Inevitably, every year without fail, there comes a period between cold winter and hot summer, popularly known as spring. It is when fresh new buds flash out on trees, and your garden is unsullied by any semblance of decay and letdown.
Since we can’t preserve that happy condition, we do our best to recall what has been, just as we are up against the blast furnace that is our summer here in the South.
A lot of gardeners begin to pack it in about now, post daylily and iris season, and retire to air conditioning and iced tea, or something beefier. It’s just too durn hot to keep going with any degree of satisfaction and decency with the thermometer at 95 and the humidity almost as high. It is sweat city for sure, and right now we are smothering in it.
Another down side to the swelter season is that some of your annuals and perennials, following admirable spring and early summer bloom, are fading and decaying into what can only be objectively called eyesores.
One of numerous difficulties in keeping a mixed bed or border in at least fair fettle over the season between early spring and late fall is having a good handle on flowering time of this and that and knowing enough about the science of the subjects to realize which early plants go out of production with at least some degree of grace.
One answer, difficult as it is, comes by planting later season species in front of earlier things that go down to perdition after their flowering. For a simplistic example, plant a tall sedum in front of an early blooming phlox or something similar. When the phlox declines, the sedum will be tall enough to hide, or at least disguise the remains of the phlox, which, incidentally, could use a sharp chopping about then. A sizable planting might use several layers of these kinds of combinations.
Even the eminent Gertrude Jekyll of 19th and 20th centuries garden fame in England admitted on one occasion that a mixed border that is kept in anything resembling pristine condition from spring through fall is one of the most difficult assignments in ornamental gardening.
She should know, for she literally invented the mixed border as we know it today. I have several books on her and the groundbreaking — no pun — success she had in achieving just such an assignment in her beloved Surrey garden, Munstead Wood.
Jekyll even went so far as to drop potted hydrangeas or other plants into vacancies that inevitably appear, seemingly from nowhere, in late season beds and borders. She did not at all consider that cheating.
In my own experience, I have only a few times resorted to Jekyll’s potted plant tactics but there are other approaches I use to produce the same effect, that is, new flowers in late summer. It is simply planting the things that do that on their own after being set out in spring or being in situ for a number of years.
Some of these gap-fillers are shrubs that meld nicely with other border ingredients. Others are herbaceous things that can be manipulated into flowering later than normally expected.
For example, tall summer phloxes, which are the backbone of my longest mixed border, would all flower about the same time at an exaggerated height in a wet year. But by cutting back some clumps by about half when they are half grown and well before blooming, they are induced into flowering later and at a shorter height. It takes experience to know which ones are amenable to this operation. After the chopping tactic, then, I will have clumps of the said phlox that will flower as much as a month apart.
Back to the shrubs. Some few of them will flower late enough in the summer to make considerable contribution to a mixed planting. For one excellent instance there are hydrangeas that flower anytime from late spring until early fall. The macrophylla types, i.e., usually blue ones, are earlier and the whites ones, descendants of the native Hydrangea arborescens and paniculata types, flower from early summer into fall. All of them are excellent ingredients for late borders and beds and contribute mightily to appearances.
Do some studying via Google or paper books and pick the ones that will do your garden proud.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.