in need of repair? Do your garden tools need cleaning?
On your garden stroll, pay attention to what Mother Nature may have done to your garden. Perhaps you need to prune a tree limb snapped by a brisk wind.
My own garden suffered a bit of nature's wrath of a few weeks ago. Heavy rain washed out soil, over-exposed iris rhizomes, flattened large hosta leaves, moved anchoring rocks along the creek bank, uprooted day lilies, and washed away protective mulch. Some of the damage naturally corrected itself; the rest requires human intervention.
In our garden a bridge crossing over a creek needs to be rebuilt this fall. The bridge had connected the main part of the garden to our compost area across the way. During the storm rapidly rising and quickly moving water in the creek swept away the bridge supports. The entire bridge floated downstream several hundred feet. Fortunately, the bridge was retrieved -- piece by piece. Each piece now stands neatly along the back deck waiting for the cool of fall.
Lastly, when it is too hot for much else, thumb through garden books and catalogs for plant ideas. It is difficult to remember the first delights of spring crocus, tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths when no telltale sign of their presence currently exists. Let your books and catalogs jog your memory. You are bound to find inspiration for fall planting. Be ready with a supply of bulbs when fall arrives. You won't want to miss the best planting time for these spring flowering bulbs.
Remember to continue to water and fertilize your garden throughout the summer to enjoy all the plants that come into full bloom during the fall. What would an autumn garden be without colorful mums, burning bush, sedums and fall blooming crocus?
Appreciate your garden all year long. When the muggy days of intense summer take some of the joy and comfort out of active gardening, turn your thoughts to the garden that lies ahead in the next season. The fall garden is fun to plan, easy to plant and wonderful to enjoy.
-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator for Lawrence Memorial Hospital and a Douglas County master gardener.