August Garden Critique: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Peony ‘Bowl of Love’ with cilantro that is going to seed.

When the 90 degree heat and humidity of August arrive in Georgia, I take a month-long break from gardening. Honestly, it’s just too hot here in zone 8 to get much accomplished, so for me it is a month to reflect on the highs and lows of my spring and summer garden so that I can plan fall and winter work. Aside from pulling a few weeds in flower and shrub borders (which saves me hours of work next year), August is the month that I let the vines that creep through my woodland wander wherever they like, and I stop fretting about what is or is not happening in my flower beds.

 I realized long ago that with or without me, my late season plants will stay on their trajectory, expanding, blooming, and in most cases, looking fantastic. Anything that is struggling due to too little or too much water (which is the case this year) has probably already been chucked into the compost bin. At this point in the gardening season I’ve had plenty of moments of delight, balanced with a fair number of disappointments. I’m ready to sit back and wait for cooler weather. One afternoon in September I’ll notice that the late afternoon light has a specific golden hue. This is when I seem to get my second wind and begin work in the garden again as I look toward next year. So let’s take a look back at the first eight months of 2021 in the garden.

The Good

During Covid I splurged on spring bulbs, trying many new types that I’d never grown. I discovered some new favorites, among them the wood hyacinth or Hyacinthoides hispanica, which looked gorgeous in my woodland garden. While I can only dream about a British-style grassy meadow dotted with bulbs, I’m planning to pack my 20 square foot raised bed full of bulbs and seed it with annual rye so that in February, March, and April I can look out the window while sitting at my kitchen table and marvel at each and every bloom.

Moving from the glories of springtime to summer, when things can really go sideways in any number of ways, here are a few high points from this year:

Coneflowers have done remarkably well this year, even with all of our rainfall, and today I saw the first yellow finch feeding on seeds. As the flower heads blacken, I’ll quiet the voice in my head that tells me things need to be tidied up, and leave them alone as they slowly lose their color so the birds can enjoy the feast.

Flowering shrubs have also enjoyed the consistent rainfall this summer, and the garden seems awash in abelia and panicle hydrangea blooms. Even my husband, grass man, who doesn’t notice flowery things, commented on how beautiful the back yard path looks.

My winter seed starting was a mixed bag, probably because I have no grow lights for planting indoors and a shortage of sunny windows. I obviously watched too many episodes of Gardeners World, showing all the wonderful plants started by clever Brits on their kitchen windowsills. Some of my experimental plants, such honeywort (which was started in the ground in February) did quite well until temps in the mid-nineties were just too much for them, causing them to collapse in exhaustion. I can’t blame them.

Ammi, which looks a bit like Queen Anne’s Lace, is blooming now, though I planted it in such small numbers that it didn’t make much of an impact. While it is pretty in a meadow-style planting, I will probably go for something with more oomph next year. Cosmos, which were a little wimpy this year, really should have been started outside, so I will winter sow next year and have better results. Mexican feather grass, started in fall 2019, is taking its own sweet time to grow, but is looking good even in its juvenile state. Sweet peas (which are very easy to start in the ground in December in the South) did well until July, giving me several large bouquets of sweetly-scented flowers. I followed the advice of the Brits, and picked them them all at once (instead of just a handful at a time), which seemed to keep the bloom cycle going as we headed into the heat of summer.

Several areas of my garden are planted with late-blooming plants such as ‘Sheffield’ chrysanthemums, various types of asters, salvias, turtleheads, and anemones. I’m looking forward to seeing one of my newest long borders in its full glory (if I can continue to keep the hungry rabbits at bay). I have much to look forward to as the weather cools and I am ready to get back to work.

Next year I will winter sow (outdoors) many more types of plants, so I’m collecting plastic milk jugs and clam shell lettuce containers for my January seed projects.

The Bad

I seldom lose a shrub, but this year, with the onslaught of rain through May, June, and part of July, I lost a beautiful new white-flowering anise, which should have thrived in moist soil. Though I treated it with organic fungicide spray, it was not happy sitting in waterlogged clay for weeks at a time, looking sadder and sadder as the summer progressed.

Rabbits were everywhere this summer, and I sprayed weekly to keep them away from coneflowers, asters, and a number of other plants. Deer are a cake walk compared to these wiley critters. In late spring a very small rabbit devoured a large grouping of campanulas, covered in blooms, just inside my small fenced garden, where he was somehow able to squeeze under or around the gate. This has become an increasingly frustrating battle each season, which might very well result in the have-a-heart trap coming out of the attic so that I can relocate a few of the bunnies to nearby open fields where they have acres of grassy plants to feed on.

Nut sedge has now romped its way through my small chemical-free back lawn, which does not drain well. The constant rain made it a swamp for much of the summer, the perfect storm for a nut sedge invasion. I cannot fathom how a group of plants can spread with such speed. That weed battle is not going to be pretty.

The Ugly

One of my young crabapple trees looks like a brown stick, standing slightly askew this month. It lost every leaf this summer, suffering from blight due to the heavy rains, but will hopefully leaf out in spring.

Assorted late-season plants, such as joe-pye weed, were lopped off by the deer in early summer, but I am hopeful they will bloom at some point this fall.  Granular deer repellent is a must in wet weather. Liquid did not cut it during our rainiest weeks.

I failed to spray repellent yet again on what should be a mature Florida flame azalea and the deer have nibbled all the way around it. Sigh. Next year I need to protect it early with stakes and fishing line. If it would only grow tall enough to be out of reach….

My perennial ‘Ryan’s Pink’ chrysanthemums are too wet this year and are looking downright weedy along my front sidewalk. They will hopefully bloom in a few weeks and redeem themselves. I am fairly certain that visitors look at them and wonder why I’m growing those raggedy looking plants along my border of elegant-looking evergreens.

The lesson in all this is that there is no perfect year. There are sweet moments of surprise, when a forgotten plant appears with a single perfect bloom on a clear spring day and makes you gasp. There are moments of sadness when you realize that a plant you splurged on isn’t happy and you don’t know why. Seeds you don’t care much about sprout and grow effortlessly. Seeds you planted in spring and looked forward to seeing as full grown, blooming plants in late summer or fall won’t even sprout.

Some things go according to plan, but many do not. I’m not really in control of this acre of land and I’m reminded of this fact each and every day that I plant, or dig, or harvest. I’m just messing with it by adding plants that I enjoy growing. Despite that sobering reminder, as spring unfolds in 2022 I’ll see that my trees and shrubs are beginning to create structure as my young garden matures, and on my kitchen table there will surely be a pile of seed packets full of promise.

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