While out enjoying a morning stroll around the garden, taking in a blissfully cool and misty start to my day, a few flower stalks and juniper branches caught my attention by snapping at my ankles and tickling my knees. Ah, the tumbling jumble of summertime garden chaos! I do love a lush and laid-back garden, but every year at about this time, I embark upon a bit of disciplinary activity in my flower beds and shrub borders. After all, there’s a fine line between beauty and beast in the garden!
I begin my annual, mid-season grooming by pulling out a pair of hand-shears and bypass pruners —giving them a quick once-over with a whetstone and oiled rag— and heading out to the garden with my mobile beauty-salon (a basket filled with rags, oil, rubbing alcohol, natural twine and a few bamboo stakes). Like many seasoned hairstylists, after years of experience, most of the tasks I perform are so instinctive to me, that I fall into a state of gardening-zen while giving late July haircuts. But now that I’m doing more teaching and garden coaching, I’ve started to actually think more about the how and why of this horticultural beauty routine, in order to communicate the process to others…
Agastache, a bird, bee and butterfly favorite, always benefits from a mid-summer haircut. Shearing the spent flower heads from this plant now encourages a second wave of bloom later in the summer. Because this is an aromatic plant, it’s quite a pleasant job. But try to do this very early in the day, in order to avoid disrupting foraging bees.
Rudbeckia hirta ‘Becky Mixed’ is still in full bloom on the Wildflower Walk. As the flowers fade, I will leave most of the seed heads standing for finches and other small birds, as well to enhance the winter-garden. But if flower stalks fall into the path, tripping or whacking passers by, I will cut them for vases to keep the walkway clear.
The ever-narrowing Secret Garden stairs! Time for some haircuts! Heuchera and Adenophora self sow, and cutting them back early will prevent their spread. Spent blossoms spilling into the stairs are snipped off at the base. However, I happen to like the excess, so I allow those flower heads to the sides of the steps to multiply as nature intended. Prickly new juniper growth is cut all the way back to the main branch. Remember to clean pruners with rubbing alcohol between specimens
If you are relatively new to gardening, probably the most important thing to remember is that getting to know the plants you care for —their identities, growth habits and blooming routines— is key to making them look their best in your garden. Think like Edward Scissorhands for a moment and imagine vegetative growth as hair. Ironing curly hair straight may be fun once in awhile, but when it comes to day to day style, the best looks work with nature. What’s true for people is also true for plants. If you need help identifying the plants in your care, a good encyclopedia —like this one from the American Horticultural Society— is a great garden-library investment.
Once you are familiar with your plants, it’s much easier to decide how and when to spruce them up. Some plants need very little tending. In fact, many perennials are best left to do their own thing until they finish blooming, or until they are cut back to the ground in early spring. For example, after Hosta finish blooming, I remove the spent flower stalks to keep the plants looking tidy. However, I leave the seed heads of most Echinacea and Rudbeckia standing, in order to provide food for birds. Actaea simplex is left to do her own thing in the garden, while Asters are Chrysanthemums are pinched back until mid-July in order to encourage fuller, more floriferous plants (but never later, in order to avoid nip by early autumn frost). Nepeta, Veronica, Agastache and Geranium are sheared back after blooming to encourage a second wave of blossoms, while Aruncus dioicus and Valerian are cut back simply to make the plants look tidier. Many annual flowers, particularly those in window boxes and hanging baskets, also look best when given a mid-season haircut (and remember to keep fertilizing weekly for best bloom). Miss any opportunities this season? Remember to make a note of it in your garden journal for next year…
Veronica spicata –a pollinator favorite– is a long-blooming perennial. Because of its front-and-center location in this border (backing up Rudbeckia hirta and dancing with the slender blades of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’) this plant is a very good candidate for mid-season maintenance. Shearing the top blooms off this cultivar, V. spicata ‘Sunny Border Blue’, will help keep the plant tidy, and encourage another full wave of bloom in a couple of weeks.
I try to leave flower heads standing as long as possible in the garden, even if they seem a bit faded. Flower nectar and pollen still provides sustenance to garden guests —like this bumble bee— even though blooms may be past their prime. Later, seeds of this Echinacea, and many other flowers, provide late season food for finches and other small birds.
Learning to work with plants and maintain an attractive garden is a life-long process for all gardeners. Most experienced green thumbs are happy to share their knowledge, and many local garden clubs, botanical gardens, greenhouses and nurseries offer free or low-cost workshops and seminars on garden maintenance. When working with perennial gardeners at all experience levels, I often recommend two excellent books for further study and reference. First, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust (pictured and linked below) is a classic how-to and when-to manual for every gardener’s bookshelf. And last year, while reviewing gardening titles for Barnes & Noble, I discovered Nancy Ondra’s The Perennial Care Manual (also pictured and linked below) which I now consider the definitive plant-by-plant guide (includes an encyclopedia with many of the more popular perennials) to perennial maintenance. The macro-photos in this book include pruning details, pest ID shots and clear pictorial guides to division, propagation and more. This book would make a great gift for new gardeners, mid-level perennial enthusiasts and experienced horticulturalists alike!
Garden looking a bit loose, shabby, blowzy? Pull out the shears and pruners, a tarp or wheelbarrow and channel your inner Edward Scissorhands! Have a quick question? Feel free to drop me a line in comments and I’ll pass along what I’ve learned. Have fun out there…
My top recommended how-to with great pictures: Nancy Ondra’s The Perennial Care Manual
A classic for every gardener’s bookshelf: Tracy DiSabato-Aust The Well-Tended Perennial Garden
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