Plants need continued care during the dog days

Shorter Oriental lilies, such as 'Stargazer' fit well in smaller gardens. — Photo by Susan Safford

The tall bulb lilies, formerly called August-blooming, are starting their turn in the garden, a high point in the horticultural year. They join the Vineyard’s wayside, semi-naturalized tiger lilies. Oriental and hybrid Orienpet (crosses between Trumpets and Oriental groups) lilies add focus and scent to garden spaces.

As noted, many of the above are tall and need space, and perhaps staking, to look good. However, shorter cultivars better proportioned for small gardens or the front of the border are being bred. Look for ‘Strawberry Shortcake,’ ‘Stargazer,’ ‘Mona Lisa,’ or Little Rascal Mix, among others.

New options in color as well as height have become available. The color palette of the Orientals is white through rosy pink and cerise to wine red, with touches of green and yellow at throats or in banding. With the creation of the Orienpet crosses, blends of yellow and orange, more akin to Hemerocallis colors, have joined the late summer lily wardrobe. They open up possibilities in plantings that feature hot colors of plants such as dahlias and sunflowers.

Dog days

The dog days are here and gardens cry out for redoubled efforts to keep everything looking good, healthy, and on track. Generalizations result from synthesizing one’s own experiences and so it is with this. My own garden is at its most needy now, just when all the other work-related ones are, too.

The very term, dog days (according to Wikipedia, “Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time — “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.” according to Brady’s Clavis Calendaria, 1813″) is synonymous with enervating times, when the hanging onto of one’s ambition is a challenge.

Garden hygiene

So — what is to be done? Can’t advise about cures for prostration, apart from caffeine, but I do know some of what should be done.

Adjusting staking and tidying is required daily: remove anything passé, brown, mushy, dangling, or broken. Deadheading and dead-leafing keep annuals’ flowers coming and eliminate some fodder for rot and disease organisms.

Powdery mildew afflicts drought-stressed plants when humidity is high, so water soil, not plants. Mulch adds organic matter to your soil, but make sure plants are not suffocated by it. Pull it away from crowns and stems: it may harbor earwigs, slugs, and snails, as well as disease organisms.

That said, waterlogged and compacted soils lack air, another precursor of problems, and this is alleviated by the presence of organic matter and humus in soils, upon which the micro soil organisms feed.

Good air circulation promotes plant health. Therefore, in a closely planted bed or container, this may be the time to take trowel in hand and shift things around, to increase spacing. Many plants, such as nepeta, alchemilla mollis, and various geraniums, benefit from being cut back just around now, their first flush of bloom and foliage having gone by. Their crowns will receive more light and their space will be expanded for better air circulation.

Speaking of tools in hand, it is time to look at lavender and other semi-woody herbs such as rue, santolina, culinary sage (salvia), and rosemary, with pruning in mind and clippers in hand. Pruning out woody growth, which promotes new growth that hardens off before cold weather arrives, gives the opportunity to improve or correct shapes, such as making plants more compact.

Many beds become contaminated with perennial weeds, such as mugwort or fleshy-rooted bindweed, when nursery stock or shared plants are brought in. Be on the lookout for the appearance of these uninvited problems, which like all weeds are more easily controlled sooner than later.

It is much the same with the vegetable garden. Weeding, sanitation, staking, harvesting, and pest control are the operations that correspond to the above measures in ornamental gardens, plus sowing fall crops.

Now is a good time to give perennials and annuals a feed to support foliage and flower production. The earlier rains may have leached container mixes. Lightly scratched-in organic fertilizer (“soil food”), or liquid feeds for both soil and leaves supplied by liquid seaweed, fish emulsion, and compost and comfrey teas, are the means I recommend.

Alys’s comfrey tea

The following information about comfrey is from Alys Fowler’s column in the Guardian:

“Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) self-seeds and can become invasive, so it’s worth hunting down ‘Bocking 14’, a variety of Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) that is bred to be sterile.

“Comfrey is rich in potassium (K), which is required for fruit production, and also contains potash (P) and nitrogen (N). A liquid comfrey feed has a higher NPK ratio than farmyard manure. Comfrey is also one of the few plants to contain vitamin B12, so it’s a rich source of food for plants.

“A comfrey feed takes about four weeks to rot down. There’s no precise recipe, but the goal is to end up with something the colour of weak tea. Start with a bucket of chopped, packed leaves. If you add a little water, you will get a black liquid; dilute this in the ratio of one part comfrey to 20 parts water. If you add two watering cans of water (10 litres), the liquid should be cola brown and must be diluted 1:10. For a mixture you don’t need to dilute, use a bucket of leaves and a barrel of water. However you make it, use a container with a lid, to keep down the smell.”

Polly Hill Arboretum

The Polly Hill Arboretum holds the national Stewartia collection. These trees possess multi-season interest, but now is the time to visit for viewing their flowers.

In addition, PHA offers the following programs:

July 27: The Botany of Beer, with Tim Boland and Julie Jenning, 3–5 pm.

July 30: Our Healing Heritage, with Holly Bellabuono, 4–5 pm.

July 31: A Rich Spot of Earth, with Peter Hatch on Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello, 7:30 pm.