August in the Garden: Weeds and Visions

In one of my favourite garden books — My Weeds : a gardener’s botany — Sara B. Stein reveals that by the end of July she has “had it with weeds and gardens.” She no longer bothers to pull up weeds and spends the month of August in a place without a garden, and therefore without weeds. Whatever plants happen to grow there are fine; there is no need to identify any as weeds and struggle to remove them from the scene. Gardening makes some plants into weeds. Without the gardener, the garden is taken over by weeds and ceases to be a garden.

Stein outlines some of the measures she used in her own garden to make it less dependent on her attentions — using native species when possible, along with non-natives that are at home in the same conditions as they. This means revising paper garden designs and compromising on colours, but the results, she hopes, will make her gardens less sad when she can no longer look after them. In a garden populated by plants that are quasi-weeds, the gradient between “garden” and “untended nature” is less steep.

I have often thought that a similar approach would make gardening less of a struggle in the latter part of the summer in a climate with little or no summer rainfall. Especially in a garden whose soil is sandy and full of tree roots. Artfully arrange the tough plants that tolerate such conditions and voila — a garden that looks after itself. Of course there will still be mowing and edging, cutting back and cutting down, and yes, some weeding too, but no longer that feeling of battling an implacable adversary who is slowly winning, cosseting feeble darlings and helplessly watching them succumb despite my efforts.

August is a good month for me to think about this, because my garden looks pretty sad, at least in the harsh light of noon. There is a weary, crispy look to things. It would be seedier if I hadn’t done a lot of deadheading and cutting down of old stalks in the past week. The pond area is especially beaten-down, thanks to the busy paws of a raccoon family — a mother and two or maybe three little guys. I should be used to this by now; there’s always a raccoon family. Several generations may have spent the summer here since we dug the pond in 1993. I don’t mind, really. In a way it’s good to know my patch provides shelter and a livelihood to creatures, but I wish they didn’t make such a mess. The plantings around the pond are supposed to be lush and jungly, a green oasis even in summer, but it’s hard to sustain that illusion when plants are broken down and mashed flat.

Never mind. I originally meant to say that August is a sort of time-out month in the garden. The plans and aspirations of spring have either succeeded or failed by now. It’s not too early to make some new plans; indeed, September is a great month for reworking and replanting. Rip out a Senecio that has never looked good, along with excess Geranium sanguineum (a rather sneaky spreader) and replace with the young plants of white Echinacea grown from seed this spring. Someday they will be joined by a Dierama and Gaura that are now just seeds in pots. Liatris looks great with white Echinacea, and there is a soft orange poppy, none of whose names I know, that would be just the accent for the planting.

Who knows how these notions will turn out in reality?

That’s the thing about gardening — so much of it is done in the gardener’s mind and in some perfect future. Much better than futzing with weeds.


The "jungle" by the pond (in June)

The “jungle” by the pond (in June)

August Laziness

It’s August. The garden and gardener are tired. Plants aren’t growing or blooming much, and I spend most of my garden time cutting down things that are past their best and watering. We finally have real summer weather here on the west coast. It’s warm (almost hot) and definitely dry.

I have to admit that I’m looking forward to fall, my favourite season. Plants and plans that haven’t turned out well can be left behind and the rare and subtle fall bloomers enjoyed — the colchicums, autumn crocuses and hardy cyclamen.  I’ve already spotted one or two cyclamen flowers near my pond. After the first of the rains there will be warm days and cool evenings, with leaves starting to change colour, mushrooms popping up like surprises and that smell of mouldy sweetness that is the essence of the turning year.

But today the sky is clear to the horizon, a hard blue that promises heat. Apples hang on the trees, ripening. Tomatoes are finally moving beyond golf ball size; there might even be a few red ones eventually. The seeds of lamb’s ears and campion are maturing in their seed pods, which will soon start to rattle, a sure sign that the gardener has neglected to deadhead them in time.  (Not me — no campion in this picture, but I’ll have to keep an eye on those eryngiums!)

The Perseid meteor shower is in full swing. Last night was perfect for meteor-spotting, with the sky as black as it ever gets in suburbia. I went out to the garden at 2 a.m. and actually saw two meteors before I was spooked by rustling in the shrubbery.

That’s it for now; back to the virtual hammock.

What to do in August

Every year since I began this garden, my daily weather-and-garden notes have an entry around August 20 that says “Garden looks like Hell.” That includes this summer, which has been quite cool — perfect, actually, with highs consistently in the low 20s (C, not F). But there has been no rain for the last 31 days, and it shows.

Coming home from work and looking at the garden is a disheartening experience these days. Often, my first impulse is to go inside, close the door and ignore the mess outside. Often I give into that impulse, but eventually (on weekends) I get to the point of Something Must Be Done.

So what can be done to improve the garden in August, if escape is impossible?

It comes down to two things: removal and definition. First, get rid of the stuff that offends the eye. Then clean up the edges. After that, it may be worthwhile to do some watering.

Start by deadheading and cutting down withered stems. Especially cut back anything that has zillions of seeds ripening, such as good old toadflax (Linaria purpurea), campion (Lychnis coronaria) and mullein (Verbascum). A bonus of doing this is that these plants sometimes rebloom in early fall, after the first rains. In the meantime, their old, seedy remains are no longer giving that tired, unkempt look to the scene. Get rid of anything that looks dead (or is dead). Colour is a clue — brown, khaki and white are often indications of deadness.

Some raking is also in order. Raking? In summer? Most definitely. I get the rake out regularly, at all times of the gardening season. In this windy climate, there is always stuff to be raked up. In late summer, along with the usual blow-downs and blow-ins there are plenty of tired green leaves and prematurely brown ones, as trees thin their leaf burdens in response to drought. Once on the ground, these leaves are certainly no asset to the garden. Removing them instantly improves the look of the place.

Once the scurf has been removed, clarify the edges of the beds and borders by clipping the verges of the lawns; or even edge them, if that hasn’t been done for a while and it’s hard to distinguish beds from lawn. I guarantee that this will make any garden look 100% better, without doing anything else. The whole process is the garden equivalent of a bath, shave and haircut — it doesn’t change the fundamentals but improves the presentation.

Clipped and raked, not too bad for late August

Finally, embrace the season. Maximum growth and flowering has been achieved by many plants, and they are simply past their best. As a reminder of this, all I need to do is visit a nearby park that preserves a remnant of the natural flora of the place in which I garden. At this time of year, it’s a vista of faded greens, browns and bleached white. In contrast to the springtime display of wildflowers and the lush grass of early summer, there isn’t much going on. The place is waiting for rain, for fall and the turn of the year.