By Carol Wallace
Have you ever noticed that in every summer there comes a rare day or three that seem blessed? The gardens are in glorious bloom - enough to draw the ever-critical eye of the gardener away from the rough spots. The sun is shining against a bright blue sky, butterflies waft past you on a gentle breeze - and you suddenly know why you garden.
To me, every day in the garden has its little peaks - even on those days when there seem to be an equal or greater number of valleys. From the earliest day of spring when I see the snub noses of the crocuses peeking up until the day in December when the last rosebud sits frozen on a bare cane - there is always something wonderful to greet me.
But some days are better than others - and there is always at least one day when I run back indoors and tug my husband's arm until he follows me outside to take advantage of the garden at its peak.
I make a point of that - stopping to really enjoy the beauty. Walk slowly around, savoring each bloom, each lovely plant combination, and the incredibly bounteous display of plants finally reaching maturity. Close your eyes and listen to the bees buzzing, birds singing and breezes sighing through the leaves. Take your time.
Because now the work begins.
All right - I know what you're thinking. You've already been through the gigantic task known as spring clean-up. You've planted all the new arrivals, divided everything in need of division, and have been looking forward to a tranquil summer basking in the beauty of your garden.
The trouble is - if all you do is bask, that garden isn't going to be beautiful for long. There are tasks that you must perform to keep the garden looking good - or to keep it from getting out of hand. Do them regularly and they will simply be pleasant tasks that allow you to get up close and personal with your plants. Put the off and you've got a mess. Here are some of the tasks that I find essential in my own garden.
My daylilies are finally winding down from a particularly exuberant summer display. I have tons of daylilies that bloom over along period of time. In late spring the tiny yellow ones like all the Stellas ('Stella d'Oro', 'Elfin Stella' and 'Black Eyed Stella'), 'Forsyth's Lemon Drop', 'Dash Dash', 'Happy Returns' and more start flowering - and many of the above mentioned ones will keep going for months. The midseason bloomers and then the late blooming ones soon follow them. At peak season all may be blooming at once. And they look absolutely fabulous at peak season except for one thing.
Those gorgeous blossoms last only a single day. (The Latin name for daylily, Hemerocallis, means "beauty for a day.") After their day of beauty they turn into wrinkled old hags that droop from the scapes quite spoiling the view of the beauties whose turn it is next. And so one inevitable chore that I face every day of the season is to deadhead them. Not just to get rid of the spent flowers but to keep them from forming seed pods which will lessen their vigor - and may keep the ones inclined to rebloom from doing so.
They are the biggest deadheading chore, but I also keep an eye on other plants. If I am diligent I can get an extra few weeks out of the delphiniums, foxgloves and monkshood by removing the spent blooms. The same goes for roses, columbine, dahlias, veronicas, salvias and many perennials - and it's true for most annuals as well. Cut them down to a lateral leaf and you may see a new flower already forming. Leave the dying blossoms in place though and you have not just an eyesore but a plant without enough energy to send those secondary blooms aloft.
I have a small pair of snips that carry with me everywhere in the garden. Some flowers are easy to remove- you can just snap them off with your fingers. I prefer the hands-on method with the daylilies because often I can feel the beginning of a forming seedpod - and I use my fingernails to remove that as well. Keep in mind - forming seed takes energy from the plant better spent on blooming and developing a good root system.
Other plants have fibrous stems and so it is faster and easier to snip the dying flowers off. And those plants covered with hundreds of minuscule blossoms are even easier. No way am I going to visit them daily to patiently snip off a hundred or so tiny spent flowers. Instead, when I see more seed pods than buds I take the hedge shears and give the plant a haircut. This works extremely well with my geraniums, coreopsis, nepeta, and Campanula carpatica. It is hard to sacrifice the buds I can still see waiting to bloom - but if I wait for those to mature the whole plant will soon be finished for the season. That haircut is a renewal of life.
Once the deadheading is done for the day you will begin to notice that you have a lot of stems sticking up from the foliage absolutely naked. Some you will want to remove entirely and others you will merely cut back so that they aren't so obvious. If my coneflower, dahlias and other fibrous rooted perennials have empty stems I cut them right down. Their jobs are done and the foliage that remains will soak up energy to renew the plants' vigor.
