Reining in the Tumbling Floral Chaos: Mid-Summer Garden Maintenance …

July 29th, 2011 § 6 comments § permalink

Summer’s Wild, Tumbling Jumble (Juniperus squamata ‘Holger’, Hydrangea quercifolia, Amsonia hubrichtii, Adenophora confusa, Rudbeckia hirta, Sedum, Hosta and Adiantum pedatum)

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.

When cut back after flowering, Geranium ‘Brookside’ will look tidier and often produce a second, if slightly less lush, wave of bloom in autumn.

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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Autumn Brilliance Part Three: Plant Partners for the Late Show and Early Winter Marquee…

October 23rd, 2009 § Comments Off on Autumn Brilliance Part Three: Plant Partners for the Late Show and Early Winter Marquee… § permalink

Acer palmatum x dissectum ‘Seiryu’ in late October

By late October, much of the foliage in the forest surrounding my garden has passed its peak. Although the woods are still basking in the glow of golden birch and poplar, lemony striped maple, rusty red oak and amber colored beech –  the vibrant orange and red maple leaves are now carpeting the woodland paths, where they rustle in the wind and crunch beneath my feet. Walks through the forest in late autumn are a fragrant affair; scented with musky dampness and memories. There is a beautiful sadness in the woods at this time of year – a melancholy enhanced by frequently-foggy mornings and low-lit afternoons…

Acer palmatum x dissectum ‘Seiryu’ foliage in late October

In my garden, most flowers vanished with the recent hard frost – but the ornamental fruit and foliage, stars of autumn’s late-show, are still going strong. Now through mid November, the leading role belongs to my favorite tree, Acer palmatum x dissectum ‘Seiryu’. This Japanese maple, commonly known as ‘The Blue-Green Dragon’, (currently the only upright dissected-leaf cultivar), is planted at the bottom edge of a slope near my studio where it arches over the Secret Garden door. The Blue-Green Dragon is prized for its lacy, delicately cut foliage and its late season color. A true chameleon, this dragon changes from sea-green to golden chartreuse before lighting a brilliant blaze of orange. Finally, in mid November, the dragon’s heat simmers down to a coppery hue as her leaves slowly drop to the hidden walkway below. Nearby, Daphne x burkwoodii, ‘Carol Mackie’, has begun her own transformation; morphing from variegated green and white to a citrusy blend of lemon yellow, sweet orange and sour lime. The contrast between these two plants is particularly stunning in the last week of October and the first few days of November. Closer to ground-level, Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’, planted at the foot of the entry wall to the Secret Garden, shines like a candy apple. Glossy green and elegant during the summer months, by late autumn Bergenia’s foliage has shifted hues from green to orange to cherry red – until finally settling on the ruby-wine color she will hold throughout the early winter months….

Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’

Secret Garden door in October

Further along the garden path, nestled into the nooks and crannies between ledgy outcrops bordering the main garden entrance, Calluna and Erica have begun to turn up their heat just as temperatures here dip below freezing. Calluna vulgaris ‘Multicolor’ has shifted to a shocking shade of vermillion, emphasized by the contrasting blue-tinted foliage of nearby Calluna vulgaris ‘Silver Knight’ and Juniperous horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’. Tiny lavender blossoms continue to flush the tips of the ‘Silver Knight’ heather, in spite of the cold – I gather them up in tiny bouquets for my kitchen table.

Ground covering woody plants, such as Calluna, Erica, Stephanadra, and Cotoneaster, offer vibrant late season color that combines well with with a wide variety of evergreens. Some of my favorites include juniper, (of all sizes and habits), Siberian cypress, (Microbiota), hemlock, (Tsuga), spruce, (Abies) and yew (Taxus). Blue-green masses of foliage and bronzing needle tips provide a soothing foreground or lush, calm backdrop for the more intense, late -autumnal hues in perennial and shrub borders…

Calluna vulgaris ‘Multicolor’ and ‘Silver Knight’, planted with Juniperus horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’, (Blue rug), along the ledgy walkway at Ferncliff…

Calluna vulgaris ‘Multicolor’, forms a blazing carpet against the gray ledge in late October…

Juniperus squamata ‘Holger’, along the Secret Garden steps in October

Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’ glows golden-orange against the gray stone wall steps in late October

Stephanandra incisa and Juniperus Pfitzeriana ‘Aurea’ make a beautiful autumn pairing…

