Midsummer blues

Like many gardeners, I’m tempted to neglect my crops during the dog days. The combination of heat waves and the tidal wave of looming midsummer garden tasks threatens to take the wind out of my sails. Happily, however, cool blues come to the rescue; they refresh and sustain me, even lure me out into the muggy, buggy soup.

Herbs of the blue spectrum border the walkway from my front door to the vegetable garden. By midsummer, billows of purple sage and sprays of powder-blue flowers flung up from the rain-silver foliage of Russian sage buoy me up on my way to the steamy vegetable garden.

To enter the garden, I pass under an arch entwined with an exaltation of Heavenly Blue morning glories. By noon, the day’s crop of flowers has already begun to wilt and fade; but just after breakfast, they are visual heat-and-humidity busters, floral air conditioning. New batches of bright-blue glories, fresh and crisp as an autumn sky, draw me out early — the sanest time to garden during the dog days.

I’ve never seen a photograph that came close to capturing the true shade of Heavenly Blues or the otherworldly blue of the borage flowers I position next to vegetables that need pollinating. “Bee bread” is the perfect common name for this member of the comfrey family. Its stained-glass-blue blooms with their pink aura do, indeed, reel in bees. All I have to do is make sure it’s just a short buzz from the borage to the squash, bean, pepper and tomato blossoms.

The ancient Celts, Greeks and Romans ingested borage leaves to give soldiers the courage to do battle and would-be husbands the confidence to propose marriage. Centuries later, Sir Francis Bacon claimed, “The leaf of Burrage hath an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapour of dusky melancholie.” Borage is also reputed to impart to its botanical neighbors increased resistance to insects and diseases. And I can’t help but wonder whether green plants might not also be subject to fits of “fuliginous vapours” that can be relieved by the presence of borage blue? What I do know is that simply viewing those luminous flowers gives me the fortitude to withstand considerable thermal discomfort.

Magical borage manages to look at once spiritual and comical. Its quirky architecture and that extraterrestrial light in its flowers border on sci-fi. And whenever I pass a borage plant, looking like it just ambled out of an alien spaceship, I just have to pause and smile. Whimsical borage is a high-caliber antidepressant in a steaming garden, a genuine jester herb.

“Bee bread” was the first plant my granddaughter, Ivy Rose, grew from scratch. Its speedy life cycle makes it a perfect choice for a child’s garden. The seeds can germinate in two days, and in rich soil you can almost watch them grow, bud and flower. I have photos of Ivy Rose carefully dropping borage seeds into holes she dug all by herself with her first little trowel.

Film has no trouble capturing happy-go-lucky, bachelor’s-button blue. It’s a primary, old-fashioned shade: Crayola blue, first-prize blue, true blue. I often interplant bachelor’s buttons and pepper seedlings. Later, when I harvest Anaheims and Nardellos in a simmering August garden, the clumps of bachelor buttons look like blue lagoons among the gleaming pepper leaves.

For most of July and half of August, the lavender blue of wild chicory mists the garden all morning long. Chicory is a longtime inhabitant of our Southern Appalachian valleys, and I was thrilled when it first popped up in a spot where I’d piled manure and leaf compost for several years. It replants itself and spreads slowly, trying out this spot and that. If it’s not in a path or a bed, I encourage it.

Chicory and I go way, way back, to a time before the DOT began defoliating the edges of the country roads where it loves to grow; back to a time before sprawl, when there were many more country byways for it to border. Back before automobiles had air conditioning, I survived sweaty summer rides in the family car by rolling down the windows and watching miles of cool, blue chicory stream past.

Chicory, however, traces all the way back to ancient Egypt. Thomas Jefferson grew it at Monticello as ground cover and cattle feed. Perhaps it was the sight of whole blue fields of it shimmering during the Virginia dog days that prompted him to gush to his agricultural cohort, George Washington, “Chicory is one of the greatest acquisitions a farmer can have.” Jefferson probably acquired his stock from Italy, the land of escarole and endive, where chicory-blue landscapes have helped farmers endure centuries of Mediterranean summers.

Blue fruits are also sweet antidotes to midsummer swelter. Long ago, while bicycling in England during a heat wave, I rested in the shade of a plum tree whose branches, loaded with ripe indigo fruit, reached out over the wall of someone’s home garden. Consumed on the spot, those juicy plums cooled me off and gave me the energy to complete a hot, hilly journey. And though my own garden, short on space and light, isn’t blessed with plum trees or the Concord grapes I love, blueberries help my household beat the heat. Ivy Rose is always eager to help pick and devour them in pancakes, in smoothies and on top of cherry-vanilla ice cream (our traditional Fourth of July dessert).

Blueberries are cool in more ways than one. Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging found them to be exceptionally high in antioxidants, meaning they make excellent preventive medicine for diseases that attack us on the cellular level — like cancer.

A stately Himalayan blue spruce shines over my entire garden. I remember stringing a few holiday lights on it back in the winter of ’81, when it was just a scrappy little seedling. Now it soars 25 feet and radiates an ethereal silver-blue light that harmonizes perfectly with the hovering, Appalachian-blue mountains.

Resisting the temptation to abandon ship when Nature cranks up her thermostat is every gardener’s challenge. For me, a combination of blue flowers, blue leaves, blue fruit, blue trees and blue geology makes for smooth sailing through the heat waves and takes the teeth out of the dog days.

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