Garden Notes: Welcome, summer

Please do not doom your lavender.

Buzzing with bees and dazzlingly blue. —Susan Safford

Honeysuckle sweetens the air, and fireflies are visible at dusk. Nights are warmer. Island roadways have filled noticeably; please observe speed limit signs. Anticipate vacationing drivers who have left their brains on the mainland.

A small group of dedicated bicycle enthusiasts is working on ways to expand the Island’s network of bike paths. Support them and your own safety by using the existing bike paths, and leave the traffic lanes to trucks, buses, and SUVs.

Lavender days

Much is happening in the garden — roses, lilies, hydrangeas, hosts of perennials — but who can ignore the blaze of lavender? These bright clear days of early summer herald when lavenders are in their first full flush of growth and perfection, buzzing with bees and perfume, and dazzlingly blue.

Is there anyone who has encountered someone saying, “I hate the smell of lavender; I just cannot stand it”? I have not. The legendary herb’s fragrance is universally enjoyed in soap, potpourri, eau de toilette, aftershave, and in the garden.

Lavender is generally undemanding and easy to get right. Just provide sunshine and hold the water: It flourishes in dry, well-drained, sandy or gravelly soils in full sun; in other words, exactly what the Vineyard naturally provides, little extra fuss required. Lavender in an irrigated bed is probably doomed.

I know full well that irrigated gardens are becoming more prevalent, although it is a regrettable development. For me, the garden challenge is to create plantings that suit their site, rather than altering sites to grow gardens that cannot maintain themselves otherwise.

While climate fluctuations remain unknown, watering requirements are not; most down-Island gardens are watered with metered water. “Fine,” you may say, “my money, my choice!” although plants of the water-wise garden, such as lavender, are trouble-free and money savers, in case unlimited watering should come to an end.

Lavender comes from the quintessential “Mediterranean climate,” the Old World, from Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, Europe across to northern and eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, southwest Asia to southeast India. Along with other beautiful and interesting dry-land plants, our climate supports Lavandula angustifolia and hybrids such as Lavandula x intermedia (Lavandin), although not more tender species such as L. stoechas or L. dentata, which would survive in California, Spain, or south of France, but not here.

Numerous cultivars of lavender, in colors varying from white to pink through deepest purple, exist. I tend to stick with the medium-size, reliable standby, ‘Munstead,’ a soft bluish-lavender, although many are drawn to the MVRHS purple of ‘Hidcote.’ Pink ‘Jean Davis’ is an excellent grower, although pink lavender contradicts the metaphor. However, in the past several years, hardy cultivars such as ‘Phenomenal’ and ‘Big Blue’ have been introduced, to good reception. ‘Phenomenal’ may be seen at the West Tisbury library walkway garden.

Herbal properties of plants are a no-go area to skeptics, but almost from time immemorial lavender has been used to calm and relax. Modern science supports its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory action.

Lavender is generally pruned in spring once new growth has commenced, shortening the old woody stems; and then once again sometime during the course of the growing season, keeping the plant compact and renewed. Eventually, though, lavenders succumb to old age — but not always. Lavender in a favorable location may grow for many years as a tight mound of gray foliage, almost like an alpine plant.

To keep lavenders from looking unsightly, deadhead once flowers have grayed out. With only a couple of plants, remove flowering stems down to nodes below the first set of leaves. With a flourishing plantation of lavender, this may seem like a daunting task, so for expediency’s sake, grab and cut. Either way, enjoy the scents released by working with this plant.

In the garden

Early potatoes are ready, as much a summer ritual for the gardener as peas or any other July Fourth festivity. Cook them in their skins in plenty of salted water; serve with butter and chopped dill or parsley. Scout plants for larvae/potato beetles, and knock off into soapy water in early morning or at dusk.

Crabgrass and other warm-weather weeds such as purslane appear now; hardscapes especially are made unsightly by the spreading mats, which are so easy to pull while still small. Watch for bittersweet and “weed” clematis; dig them out if you can, before they become monsters of hedges and perennial beds.

White cabbage butterflies’ caterpillars have emerged and are feeding on cabbage, broccoli, and other brassicas. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) sprayed at seven- to 10-day intervals controls them.

The various small beetles, oriental, Asiatic, and Japanese, are making their unwelcome appearance now. They overwinter in soil and turf as white grubs. When nocturnal skunks dig up lawns, it is white grubs that they are eating: depending on your point of view, this may be a good thing or a bad one.

With the first flush of spring bloom now finished, cleanup and cutting back contribute to a tidy garden and rebloom in some plants. Foliage of spring bulbs has done its job of fueling the plants’ future flower formation and may be cleared away. Deadhead lilacs and other spring-flowering shrubs.

Low-growing thymes, a pollinator magnet, have finished the first flush of bloom, and if cut back now will provide more bloom and forage for desirable insects. Destalk irises that have bloomed, and remove dead foliage from rhizomes of bearded ones. Salvias, nepetas, and other early bloomers such as centranthus may be selectively deadheaded, or completely cut back, to promote another round of bloom. Deadhead annuals and biennials such as lychnis.

Tie in staked dahlias and tomatoes. Pinch out axillary growth sprouts on tomatoes that are being grown to single stems. Heavily blooming roses need cleanup; prune off deadheads, clear petal drop, and side-dress with a good organic soil food.