summer-dry climate

The Garden Goes On… And On

Gardens are collections of plants. No matter what the gardener does, plants grow, bloom, go to seed, and/or die, depending on the type of plant and whether it is getting the conditions it prefers. The gardener is a mere adjunct, trying with varying degrees of success to impose her idea of what the garden should be on a population of diverse plants. That’s the essence of gardening. It’s a constant struggle an intersection of plants, their needs, climate and weather, and the gardener’s desires and exertions.

Olympic Mullein -- gardener, look out!

Olympic Mullein — gardener, look out! Aaargh — too late!

Shortly after I retired at the end of March, I realized that as far as the garden was concerned, I was late to the party. Spring was early and warm, and growth was well under way before I had a chance to take a good look around. Too late for most pruning operations and moving plants around — two critical activities in this garden. Some plants — mainly shrubs — need frequent pruning, trimming and sucker removal. Others threaten to fade away unless moved to better spots, i.e., not overhung by trees or shrubs, in soil that isn’t full of maple roots.

I’ve spent the summer deadheading, watering, poking around and making plans for a grand game of musical chairs to be executed (what a word that is!) this fall and next spring. And a list of Things to Prune next winter. I’m keen to get going, but August isn’t the time for such exertions.

In the meantime, plants are going through their annual cycles, and so is the garden, which has entered what I think of as the brown season — late summer in a summer-dry climate. I’m getting tired of dragging the hose and hoisting the watering can. I know this happens every year. I know it will rain some day (and rain and rain some more). Hardy cyclamen will bloom. Mushrooms will sprout. Moss will green up. A few spring-blooming shrubs will send out a few flowers. The air will smell of coming autumn. But right now that seems far away.

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore — in September, after rain.


Being Aquarius

From now until September, or if I’m lucky, August, I will be the Water-Bearer. Rain is almost unknown here in summer, so for weeks I am the only source of this vital element for the plants in my garden. Many of them are drought-tolerant, but not all, and the overall scene looks better if it gets regular watering.

“Regular” means every two weeks, except for plants confined to pots and certain especially needy individuals, some of which require daily visitations by the person with the watering can. I have divided my garden into seven watering zones, and note down the dates I water each one, to make sure that they all get done on schedule. To complicate things, the regional government allows “lawn watering” with sprinklers only on two specific days per week, either Wednesdays and Saturdays or Thursdays and Sundays, depending on whether your house number is odd or even. Hand watering is allowed any time, even with a device connected to a hose. It’s unclear whether watering perennial beds with sprinklers counts as “lawn watering,” but since most of my beds have adjoining lawn, I just assume it does.

I deliver water in three ways — watering can, hand-held sprinkler and regular sprinkler. The watering can is probably my most heavily used garden tool (if you can call it that) from June (most years) to September. Almost the first thing I do when I get home from work is dip that can in the rain barrel (kept full with the hose!) and race around to all the pots and any plants known to be intolerant of dryness. Relatively small areas can be effectively watered with the hand-held sprinkler, although it is a bit trying to stand there, counting off the seconds with water dripping into your shoe. (I count seconds to make sure I hang in there long enough; otherwise it’s too easy to squirt and run).

I deploy the sprinklers only when the weather gets really dry and warm. It’s a bit of a job to set up the one for the area around the pond. The best place to put it, of course, is right in the middle of the pond, a feat accomplished by laying a special plank across that seven foot wide body of water, and parking the sprinkler on it in precisely the right spot. Once I turn on the water I have to make sure the sprinkler hasn’t shifted and that the setting is correct to deliver water to the entire area. Often a bit of back and forth is needed before it’s right. Then I let it run for the full two hours that I have decided is the minimal effective time required.

People who don’t garden, or who garden in those extraordinary places that get regular summer rain, probably can’t imagine why any gardener would find summer an anxiety-filled season. (Well, maybe they can, but I’ll bet not many do). In July and August I think about watering a lot, I do it a lot, and by the beginning of August I’m sick of it, especially because by that time the garden looks distinctly weary, despite all my efforts and fretting.

Some years we get significant rain in August. This happened in 2010 (if you consider not quite an inch to be “significant” — I do!), but you can’t count on it. Such rain is a gift, no matter how many barbeques and baseball games it ruins. Gardeners rejoice at the week-long reprieve from the toil of the hose and the can.

That’s it for now; I have to go and water.