The challenge to keep our flower beds and gardens looking like candidates for an award-winning magazine photo spread is in full swing. Depending on your geographical situation and the blessings or curses from the Meteorological deities over the last couple of months, you are likely living one of two scenarios:
1. You’re surrounded by lush, green, and flowering gardens that have you reliving a particularly famous scene from “The Sound of Music.” Obviously, you must be living right, and the gods have smiled upon you.
2. Or, you’re as dejected as the “Walking Dead” surrounded by brown and dying plants and flowers typical of a neglected cemetery. You’ve clearly made someone’s naughty list this year!
You’re not alone!
Here in my neck of the woods of South Carolina, it’s freakin’ hot and desert dry. I’m clearly being punished for wrongdoings for which I’m unaware. Clearly, it takes more than high morals and ethical behavior to ensure a successful garden.
So here we are. August! The little nasties from the neighborhood HOA removed the “Yard of the Month” sign from our lawn while casting self-righteous looks our way. I understand. I really do! However, despite sporting black-eyes and bloody lips in the fight to reclaim our titles (and yard signs), let’s step back and examine our second wind options before throwing in the towel.
Clean-up & Clear Out
Unless you have been diligently clearing your gardens in this heat of July, there is a good chance we need to start there.
The first step is to take the time to remove dead or dying growth from the plants and surrounding soil. Deadhead thoroughly!
Examine your plants for signs of heat or disease stress and remove discolored leaves and discard the clippings. I recommend you clean your clippers with alcohol between each plant to prevent spreading diseases to healthy plants. This is undoubtedly one of those, “Do as I say and not as I do,” action items.
Take the opportunity to weed completely. At this stage of the season, many plants are already struggling. Removing weeds competing for soil nutrients and water will be hugely beneficial. Turning the soil over with a hoe once a week will not only help aerate the ground but will help you better manage weed control.
Plants that are overgrown or have fallen onto their surrounding neighbors for support should be thinned and trimmed. Remove overrunning limbs and prop the remaining healthy plants with a sturdy tying and steaking. This will improve the airflow among the plants and renew the garden’s aesthetics.
Once the debridement is completed, let’s discuss the next step which may or may not be optional depending on your cultivation goals and the garden condition after the clean-up and clear-out.
Replant & Replace
After a final inventory following step one, you may have gaps that need to be filled or plants that need to be replaced.
Make no mistake, I had to acclimate to the gardening challenges in South Carolina after moving from the familiar and easier to manage growing environment in southwest Virginia. I still learn lessons the hard way as I’ll deftly illustrate in the later mulching discussion.
One of those hard-learned lessons led to a new, yearly habit of establishing a second planting in late June and early July for replanting and replacing in the fall. Frustrated with the lack of plant selections in most stores and nurseries in August and September, I learned to plan for this ahead of time.
Now, at this point in the season, my second planting is ready for transplanting.
If you are disinclined to start second plantings, you might consider rooting clippings from established plants for the same purpose just a few weeks in advance. To be sure, both possibilities are cheaper than purchasing new plants.
A third economical option that can work for or against you is raiding the clearance section where you usually shop for plants. This does carry some risk, however. Carefully examine the condition of the plants and weigh the likelihood of restoring your purchased plants to a healthy vigor in the time remaining in your particular growing season. Otherwise, you’re stuck with dying plants in the very spots you just removed the previous ones from.
Now, I will be honest in saying I’m not a big risk-taker when it comes to the annuals. However, I absolutely love buying clearance perennials. If I’m less concerned about immediate results, I will purchase perennials outside their blooming season if the plant itself appears reasonably healthy. When they return in the spring, I’m bursting with pride at the savings that came with planning ahead.
Lastly, it may be an excellent time to start transitioning to fall blooming plants that are beginning to arrive in stores. A word of caution, purchasing fully flowering fall plants will likely result in early blooms that are gone before the fall season is complete. Be selective in your choices. Obtaining fall plants that have yet to start blooming is probably the wisest decision. While they may not be as pretty in their mostly green state; they will nevertheless fill the gaps in your garden. They will be well-acclimated by the time they burst into their full glory in the weeks to come.
Disease & Pest Control
During the Clean-up & Clear Out process, it was probably obvious exactly what additional challenges we need to deal with beyond those directly related to weather.
As the summer season wanes, the full effects of environmental stresses on the plants are showing. High temperatures, dry conditions, and the ravages of pests weaken a plant’s ability to fend off disease.
Yellowing or other discoloring, spotting and curling, and black or white coating on leaves are just a few of the symptoms. Again, these would have been removed and discarded in our first step to prevent cross-contamination of diseases.
