Garden Notes: Time to adjust for late summer abundance, variety

Phlox cultivars, such as 'Dodo Hanbury Forbes' bring scent and color to the August garden.
Photo by Susan Safford

Phlox cultivars, such as 'Dodo Hanbury Forbes' bring scent and color to the August garden.

The Vineyard is fortunate to have the writer Michael Pollan as a “summer son.” He returns to the Farm Institute, Katama, tonight to share his most recent thinking on food and society, as set forth in his book, “Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation,” (Penguin, 2013).

Mr. Pollan’s influence on American attitudes to food and eating cannot be exaggerated. He is relaxed, engaging, and gregarious, especially so with an island audience. The Farm Institute, 7 p.m.: tickets $15 at TFI, ticketsmv.com, and the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.

Change in the garden

Seasonal change is occurring and affecting everything under the sun. The Vineyard is resonant with “meadow song,” the combined chorus of cricket, cicada, and katydid. Apples acquire a blush, goldenrod glints beside the way, and the scent of clethra carries on the breeze: we know that summer is maturing and ripening.

During the high summer doldrums, what you are seeing in your garden is what you get — there are few thrilling surprises left in store, unlike spring and early summer. Then, each morning brings yet another wonder, unfolding. Now, the daily routine is more mundane: damage control and crabgrass patrol.

Inject some excitement into your garden and gardening life by visualizing changes and variety. I am contemplating such a change. Idea, plan, action! An area, behind the long raised border that meanders above the lawn here at home, has become an undifferentiated mass of aronia, dangleberry, sassafras, plus my self-inflicted nemesis, adenophera. It is formless and presents a blurred green backdrop. Now that I have imagined clearing this area it demands to be done!

It is a maxim that maturing gardens become shadier: you may have to re-site specimens or make difficult calls on old garden friends. As gardens mature, many plants exceed their space or outgrow their welcome: what seemed like a great idea back then may have become tedious by now. The continued re-balancing is what makes gardening an absorbing activity.

To do: daylilies may be cut back, dug, and divided now.

Tired containers?

Unpretentious island summer style, where three red geraniums in an old flowerpot sufficed, has been permanently upstaged by an influx of glossy magazine glamour. “Wow factor” has upped the ante, and many gardeners feel obliged to emulate it. Whereas the pot of three red geraniums would probably still be looking good, being well adapted to the dog-day conditions and entailing little care and expense, more elaborate containers may start looking scruffy and need changing, and require a correspondingly greater outlay.

One strategy is swapping out tired annuals for specimens of late-season flowering perennials (re-blooming daylily ‘Happy Returns’ for example); smaller flowering shrubs; and even foliage plants, grasses, and evergreens. The well-heeled discard these when passé, while the thrifty recycle them into spots elsewhere in the garden or shrub border.

Several shrubby possibilities: compact rose-of-sharon (Hibiscus syriacus); caryopteris hybrids; compact mophead, oakleaf, and panicle hydrangeas, such as ‘Limelight’; compact forms of crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia hybrids); re-blooming azaleas, lilacs, and mockoranges; and the various Knockout and Drift class roses.

Perennial possibilities: early ‘mums come to market shortly; lespedeza (bush pea) in several species; Michaelmas daisies; ornamental grasses; yuccas and agaves; and foliage plants such as perennial and tender ferns, ornamental peppers, and the multitude of colorful heuchera/heucherella/tiarella hybrids.

The above combinations will also have a more tailored appearance than summery flowers. Give them some “socks and shoes” with fall and winter blooming pansies or perennial groundcovers such as lamium, bearberry, ivies, and gaultheria.

To do: Take cuttings of geraniums for next year’s plants.

Garden phlox

We know there is nothing new under the sun, just fashionable cycles coming and going. Arbiters of garden taste in positions of influence may promote, say, grass-filled prairie gardens, and disparage flowery or colorful ones. However, according to various industry sources the old standby, summer blooming phlox, is enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

There is good reason for phlox’s (P. paniculata) enduring appeal. Phlox provide plenty of cutflower stems without depleting the overall garden effect. Hummingbirds love them. They add swathes of color and peachy scent to gardens during the high summer doldrums, mentioned above, and those colors are chromatically integrated. Even the magenta and so-called orange phlox may be used without jarring the white-pink-cerise-purple garden: they serve as exclamation points.

Culture consists of planting in full sun in rich, neutral, well-drained but moisture-retentive soil. Choose mildew-resistant cultivars, such as ‘David.’ In late fall cut stems back and side-dress with compost. Divide phlox every three to four years, making divisions of six to eight stems.

To do: Spray phlox with horticultural oil for mildew.

Onion harvest

Onions have gone over in my garden. The harvesting advice that follows is from Dixondale Farms, where Homegrown sources its onion plants. “When the tops of the onions turn brown or yellow and fall over, it’s time to harvest. Ideally, the plant will have about 13 leaves at this point. Pull the onions early in the morning on a sunny day. Dry the onions in the sun for two days. To prevent sunscald, lay the tops of one row over the bulbs of another.

Onions’ keeping quality depends on post-harvest treatment. “They must be dried thoroughly to avoid problems with rot. If left outside when the weather is dry, this will take two or three days. The entire neck (where the leaves meet the bulb) should be dry, all the way to the surface of the onion, and shouldn’t “slide” when you pinch it…. If rain is expected, you’ll need to dry your onions indoors. Spread them out in a well-ventilated area with room to breathe. Drying indoors may take longer than outdoors. Once the onions are thoroughly dry, clip the roots and cut back the tops to one inch.”

Polly Hill Arboretum

Fern Workshop, August 8, 9 am to 3 pm, and August 9, 9 am to 12 noon; with Kristin Fauteux.