Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Garden Lessons Learned: Summer 2012

Experience is the best teacher, the old saying goes.  That is certainly true when it comes to gardening.  I have learned so much the last few years through the Master Gardener program and various gardening seminars and talks, through reading garden books and magazines, and of course, through reading garden blogs.  But there's nothing quite like the actual "doing"--and making mistakes along the way--for learning what works in your own garden and what doesn't.

Every season I learn something new or re-learn an old lesson that I should have remembered, so I am joining in once again with Beth of Plant Postings' "Garden Lessons Learned from the Summer of  2012."  Among the many lessons taught me by this hot, dry summer are these:

1. Summers in Illinois can be very hot. 
     Duh.  I have lived in Illinois my whole life, more years than I care to admit, so you would think I would remember this.  But every year when spring arrives, I am as giddy as a young teenager experiencing her first crush, tiptoeing through the garden to admire every tulip and daffodil in bloom.  I start making plans for all kinds of garden projects and make frequent visits to nurseries, coming home with trunkloads of trays filled with all kinds of annuals.  List after list is made of what needs to be planted where and garden chores to be completed each day.

 This spring, inspired by my trip to all the lovely gardens of Asheville and motivated by guests coming one day in late June, I worked as much as possible in the garden.  But then the thermometer soared to 90 and climbed even higher, and I melted into a sweaty blob of inertia.  For the next six weeks about the only thing that got accomplished in the garden was watering.

The shade garden was about the only place I enjoyed working in during July.

So what can I take away from this lesson to make next year more enjoyable?
  •  Recognize my limitations--I'm not like those Victorian ladies who would "glow" in the heat; I sweat.  And every drop of sweat that runs down my face seems to take a pound of energy from my body.  I just don't "do" heat well at all.  I need to remember this when choosing plants and not plant anything too fussy or that requires constant deadheading, because it's just not going to get done in the middle of summer.
  • Mulch, mulch, and mulch early!  This was a banner year for weeds; it seemed like weeding was all that I got done in June.   By the first of July, I had spread mulch over all the garden areas.  But if I had started earlier, while I was planting, I could have cut back on much of that work and accomplished some other projects before the heat set in.
  • Choose plants that thrive in the heat.  Lantana has become one of my "must-have" annuals every summer because it absolutely loves the heat; no wilting blooms here.  Of course, it will be just my luck that next year we'll have an unusually cool and wet summer . . . but I'm not betting on that:)
Unlike me, Lantana loves the heat!

2. Plants need rain.
While I was somewhat tongue-in-cheek earlier, the drought this summer was no laughing matter.  As much as I avoided the heat, I did drag myself outside as early as I could each morning to water all the containers and set up sprinklers for the garden, dashing out again every hour or so to move the sprinklers around.  But plants know the difference between well water and pure rain, and they just weren't happy.  As tiresome and frustrating as the lack of rainfall was for me, it didn't compare to those whose livelihoods depend on a good growing season.  Some farmers in the state had to cut down or plow under crops that withered in the drought.

  • After two years of drought that reached "extreme" conditions by early August, I've learned that I should look carefully at water needs before buying a plant.  The Caryopteris 'Summer Sorbet' above was a serendipitous choice this year.  I had wanted one for several years primarily to add some late summer color.  I didn't realize, though, that this plant enjoys dry conditions as well as heat--a perfect choice for the summer of '12!
  • Because the drought was so widespread across the United States, I also learned how nice it is to have blogging friends to commiserate with.  We were all in the same boat, struggling to keep our gardens alive.
I think Lambs' Ears are impervious to any kind of weather.

    3. Some plants need extra nutrients.
    Annuals, particularly those in containers, really benefit from regular applications of fertilizer throughout the season.  Even though I used potting soil with plant food mixed in--the only kind of potting soil our local garden centers sell, it seems--it doesn't take long for the plants crowded together in a pot to use up most of the soil's nutrients.  I usually buy a commercial fertilizer that has extra phosphorus to boost bloom production and try to apply it every two weeks.  This year, however, I kept procrastinating, thinking a rain would be nice before applying it, and never got around to fertilizing more than once all summer.  As a result, most of my containers are looking pretty ratty right now, even the varieties of petunias that are usually so dependable for me.  The lesson is clear: if I want pretty containers all summer long, I need to vow to maintain them, which means a regular schedule of fertilizing.

    This planter looked pretty good when I first planted it and filled out even more over the next month, but I'm not showing a photo of it now:)

    4. Some plants are prolific self-seeders.
    In several posts over the summer I've mentioned the nicotania and the Salvia farinacea that nearly took over my arbor bed this year.  But there were other volunteers I was surprised by as well, including the cardinal vine.  I forgot to plant some seeds this year, but not to worry--I soon found out it had re-seeded itself all around the arbor bench.  Over the summer, I've found tendrils of this vine wrapped around other plants as far as six feet away.  That rapid growth may sound a bit worrisome, but it is easy to snip the straying tendrils, and a more diligent gardener than I should have no trouble keeping it under control. 