The application of fungicide and other disease prevention formulas are a must! Powders and sprays are plentiful in most outdoor store departments and nurseries. Just follow directions for use carefully.
Environmentally conscious gardeners may prefer the horticultural soap and spray recipes found online. The choice is yours, but urgency should be considered.
The same considerations and options are available for insecticides. Traps and sticky strips in or near the garden may be helpful, but I’ve never been a fan of either method.
Again, adhere to the directions for insecticide use to prevent injury to yourself or the affected plants. One additional caution, as with any liquid, do not spray directly on plants during the hottest, full-sun parts of the day. This is likely to “blister” delicate leaves. The resulting leaf burn increases the likelihood of disease acquisition or plant death.
Feed & Water
Many of us have a tendency to grow complacent with fertilizing once our gardens have become established and are beautifully proliferating. This can directly result in the “garden as a neglected cemetery” appearance.
As varied as our flowers, plants and vegetables can be, so are their nutritional requirements. A quick Google® search can explain each specific plant’s requirements. As a general practice, weekly feeding for annuals is the frequency I try to maintain. Historically, this has worked very well for me.
When I get lazy, however, today’s neglect later undoubtly presents itself.
Plant food and fertilizer choices are abundant, both chemical and organic. I tend to use a combination of both. However, before I even had a driver’s license, I was a young gardening champion of the original Miracle-Gro®, and it is a product I stand behind today.
I tend to adhere to something closer to a bi-monthly feeding schedule for perennials until fall at which time I generally eliminate the feedings altogether. For fall-blooming perennials, I will extend the fertilizing and feedings until they are in full bloom and then stop.
Now that we are back on a regular feeding schedule in our attempt to instill a new vitality to our garden, it’s pertinent to do the same with our watering schedule. In all likelihood, this is where we got off track initially.
As late summer and fall get into full swing, so do the soaring heat and extended dry periods. It’s also when we prefer the welcoming air-conditioning to the very heat we leave our gardens victim. Shame on us! So mind the moisture and prevent the parching!
Mulch Me Please
Ok, here is where I lay it all out! Truth must be told. Therefore I must admit until recently I NEVER used mulch in my gardens. NEVER!
Since moving to the Carolinas, I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. It took me nearly 5 years to adopt the practice as I was convinced this was completely unnecessary.
Growing up in Virginia, it wasn’t part of my gardening practice. Year after year no mulching! Rainfall and heat were moderate enough that my gardens were super successful without it as long as I stuck with the other actions as mentioned above. That isn’t true everywhere, however!
I can now admit where it would have been a significant water and time saver for me the gardener, even if my previous gardens in Virginia flourished without it.
In the hot, drier climates resolve yourself to mulching. Just trust me and do it! Mulch, in 2-3 inch layers, to protect the delicate root systems we don’t see. It helps the soil maintain a stable moisture balance helping prevent the roots from overdrying. This padding is also a natural insulation barrier to shelter sensitive root systems from the dramatic temperature changes from night and day.
I’ve seen statistics that state a mulch layer can reduce water loss by as much as 70%. I saw this to be true almost immediately. My gardens were no longer wilted when I returned home in the evenings, which was something I had not experienced since migrating to South Carolina. In addition to reducing the frequency of manual watering, the quantity of water needed was significantly reduced. Win-win!
It wasn’t long before I was sold on the practice of mulching.
Another benefit for you mulchers is less weeding! Heck yes! This weed barrier saves the lazy gardener a great deal of time and energy.
So far, I’ve yet to discover any good reason to not mulch. I’m convinced there may be some soil ph issues to deal with at some point depending on the type of mulch used such as pine needles or pine bark. So far, my natural, no float, cypress mulch is getting the job done nicely without issue.
In closing, that’s my recipe of practices for garden reinvigoration.
Sadly, once I put it all down on paper, I came to a pretty sobering realization that you may have reached as well. The secret to healthy, late-season gardens is never to stop what you were doing in the spring!
Yep! There are no shortcuts. The curses we blamed on the Meteorological deities may have been failures of our own. Not to say they aren’t to blame sometimes. I’m willing to share the blame at this point!
Indeed, there are factors out of our control, and the weather is one of those. The real lesson is that we must remain steadfast with our garden care disciplines. And if perhaps for some reason, we fall short in our resolve, and our beautiful green and flowering friends start to suffer, now we’re armed with some of the best practices to recover what was lost.
As a bonus, just consider that the “Yard of the Month” sign we mentioned earlier might make a reappearance and that might really piss off the neighbors! See, so many great reasons to remain diligent!