The famous British gardener and colorist Gertrude Jekyll died five years before I was born, 1932 to wit. If her life had covered a century later, perhaps it might have been my good fortune to see her in person, via one of our four garden pilgrimages to the British Isles.
At any rate, I have most of her books on ornamental gardening. She is considered the mother of the border of hardy plants, mostly perennials. I have judiciously studied her plans and attempted to emulate, in a small way, her principles. My failures have been catastrophic, to say the least.
Autumn is approaching, and gone is the freshness of spring and early summer. My borders evidence the usual late summer-early fall dereliction that seemingly goes with the territory here in the blistering and humid southeast of the USA.
So it was with some degree of morbid satisfaction (misery loves company) when I read some time ago in one of her books of her struggle with the same late season problems.
She yearned for the freshness that was evidenced three months earlier in her June garden.
Yes, autumn dereliction is a fact of life. No matter how much innate skill, art, botanical training and growing expertise the garden practitioner owns, there seems to be no way to escape the falling down of any degree of primness the later in the season it gets. It reaches the point that it is a relief when the final attack of nature in the form of the first killing frost levels everything and the annual cleanup is initiated.
Even such an eminent master of ornamental planting art as the late Christopher Lloyd (whom I did get to meet, several times) of Great Dixter in East Sussex, England, owned up to the fact that his magnificent borders, “reach a falling off from August onwards.” Do say.
So I am not alone in having a let-down feeling about this time of the year, despite my best and most determined effort in neatening up.
All that to say this: Don’t despair over the possible sordid appearance of your garden right now. Do the best you can in snatching up fallen-over and bloomed out perennials and annuals. Then dead-head the others that have no inclination, from this point on, to produce more flowers.
Among the worst offenders in this category are peonies. I have quit them because of their let-down after (brief) spring bloom. In more northerly zones, peonies present a much better late summer and autumn appearance, producing, even nice fall foliage color. Here they burn into a horrendous brown. It is all right to cut this away by now. There are numerous others in the same category.
However, other perennials that flower mostly earlier do not sully up the landscape. Hostas, for instance, if not riddled by slugs, stay in fair fettle until cool weather and some turn a fine butter yellow when cold nights arrive.
There are, also, numerous things that have yet to bloom. Chrysanthemums, of course, and asters, to name probably the most common. The Korean type mums are the most dependable here, flowering later than some of the cushion types but holding on well past freezing weather. If they are in danger of being smothered by nearby earlier flowering neighbors, cut the latter back and give the mums some air.
Then, too, there is cheating, as some call it. That is, dropping potted plants into inevitable holes in a bed or border. This is temporary and, call it cheating if you will, it certainly perks up a fall planting and might make you feel better.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at 642-1162.