Written by J. Mitchell Brown
Photography by Donna Huffman
his is generally a tough time of the year for me. It's too hot to really do anything. Like my dog, all I want to do right now is dig a hole to find some cool dirt and just lie there. Occasionally I might lift my eyebrows a bit to see if someone is walking into my yard, but that's about it. Just lie. And sweat.
Unfortunately for me, I inherited my father's sweat glands. Even if I'm inside in a nice 72-degree climate (which the power company loves for me to declare), I can look outside towards a sun baked expanse of my yard and break out into a sweat. And I'm not talking about beads of sweat on my upper lip like might happen when I get some Texas Pete in my grits, I'm talking full-on, dripping-in-the-eyes, I-need-a-new-shirt sweat. And, if I actually go outside and do something, well, suffice it to say that I will go through three pairs of shorts and half a dozen shirts before it's all said and done.
With all this sweating going on, and my reluctance to go outside and actually exert some effort, it makes it nearly impossible for my gardens to look worth a hoot. It's a ritual in the spring and fall for me to get out in the yard nightly with my libations and a watering hose and keep my plants watered, fed, and happy. But come preservation of South Carolina Sweetgrass time and things start looking a little peaked. I'd just as soon have those libations inside in the cool, thank you very much.
As it is, though, weeds tend to love this type of weather and will flat take over things if you let them. Without water, food, and deadheading, your flowering plants will get leggy and tall and look ridiculous in the heat. Algae in birdbaths and on pots becomes prolific on sunny and hot days and, barring intervention, will turn everything into a furry nightmare.
I used to think it'd be nice to have someone come over and take care of all the minutia that maintaining a garden requires, but I've since given that up. Besides, that minutia is what gardening is all about anyway. Anybody can plop a pot in the ground and cover it with dirt. It takes dedication to sweat to the point of unconsciousness to keep the volunteer and invasive plants at bay.
So it's at this time of the year that gardens need a boost. They've been showing pretty and silently garnering you compliments all year. They're tired and ready to give up. But you've got another good 10 or 12 weeks of good growing weather and potential compliments coming and are not ready for them to give up. Now's the time for your camera and a pair of scissors. And a nice cool spell wouldn't be bad.
I got just that cool spell this past weekend when a weather front came through and made things showery and pleasant. It still wasn't that fall weather that I'm longing for, mind you, but beggars can't be choosers.
I took our camera and I started by taking pictures of the gardens as they were. It helped that it had just rained and everything was looking nice. Pictures are essential to gardening, especially for young gardens, to help plan for the next year. This being the first year with our gardens at our new home, we realize that we hit some home-runs and have a few areas that make people say, "What were you thinking?" Creating a photo record will allow me to remember the successes and failures of the prior year.
Next spring, when we are bringing in plants by the truckload to create our gardens, we will be able to review the pictures taken the year prior to see where some things worked and where some things didn't work. It is essential to take these pictures at the peak, hottest, dog-day of summer. What looks nice in April, when the sun is still behind the house at mid-day, will not necessarily look too good in August when the sun is about 12 feet off the ground and positioned right over your New Guinea impatiens.
Then the destruction begins. A virtual cleansing and rebirth. It's an action that requires faith because once you're done; things are going to look pretty bleak in your yard for a couple of weeks. I would highly suggest not performing this step the week before your daughter's wedding or any big supper parties.
It is time for you to pick a cool morning ("cool" being relative, mind you) or an overcast and drizzly day and start pulling up everything that looks tired, dejected, or is just plain dead. You know you have those plants, too, so don't lie about it - that old thing that has been dry and brown for four weeks aint' coming back no matter how much you hope it does, so go ahead and trash it. Pinch all the blooming and leggy heads off your coleus, cut your impatiens back by a third (which means removing virtually ALL of the blooming heads on it), trim your herbs, pull that weed that's in the middle of your garden, even if it means stepping on another plant to get to it, head all of your flowering plants to remove dead blooms, and pop the tops off of anything that is too tall or lanky, trim any vining plant that is unruly or tangled in other plants. Just go gangbusters.
Then grab that camera again and snap more photos. Take the pictures from the same angles that you took the previous ones. Get pictures of your new flowerless, leafless impatiens. Get pictures of the bare spots where the potato vine used to be. And take photos of the new, shorter version of your color plants like coleus.
Now grab your liquid fertilizer and feed the mess out of those plants. I've been using the new Miracle Grow liquid feed fertilizer and loving it. It's no mess, no measuring, no worries. But it needs to be a liquid fertilizer so that the plant can absorb it immediately. Absolutely drench your new, sorry looking garden with fertilizer. Come back in a few days and do it again.
What you'll witness is a garden proving itself for the fourth quarter push into fall. You going in there and chopping to top off everything is like an upset football coach railing his team during halftime. Your plants will enter the game again, motivated and wanting to prove you wrong. "We're not a bunch of pansies," they'll say. They will give their all for the remaining weeks of summer and in a few weeks you will have a new, stronger, and greener garden that will shame the one that left the field at halftime. This is particularly true with the annuals, who know this is the only time they'll have to shine. Once this game is over, i.e., once fall arrives, they know they are destined for the compost pile, so they'll put it all out on the line for you until then.
Once your gardens look good again, take a look at those pictures that you took when everything had been freshly headed and picked. You won't believe the difference a couple of weeks will make. Look at the ones from before you started your tour-of-destruction and compare how things look now. You'll see greener, bushier, happier plants.
And once everything is back up and looking good, you can invite those folks over for dinner and enjoy the praises of the unknowing: "My goodness, doesn't your garden look fabulous! How do you do it? My garden looks weak and tired this time of year."
You can sip that libation, look out the window of your air conditioned den and proclaim, "It's a lot of work, but I just sweat through it."