     The hummingbirds love this plant; I watch them every morning flying around the arbor bed, passing up the nectar feeder for the real thing--red blooms they love.

    Here's the bigger picture to show how things get out of control in my garden--the cardinal vine has wrapped around the hyacinth bean vine as they both race to the top of the arbor trellis.  Those are cosmos to the left, by the way, planted directly behind the bench, some of which are easily six feet tall.

    Actually, the conclusion to this lesson isn't definitive yet.  Whether these plants normally re-seed so easily or whether they simply survived the mild winter remains to be seen.  I guess I'll know for sure next summer.

    5. Foliage can be just as eye-catching in containers as blooming flowers.
    I admit it--a handsome face can turn my head.  When I am plant shopping in the spring, I am drawn to the rows upon rows of colorful flowering plants.  Oh sure, I like coleus and caladiums, too, and have a hard time choosing my favorites of these to buy.  But I always think of foliage as the accent in a container, not the center attraction.  However, when I finished planting all my containers this spring, I found I had only a few Profusion zinnias left and one extra coleus for the last container.  What to do?  Go shopping for more blooming plants?  Not a good idea, since I always seem to come home with twice as many as I intended to buy.  Besides, I was tired and just wanted to get this finished.  So I planted both coleus in the pot with the remaining zinnias in front.

     'Redhead' and 'Roaring Fire'

    Guess what?  When I come home, the first thing I notice as I drive up the lane is not the bedraggled petunias in the hanging planters or (almost) trailing down the porch planter, it is this pot.  The burgundy and shades of gold of these coleus really stand out against the greenery of the nearby shrubs.  Lesson learned:  plant more pots of primarily (or all) foliage next year!

    6. Butterflies love zinnias.
    Of course, I already knew this--I just wanted an excuse to include this photo:)  Actually, I did learn a new tidbit of information about butterflies this summer.  I attended a talk on butterfly gardens last month where I learned that butterflies enjoy a landing pad where they can rest for awhile, which accounts for their preference for plants like zinnias and coneflowers.

    7. And finally, be patient.  Remember nothing lasts forever.
     There's an old saying in Illinois (and probably every other state) that "if you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes, and it will change."   I whined much of the summer about the heat and the lack of rain, but August and now September have provided some welcome relief with cooler days and most importantly, some much-needed rainfall.   The garden is starting to revive, and my enthusiasm for tidying up the garden has returned.

    Nothing teaches you patience like trying to photograph a hummingbird:)

    It was a tough summer, but I learned some valuable lessons.  Best of all, my garden survived.


    1. So well-described, Rose--all your lessons! I learned similar ones, since we experienced very similar conditions this summer. I always learn something new from your blog, Rose. Your shade garden looks like a great place to pull up a chair and enjoy the view! And I can't wait to plant Lantanas next spring, too! Thanks for joining the meme!

    2. That is awesome that you are doing the Master Gardner Program. I would love to do that one day! I want you to come to my house to work on my shade beds. (mine are a different story...to long to share!) Yours look fantastic! Great combos and colors!

    3. I also appreciated my shady back garden more than ever this year. Whenever I walked through the gate to the back yard I could feel the temperature drop what felt like 10 or 15 degrees.

    4. I love your shade garden. Does it get any sunlight at all or is it shady all the time? I love how diverse your arbor is!
      And yes, everything passes, including hot dry summers!

    5. The shade garden is lovely. There'd be no need of it here! Its all shade!
      Loved that photo of the little bird on the feeder.
      Maggie X

      Nuts in May

    6. Great post Rose. I was so depressed this summer. I too ran around with the sprinkler going moving it here and there. If one is patient enough, you finally realize the strong will survive. The Cardinal vine will reseed even after severe winters. It is just slow to come out during spring. Love your header photo. Isn't this weather wonderful?!

    7. I'm so glad summer is almost over! Actually we were blessed with abundant rainfall this year for a change. Normally we're in an extended drought during the summer. I just felt so bad for my friends and family in the Midwest.

      I think that next year I will add more coleus for color. I really like the ones that you have.

    8. I have some of the same issues in my garden. I wish we had more rain, yes the plants like rain water more. (contains more nitrogen according to my ext. agent)
      I love the foliage of your shade garden...the hostas, brunnera and heuchera together is a great combo.
      I am bad about fertilizing annuals, not keen on needy plants I guess.
      Love your Caryopteris! I got some this summer and they are doing quite well!! Mine have the silvery blue foliage.

    9. I love the photo in your header! Goldenrod and 2 different colors of asters! And so beautifully intermingled - so glad you shared it!

    10. Those photos are really lovely. I really learned a lot from your post too. I love the bird feeder. It is really awesome!

    11. Living in a country with lots of rain this year I had other problems to get the plants surviving. Maybe giving them swimlessons. We love it when we have a week with warm sunny weather. But after a week I am always pleased the cooler weather. We had so much rain overhere my plants were extremly hughes and my garden was green like it never was before. Every year I learn of my mistakes and experiences in the garden. At the moment the catalogs of springbulbs did arrive by post.
      Time to make plans again for next year.
      Have a wonderful day Rose

    12. It seems we have experienced a similar summer, full of dry and hot weather. I have the same problem with my cypress/cardinal vine, but I cannot resist growing it. It is just too beautiful and the butterflies and hummingbirds love it. You have some great lessons here, ones that all gardeners can learn.

