The Dirt: The garden in August

Sentiment has no place in my August garden. It’s hot. I’m hot, and the garden is a weedy mess. Battered, drought-weary and bug-eaten, the perennials are still duking it out for dominance. The annuals have quarter-size holes in their leaves, compliments of some unknown critter, and the flowers look as though someone had played “He loves me, he loves me not” with them.

A worthy perch: A good chair and a glass of sweet tea are summer-gardening essentials. Photo By Cinthia Milner

This really annoys me. Petunias, zinnias, impatiens, snapdragons and the like ought to earn their keep by being absolutely no trouble to me. Without them, of course, the garden would be utterly empty at times. But I should be free merely to enjoy them, rather than trying to figure out what’s destroying them. So I make a mental note: Next year, I won’t buy a single annual, no matter how lovely they look in their plastic pots at Lowe’s or Home Depot. Harsh words, I know, but then it’s August.

Then there are those flowers I charged to my credit card in the dead of winter—flowers whose photos I fell captive to in gardening catalogs. As I shared the expiration date on my credit card, I promised myself they would flourish in their new home. I looked forward to their arrival and couldn’t wait for UPS to appear in my driveway with them. Now, well, news flash: Straighten up, guys, or out you go! As Katharine White says in her book, Onward and Upward in the Garden, “Oh, let it go. Let the plants fight their own battles.” I couldn’t agree more: After all, it’s August.

Rather than trying to maintain some sort of order in the borders, I sit in my green-plastic garden chair and take stock. My grandfather used to keep an old chair—one that didn’t mind the weather—in the garden. You could tell where he’d been working last by the location of his chair. Now I have the same habit. My chair travels with me and when I tire, I plop down in it and drink sweet tea. Waiting out the heat of August, I examine this year’s garden, savoring the successes—and comforting myself on the failures. Their fate, I believe, is sealed.

My husband thinks I have a tendency to overreact; September, he says, always brings cooler temperatures and tempers. We shall see. In the meantime, here’s my list of the year’s accomplishments and disasters:

Spring brought daffodils of all sorts, but the biggest disappointment was the one that bears my surname: the ‘W.P. Milner’ ADS miniature. It was sweet and simple, but I’d hoped for something a little more noticeable, albeit small. While Mr. Milner’s miniature daffodil—bred in Victorian times and still commercially available today—was a modest success, most observers seemed to prefer the nearby trumpet daffodils (New! Bolder colors!). Story of my life.

The lilacs failed us miserably; the blooms were tiny, spindly and sparse. My husband puzzled over this most of the spring, though he need not have: He’s a forester, and contrary to popular opinion, they spend more time planting trees than cutting them down. My yard is a testament to this: The dwindling lilacs simply can’t take the shade anymore. I need to buy new ones and plant them in a sunny spot—assuming he leaves me one.

The hollyhocks were magnificent: the crowning achievement in the borders this year. Their tops reached up to peer into our windows, and each morning we awoke to their beautiful colors and 10-foot-tall spikes. Stunning is too meager a word for them, and though they take up a lot of room, they’re well worth it. Don’t try to stake them—instead, plant them cottage-style, as close to the house as you can, and then hammer a few nails into the siding and rope the tall spikes back against the wall. This works much better than staking when the July rains come. Don’t bother planting around them or otherwise trying to disguise their dwindling state. Just enjoy the glorious stalks of color while you can, wait for their seeds to open, and look forward to next year’s blooms.

The white phlox, too, was a pleasant surprise. Its healthy, green stalks are supporting huge, white, fragrant flower heads. Since phlox is notorious for its powdery mildew at this time of year, I plant it at the back of the beds. That way, only the pink, orange or white heads can be seen bobbing behind less disease-prone flowers. This phlox, however, is leaning out over the timbers and rocks that define the bed’s boundaries, making it all the lovelier. And at night, the fragrance wafts in the windows. Divine is the only word to describe it.

Another surprising success is the tree rose ‘Red Gold’ I bought at a local grocery store. The name fits, and its constant color is winning my heart. Standing tall behind the phlox, coneflowers, dahlias and delphiniums, it is eye-catching all summer long. Best of all, while the Japanese beetles are demolishing the lavender rose of Sharon given to me by a sister-in-law of the same name, they’re completely ignoring this adorable new addition to the borders.

Still, as I survey my August garden, watching the flowers go for one another’s throats in an all-out war for domination, I decide (as Katharine White suggests in her book) to turn my attention to the flowering shrubs. There, at least, peace can be found.

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]

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