Summer is here, at least indeed, without waiting for a particular date to start tormenting gardeners. It’s time to prepare the garden for the onslaught by reducing garden maintenance.
After decades of dragging hoses and wishing shade didn’t include moisture, I gradually began to follow the “take it easy, drop the unnecessary chores” approach of wiser gardeners. This is especially important now that I’m older and away weeks on end covering flower shows in cooler climates.
It’s not like I have an automatic sprinkler system or a lawn to mow. My overcrowded little cottage garden, including stuff planted in a large rectangular container in the back of my old van left in the sunny driveway, basically has to fend for itself.
So before I leave my garden pretty much on its own, I’m doing what I can to make sure everything survives, even thrives, with little or no direct input. I’m inspired by what my horticulturist great-grandmother Pearl did a century ago in her tour-worthy garden of flowers, shrubs, herbs, wildflowers, vegetables and fruits who were talking about his gardening club. Keep in mind that for most of her life as a gardener, she didn’t even have running water, let alone a garden hose; I still have one of the shady gourds she used to laboriously and judiciously distribute the precious water from the rain barrel around the most needy plants.
Her main tricks were to stick to well-adapted plants that could survive winter frosts and didn’t need much watering in the summer, and she didn’t plant new plants in June. This is not as limiting as it may seem, because before the big box stores selling attractive but questionable plants from afar all year round, people bought plants in the right season grown locally by family nurseries or peddlers ranging from city to city. No one shared plants that weren’t going to survive because they all knew each other and would remember.
Some of her summer flowers that I carefully clipped included roses, superb vitex, althaea (rose of Sharon), native oakleaf hydrangeas, daylilies, liatris, canna, lantana, abelia, gardenias, nandinas, naked woman bulbs (Lycoris), elephant ears, and figs, all of which can survive in dry graveyards! Foliage of ornamental grasses, iris, and sagebrush artfully complemented the flowers, and its birdbath, driftwood, ceramic frog, and urns carried the scenes year-round. These plants and these techniques worked a hundred years ago, and still do. Email me for a free brochure on the best easy-care plants for Mississippi summers.
Meanwhile, to prepare my garden for its summer neglect, I composted the now bitter lettuce, moldy English peas, snapdragons, violas, foxgloves, and other scruffy winter and spring plants. Knowing that Mississippians can plant summer stuff, including zinnias and peppers, until early August, I leave those pots and garden spaces empty (read: no watering) until in the middle of summer. A little weeding and mulching, and I’m done for a while.
I cut the faded foliage of the daffodils, dug and pruned the garlic planted last October, and grouped the potted plants where they get morning sun but not all day radiant heat. To keep things original and interesting, I’ve pasted little gnome figurines, glass bottles, and other ornamental tchotchkes here and there, and I’ve already paid a neighbor’s teenager to show up. every two weeks to feed the fish in the pond, drag random fallen limbs to the burn the pile, hide all the delivery packages, and note the amount of water in my rain gauge.
So, I’m almost done until fall, ready to head to the flower shows. Another good mulch, and I wish my plants well and expect to see them when I get back.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi “Gestalt Gardener” author, columnist and host on MPB Think Radio. Email your gardening questions to email@example.com.