Busy Summertime Gardens

A Prairie Garden Journal 2005

If there’s anyplace in the country that can produce better summertime gardens than Wyobraska, I don’t know where it is. After a wet spring, a few weeks of summer sunshine and heat have brought Wyobraska gardens to the brink of their summertime glory. Shrub roses are in full bloom and most will continue to rebloom well into autumn. Clematis, daisies, purple coneflower, bee balm, false sunflower, and yarrow are all in mid-bloom and will soon be followed by butterfly bush, hydrangea, blue mist spirea, and rudbeckias which will all be blooming within the next few weeks. The foliage of all of those large mid to late summer perennial flowers like hardy hibiscus, Joe Pye weed, monkshood, and Russian sage is growing as fast as the corn in the nearby fields—filling garden spaces with lush foliage.

Ornamental grasses seem to have benefited from the wet spring and are responding to the heat with abundant foliage. Most feather reed grass is fully headed out already, and the warm season grasses like hardy pampas grass, miscanthus, and little bluestem all seem to have made up in the heat for the growing time that they lost in the cool late spring. It appears that with another few weeks of heat, they will be ahead of their normal seasonal development schedule.

The wet spring also seems to have increased the numbers of insects flitting, flying, hovering, crawling, and eating their way through the garden—as that’s a good thing. During a recent work session in my own garden I was repeatedly distracted by an inordinate number of dragonflies, including one with a beautiful gold-colored body, butterflies, including a couple of Monarchs that seemed to be having a really good time, bees, small garden flies, and aphids being eaten by lady beetles. A few well-munched leaves led me to think that a few butterfly caterpillars have already been using my garden as a roadside diner on their highway of life, but they must not have checked into my motel, because I was unable to spot any chrysalis or cocoons.

The one thing that shouldn’t be busy in a summertime Wyobraska garden is the gardener. Unless, that is, you consider it work to grill steaks, hamburgers, chicken, or vegetable kabobs, sip mint juleps, wine, or a cold beer, or cut a nice fresh bouquet of flowers and foliage for the dining room table. Sure it’s possible to work in the garden in the summertime, but in a well-designed and properly installed garden, summertime work is optional.

Excessive summertime garden work is most often the result of one or more fairly easily correctible problems.

1. Insect phobia. Insects in a garden are a good thing. Insects are essential to a healthy garden. They build soil, pollinate plants, and serve as essential food for birds, toads, and other small garden animals. Garden insects are often classified as “harmful” or “beneficial”, but the classification is essentially one created arbitrarily by companies wanting to sell you chemicals designed to kill the so-called harmful insects. A serious “insect” problem in your garden is almost certainly in reality a plant problem. Fix the plant problem, and the insect problem will go away by itself. Which means, if you think you see an insect problem in your garden, ask yourself what the plant problem is and fix that. Keep on reading about common plant problems.
2. No mulch. If you don’t mulch your garden, Mother Nature will. Mother Nature does it with green mulch, though, that we like to call weeds. In the grand scheme of things the plants that we call “weeds” are nature’s first step in covering and enriching soil until longer-lived plants like perennial wildflowers and grasses, shrubs, and trees can take over. If you cover the soil with a nice think layer of plant residue (shredded wood mulch), Mother Nature won’t have to send the weeds, and you won’t have to pull or spray them. Good mulch is also a natural slow release fertilizer and soil amender. In as little as three to five years, organic wood mulches can significantly improve the soil quality in a landscape bed.
3. Wrong plants. Not every plant is genetically designed to grow everywhere in the world. Yet with a national landscape plant distribution system like we have, it’s easy to buy pretty plants for your garden that won’t grow very well here. The result will likely be a sick looking plant (which will annoy you and which will look very appetizing to a number of “harmful” insects). Those harmful insects will immediately establish a metropolis on your sick plant—it doesn’t take insects long to establish a metropolis, either. The solution is not to spray the insects, the solution is to replace the plant.
4. Poor irrigation. The one thing about having a great summertime Wyobraska garden is that it will almost certainly require some irrigation. Proper irrigation is a matter of both quantity and regularity. Some gardeners water heavily, but not often enough, and plants wilt and suffer in between waterings. Others water almost every day, but never with enough water at one time. Gardens and landscapes can now be watered as scientifically as lawns with relatively new drip irrigation products that can put on exactly the right amount of water at the proper frequency.

Eliminate these sources of summertime garden work, and the rest of the work—pulling a few weeds, deadheading a few flowers, pruning a few branches, and fertilizing now and then, can all be done on your schedule—between sips of your mint julep or cold beer, or while you’re waiting to flip the burgers. Leaving the serious busy work in the garden to the birds and the bees and the butterflies and the lady beetles.

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