Of course fruiting shrubs and trees play an important role in my garden at this time of year and throughout the winter months. Yes, I fully admit to an obsession with colored berries. I collect and treasure fruiting shrubs for their shimmering, confetti-dot effect. While these plants are a feast for the eyes as winter draws near and color grows scarce, more importantly, their berries provide natural food for birds including the finch, cedar wax wings, cardinals and many others. As mentioned in my previous posts, (Autumn Brilliance Part One and also Autumn Brilliance Part Two), Callicarpa dichotoma and Viburnum, including the black-fruited V. carlesii, (Korean spice viburnum), provide berries for many of my feathered friends. As late fall shifts to early winter, other fruiting plants, such as Cotoneaster, begin to stand out in the garden. Ground-hugging Cotoneaster is a great partner for stonewalls, particularly in late autumn, when the bright red fruit and rusty foliage radiates in vibrant contrast to the rock’s cool, gray surface. I like to combine horizontal juniper cultivars with Cotoneaster, allowing both to trail down the side of retaining walls. Bright blue juniper berries sparkle on frosty mornings until they are devoured by hungry chipmunks and song sparrows. Ilex verticillata ‘Red sprite, a long-standing winter favorite, is just beginning its show-stopping performance. This mass of winterberry in my entry garden never fails to lift my spirits during the cold, raw days of late November. In the foreground, blue-tinted Juniperus chinensis ‘Sargentii’ enhances the orange-red brilliance of the berries and the beautiful gray-tones of Dan Snow’s stone wall rise up from behind. When snow finally dusts the winterberry branches, the red fruits float like cherries in a bowl of cream…

Ilex verticillata, and Juniper Sargent in October

Ilex verticillata ‘Red sprite’ with Juniperus chinensis ‘Sargentii’ in late October

Ilex verticillata 'Red sprite' close-up

Ilex verticillata ‘Red sprite’ with Juniperus chinensis ‘Sargentti’ in late October

Juniperus squamata ‘Holger’ and Thymus

Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Eichholz’s, leaves turn burgundy red after the hard frost in October

This Juniperus horizontalis provides blue berries in addition to sea green foliage

Viburnum carlesii, (Korean Spice Viburnum), provides late autumn foliage and black fruit. A small sized shrub, (3′ x 3′), Korean Spice Viburnum is generous with her fragrant flowers in spring…

Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Issai’, shown in an earlier post with golden foliage, is pictured after the hard frost in late October- looking even more magical than before…

Rich brown and subtle bronze tones also begin to appear in the late season, creating opportunities for harmonious pairings with brightly colored foliage and fruit. The cobalt violet hue of Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Issai’ berries, (above), seems even brighter once the shrub’s foliage turns a warm copper brown. Likewise, Microbiota decussata, (Siberian cypress), slowly burnishes from forest green to warm bronze as temperatures dip, playing beautifully against the orange-chartreuse tones of nearby moss and the pyrotechnic-color display of Enkianthus campanulatus ‘Red Bells’, planted at the corner of the walkway…

Microbiota, Thyme, Moss, Path to Northwest meadow in autumn

Microbiota decussata, (Siberian cypress), with Thyme and Moss on the path to the Northwest meadow in October…

Enkianthus companulatus ‘Red Bells’, in October

Microbiota decussata, autumn color close-up

Northwest path to the meadow with a view of amber colored beech in the distance

Although most of the flowers in my garden have faded away, some, such as Geranium ‘Brookside’, continue to surprise me past the first few frosts. When a fuchsia veined, blue-violet bloom appears amid the bright orange and yellow leaves of this gorgeous cranesbill, it can light up a gray October day almost as brightly as the sun. Placed near the golden autumn foliage of Amsonia illustris‘, this plant can easily stop me in my tracks with or without her stunning flowers. The dark hues of Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’ foliage, (or P. opulifolius ‘Summer wine’, or ‘Coppertinia’), pair nicely with these brighter plants, as do many ornamental grasses, dark violet colored sedum and verdigris tinted juniper…

Geranium ‘Brookside’ foliage turns brilliant orange and scarlet. and continues to produce violet blue blossoms with fuscia veins well past the hard frost…

Amsonia illustris, in the entry walk – golden autumn color enhanced by the late frost and nearby orange-hued ornamental grasses in October

Physocarpus 'Diablo' color variation 2

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’ foliage color, varies from deep oxblood red…

Physocarpus 'Diablo' color variation

to burnished amber…

May the colors of late autumn lift your spirits and encourage you to venture out into the garden with an eye toward extending the season. With a bit of effort and planning, almost any patch of earth can provide a season-spanning garden, filled with color and texture throughout the year. I will meet you back here in just a bit, with more design inspiration for the coming months…

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Article and photographs copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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