    13. These all seem like self evident observations, but boy are they hard-won lessons, for every gardener! Well said.

      It took me several seasons to learn how to handle the heat and the dry in mid summer without giving up on the whole garden. And how to use foliage, and ... well really, all your lessons are ones I have had to learn too :-)

    14. Beth, I think many of us experienced the same things this summer, especially what can survive in extremely dry conditions. I highly recommend the lantana--so colorful and so easy. Thanks for hosting this again; I always enjoy looking back at the season and trying to learn from my mistakes.

      Garden Diaries, I went through the Master Gardener program after I retired; no time before that! My "secret" to the shade garden is to keep cramming plants in so there is no bare soil visible:) It does keep out the weeds!

      Jason, This summer I almost wished my whole garden was in the shade!

      Ruth, The shade garden does get some sunlight in the morning. Diversity does describe the arbor bed--I keep planting one or two of this and another one or two of that:)

      Maggie May, I suppose I would miss it if I didn't have some sunny areas to plant, but I think shady gardens are the most peaceful and relaxing. I love the hummingbirds!

      Lisa, I was just thinking what a gorgeous day today was. I have actually worked in the garden the past two mornings. I wonder if there is such a thing as a summer maintenance-free garden? Thanks for the info on the cardinal vine. I still had some seeds left from what you gave me last year, but as you can see, I didn't need them:)

      W2W, As you know, the Midwest was really hit hard this year by the drought. I don't know if the recent rains are enough to help the farmers--it's probably too late--but it sure has made a difference in my garden. I'm planting more coleus next year, too!

      Janet, I always wondered why rain was so much better for plants; of course, well water like ours or city water is bound to have some chemicals that aren't the best. I'll have to check out your caryopteris--the foliage sounds very pretty.

    15. Gaia, Thanks for commenting on the header. That's the butterfly garden which is particularly colorful in the fall since the asters and goldenrod seem to have taken it over.

      Noelle, Thanks for visiting. The hummingbird feeder is right next to my front porch so I can enjoy their antics whenever I'm sitting outside.

      Marijke, I know that you had just the opposite problem this year with so much rain. It's always fun to look through the bulb catalogs--I'm planning ahead for next year, too!

      Michelle, I think, too, we had many of the same experiences this summer. I agree on the cardinal vine--the hummingbirds love it, which is reason enough for me to grow it every year.

      Laurrie, Yes, I did over-simplify these lessons:) But I think mostly I re-learned lessons this year. Somehow I need to remember in the spring that come summer not much is going to get done, so I might as well enjoy it and realize there will be cooler days ahead to get some work done.

    16. I can so relate to this post! I am full of energy in the spring and plant like a crazy plant fanatic then I melt like chocolate in the summer heat trying to keep everything happy with water! The Hose and Sprinklers become my best friends during the dry spells. My wallet aches when the water bill arrives and the plants are not happy until they have that glorious drink from Mother Nature. Geesh, what is a gardener to do? Try to remember the lessons learned the following year…

    17. The thing I admire about gardeners is we are always willing to admit mistakes (however we define them) and learn from them - as well as from the usual sorts of information. The hot weather here slowed me down radically and the weeds cheered.

    18. Rose, I enjoyed reading your post so much. This summer was great for my garden as in the part of the Czech Republic where I live there were no long periods of drought and there was quite a lot of rain. I don't remember such fresh and dense grass in September in the 10 years I've been living here, it grows like mad this year.

      May I ask you what mulch do you use? I tried mulching bark as it looks very good but it dries up and shrinks so quickly. The result is that it needs to be replenished quite often and that's quite expensive. I also tried mulching with fresh mown grass but then mildew appeared in it and I didn't like that. What is your experience?

    19. You are such a thoughtful gardener and it shows in your results. I hope you get more rain next year.

    20. very nice blog and there and a lot of tips about the garden roses. I visited you blog and got a good experience..thanks a lot...

      wholesale garden roses

    21. Why oh why is it that only weeds seem to thrive during record heat?!

      Thankfully we have had some rain during the second half of the summer, which has probably saved some of the bigger plants. I've definitely learned the importance of siting plants properly after the past couple years. And thank goodness for plants like lamb's ear, which only dies if I actually try to water it!

      I am loving your burgundy-leafed coleus. I'm going to have to look for that next year!

    22. Early on this summer,I said something to Larry about how I was sweating, but don't normally do that. I ended up doing a lot more of it this summer. I hope next summer is not so hot and dry.

    23. I enjoyed your post, Rose. I've learned some lessons this summer as well. Love your header photo too!

    24. I have to agree, the lessons I learn best are the ones I learn through hard experience, particularly in the garden. That zinnia photo is lovely, and I hadn't realises the buterflies really like them, so thank you, duly noted for when I do my seed ordering!


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