Garden Notes: The mid-August moment

Renew your gardens, and check on your vacationing houseplants outdoors.


Clethra scents Island byways, and it is time for the fair — the mid-August moment.

Effort and inspiration are on display in hall and grounds! The purpose of agricultural societies and agricultural fairs is the improvement of husbandry and agricultural arts. When looking at the exhibits, think to the winter ahead, and food supply.

In our country we are fortunate. The idea of unavailability of staple food supplies is novel and alien to many Americans, while many of us are far past being able to provide them for ourselves. Give a thought to how your meal arrives at the table, and how you might support local agriculture, or “grow your own.”

Bed renewal

Gardens need reorganizing from time to time. Dwindling vigor and loss of bloom are indicators that perennials need dividing. However, when a redo becomes a necessity, a smidgen of forethought is helpful, since this work is often performed in seasons when gardens have passed their height. Then the perplexing questions accumulate: “Which phlox is this?” and “Where were those camassia planted?”

I plan a redo of a bed that contains two different peony cultivars. It should be easy to tell by location which is which. However, when I share the extras, it would be good to have proper descriptions.

Taking photos is the simplest remedy, but tagging plants to mark their locations is helpful too. This may sound elementary, but spatial dimensions could surprise you when there is no longer foliage to orient you.

Taking cuttings

Performing a redo will inevitably result in more plants, intended or otherwise, and provides a good use for the plastic nursery pots we all accumulate. Plant divisions keep surprisingly well in them, and plants already contained in some sort of pot are easier to share, too. Put them out on the sidewalk with a “free plants” sign.

I am looking at the geraniums (pelargoniums), and sizing up the elongated stems for pruning and cuttings. Making new plants from those you already have is also a way to furnish next season’s container display. For home propagation, it is best to take them now.

Vacationing houseplants

Speaking of container plants, houseplants have been outside, vacationing like many of us here. Check them from time to time to tip rainwater out of saucers, inspect for pests and damage, and remove weed growth. Things that occur as houseplants quietly sit in a shady spot, while their owners are busy with summer lives: A cyclamen was covered with unseen red flowers, all by itself.

In the garden

Despite the heat wave, despite periods of drought, despite weeks-long high humidity — based on my observation, most gardens have been having a good season.

Deadleafing and deadheading are a feature of garden work now, to keep continuing bloom and the appearance of order. The rains that have fallen were pounding, and knocked lots of normally sturdy plants sideways; staking may be necessary now that roots are loosened.

Hard rains may have splayed long, bloomless canes of hydrangeas onto the ground. To propagate new plants, pin canes down into contact with the soil; they generally root easily and quickly. Be sure to keep them well-watered. Separate from the parent plant when well rooted, and pot up individually.

Vines such as oriental bittersweet, English ivy, and Virginia creeper are also running amok. At first they make a pretty picture; next thing you know they are at the strangler stage.

After deadheading, strew the large platycodon seed capsules onto the garden soil and watch for the small, two-leafed volunteer seedlings that may arise. As babies, these are easily moved into permanent spots. A long-lived perennial with a deep taproot, platycodon, a beautiful August bloomer in dazzling white and cobalt, and soft pink, is not easy to transplant successfully. This may be the reason it is seen infrequently at garden centers. It is adaptable to full sun and part shade.

Major cutbacks of perennials at this time often produce another fresh flush of leaves and flowers. Tired annuals may renew too, when cut back and given a feed of liquid seaweed. Nepeta, geranium, salvia, coreopsis, alchemilla, and many more, are perennials that respond to this treatment. Others, such as astilbe, have done their thing: Cut them back and let them become background greenery.

Many roses with reblooming capacity respond to recent rains with fresh leaves and flowers. Remove deadheads and side-dress once a month with Pro-Gro to keep their soil well-fed and happy.

Late summer is bustling with spiders and yellowjackets, and sunny gardens attract pollinators and butterflies. Avoiding toxic products helps these garden allies fulfill their functions. (Yellowjackets: Are they garden allies? Not sure, but they too are a part of nature.)

Warm-weather weeds such as crabgrass love the heat, and continue to ambush perennials, whose foliage camouflages their spread. Bird-sown brambles, such as blackberry and wineberry, make amazing growth too. Once their roots are ensconced in hardscape or groundcover, these plants are very difficult to remove.

Keep ahead of tomato vine support. A hard rain or wind squall is enough to lose a season’s worth of expectation. Continue with weekly Bt application for brassicas and other plants that lepidopteran caterpillars eat. (Bt does not protect against non-lepidopteran insects, such as katydids.) Order garlic seed.

Everything goes somewhere

The landscaper obeys the requests of the property owner for an overly perfected environment; or perhaps anticipates them. It is distressing to observe an employee of a large landscaping company in his backpack sprayer, hosing down a private parking area with weed killer, right next to a storm drain on the street that empties directly into a shellfishing area.

On a daily basis, can you multiply this scenario by the numerous locations where abuse of the Island’s natural capital plays out? Treating ponds, bays, and water tables like open sewers?