With bulbs things get a bit trickier. Take lilies - the Asiatic, Oriental and other true lilies. When the flowers are done you have a bare stem - and the leaves of the plant are all attached to that stem.
Plants get their energy through the nutrients that those leaves derive from the sun - so you have to give them time to absorb that energy, just as you do with your spring bulbs. So leave the lilies until the stalks start to turn brown. Then you can get rid of them. If you have lots of lilies you may want to consider planting leafy perennials in front of and around them to hide them during that time when they are unsightly.
With daylilies, there is a division of opinion about removing the bare scapes. True, they can get pretty ugly after a while. But many growers worry about the fact that the scapes are hollow and fear that the rain and other moisture that can collect in the hollow stems might contribute to rotting tubers. Some leave the stems until they turn brown and come out of the ground with a slight tug. Others cut them down only a bit - enough that they aren't terribly apparent to the casual observer.
I cut most of mine down as I see them getting bare and have had few problems. There are some, however, that I leave up for the world to see, and those are the ones which are forming proliferations.
A proliferation is a tiny plant that is forming on the scape. You'll see it flaring out above a small leaf on the stem, and if you look closely you'll see that it even has a tiny root system. I leave those until the scape has turned yellow right down to the proliferation. Than I cut the scape just above and also jury below the proliferation, so that I have a bit of stem - maybe half an inch = and the baby daylily plant. Later indoors I trim it more closely so that the root is apparent, dip that in a powdered rooting hormone and pot them up in a well drained soil-less potting mix. Proliferations are free plants and if you like the cultivar it came from you've got a bargain here as the new plant will be identical to the parent.
De-leafing is not complicated - just tedious. It's a bit frustrating because gardeners have already spent an inordinate amount of time de-leafing in spring. But around this time in the garden you may see a lot of leaves that for one reason or another have turned brown or yellow. I generally remove those, mostly for cosmetic reasons. If the leaves and stem are a single unit then I only remove the browned part - providing it's at the top of the stem.
If I see plants with yellowing foliage I have to stop and ask myself why the leaves are turning. It can be a sing of too much or not enough water, a lack of nutrients or even a sign of a fungus or insect damage. I stop to inspect these carefully to see if I can determine the cause. The same goes if I see black spots, which are almost always the sign of a fungus or blight. Having made the diagnosis I can take steps to cure it.
But meanwhile there are those ugly leaves. I remove them if most of the green is gone. Let the plant send its energy to the foliage that is still healthy and not waste its effort on those that are doomed.
Once again, many of my daylilies have brown dead leaves at the base - often left over from the season before (which goes to show that I have too much spring cleanup work to get it all done in time.) I remove those and any others that are showing yellowing streaks. The rest of the plant continues to continue.
And if the color problem is due to blight or fungus I will not only remove the leaves but dispose of them thoroughly - bagging them up and putting them out with the trash. Make sure you remove fallen leaves as well or they will re-infect the surrounding soil. We've all seen rose leaves with black spot or downy mildew. The best thing you can do is get rid of the unhealthy foliage, not only on the plant but that which has fallen to the soil as well. Peonies are subject to this sort of blight, which is a pity because the foliage is quite attractive. But if I see black spots, I cut it right down. It comes back the next year as if nothing had happened.
Columbine are subject to leaf miners, which turn the leaves yellow and ugly - but once again, just cut them down. You will probably see a rosette of fresh new leaves just waiting to emerge.
As I said before, don't dispose of the problem leaves casually. Forget the compost heap. Bag them and put them out with the trash.
So you've made it through the big D's of midsummer. Most of the time those d's are undemanding jobs that allow the mind to wander where it will. It's almost therapeutic to perform these ritualistic and repetitive tasks. And when we're done the entire garden looks better than ever. Meanwhile, you've had the perfect excuse to interact with your plants, to notice their small but lovely differences and to appreciate their beauty as individuals rather than part of that big picture called a garden.
About the Author
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually