July. The exuberance of spring is over, and gardeners are looking at the remains of a pretty good party. But whether your garden looks hungover or not depends on the planting you did in the spring.
Let’s hope it included some flowering heat survivors such as echinacea, black-eyed susan, liatris, pelargonium, goldenrod, verbascum, daylily, gazania, helianthus, zinnia, teasel, etc…etc..etc…
If you’ve got some foliage backing it all up (weigela, panicum, cardoon, ninebark, colocasia, banana etc…..) and a couple of small shade trees, your garden will feel like a cool respite from summer when those heat indexes build.
I admit to wrestling with July a little more than usual this year (though that could be put down to visiting Seattle, Maine, and the UK in the late spring).
On the one hand, the tropical and subtropical accents in my garden are shifting into fourth gear (that beautiful place between ‘pushing the engine’ and sweet overdrive) and there is real energy to be felt in the late afternoons and early mornings. They will be at their best by the end of the month, and continue fearlessly and confidently on that same road for many weeks, injecting the rest of the garden with welcome surprises and spontaneous pairings.
On the other hand, high heat and humidity makes the act of stepping outside to feel that energy an act of supreme courage, for it’s never a quick visit and work must be done. And you can bet it’s going to take some endurance.
(I type those words even as I wedge a large ice pack between sacrum and pillow, and sip a medicinal gin and tonic after a particularly brutal four hours with a weed-whacker.)
Yes, it’s a physical thing, but it there are enormous mental hurdles to jump when gardening in July in hot humid climates – and through to August for that matter. When you’re out there, alone, knee deep in a hillside of Japanese stilt grass you will never eradicate; or staking a massive brugmansia so it doesn’t flatten in the next gully-washer; or simply loading another barrow full of mulberry weed; there is a moment. There’s a moment when you question the sanity of it all.
If you’re pushing injury just to get something done, then fair enough, let the answer be ‘stop.’ But if it’s just the general miserableness of the situation (heat, gnats, humidity, fogged glasses and lost trowels) you must put your head down and keep going.
And you must do this because there are a lot of the other moments. The cool ones. The smack-you-in-the-face-with-what-you-created ones. And the only way through to them is doing precisely what you’re doing. Or paying/cajoling someone to do it while you nod encouragingly from somewhere air-conditioned.
But that only happens in movies. And in other people’s marriages.
So gulp, open the door, and greet that muggy, heavy air with what? Joy. No, too much to hope for. Resilience and acceptance perhaps. I try to think about what those conditions – moisture and warmth – are doing for my plants.
Not perhaps the petunias and calibrachoas and other annual container fodder that melts away as the heat indexes rise; but the many cultivars of carex I grow, the Aralia cordata in full splendor and Fatsia japonica tucked just under the deck. The astilbe starting to bloom and the many Hydrangea paniculata doing likewise. And so many ferns…This is their wheelhouse after all: a primeval mix of moisture and rich soil.
What is fighting for life in your garden and what is making your garden better? July makes this fairly clear, and the smart gardener will watch, adapt and make better choices in autumn planting schemes.
Yes, there is work to be done, but July is also a month that implores us to sit down, relax, and savor the joys of high summer.
“I should have planted that!” for the July garden
Carefully observing neighboring gardens month-to-month and putting in some of the wonderful things you see during the next planting season allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season without having to experiment too much with timing. For the sultry month of June, how about….
Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’– (Japanese spikenard)
Z4-8. 36-72”. Part Shade. Thanks to voles, it’s taken three tries with this fabulous shade-loving perennial to see it reach its potential. It was definitely worth it. The light and energy it brings to the shade garden is tremendous – a staple for the foliage-first garden. I’ve just planted a second one I love it so much.
Honestly, ‘perennial’ doesn’t describe it well – it is more of a midsize herbaceous shrub approximately 3-4 feet wide as tall, though it can get as large as six feet where the soil is soft and rich and the growing season long. This can certainly can be a challenge when it comes to allowing space for it in the early spring garden, but on the flip side, it effortlessly hides the ripening foliage of bulbs as it grows into its space beginning in mid-spring.
By July, it is outstanding. The long, layered stems boast compound, pinnate leaves of chartreuse-green which head towards the yellow end of chartreuse in more sun, and the greener end in more shade. At the end of the month, small white flowers arranged in panicled spikes appear to delight the pollinators. The birds take the berries of fall.
Grow Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ in a shade to part-shade location. Direct, afternoon sun is punishing – the best site for this perennial ‘shrub’ is somewhere where it gets a good amount of morning sun in moisture retentive, rich soil. Voles – as I’ve mentioned – can be a problem amongst the rhizomatous root system, so if they are an issue for you, it might be best to plant ‘Sun King’ either in a soil cage, or in a large plastic pot that is plunged into the soil, allowing a lip to protrude above the soil. The voles are not as fond of moisture as the aralia, so planting it in a moister area works on two fronts.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming your little aralia will be little forever. This is definitely one for the middle to the back of beds.
Garden Tasks for July
As always — the tasks I list for both the indoor and the outdoor garden are just SUGGESTIONS. You cannot do them all. Neither can I. Work on what makes the most sense to get the most out of your garden.
It’s time to think about fall. Seedlings should be started soon for cool vegetable crops. If you are on the East Coast and suffer from the dreaded squash borer, a new planting of squash seedlings at the beginning of this month might net you a few pans of sautéed summer when everyone else is pulling out cinnamon candles and cardigans.
Early spring annuals such as lunaria, poppies, and hesperis should be edited from the garden to prevent too much self-seeding. Leave some seed heads here and there for next season, and where the seed heads are not attractive (as in the case of hesperis), simply pull up the plant and lay it on the ground where it will be covered by the foliage of summer plants.
Keep on top of the lateral canes of climbing and rambling roses, which will now put out serious growth since flowering earlier last month. Invest in a pole pruner/clipper if you have not – – truly a “how-did-I-live-without-this” tool.
Groundhogs, rabbits, deer and other four legged pests will be getting hungrier as the season progresses and your garden is the only place to go for fresh, leafy greens. Check your fences and barriers every few days and think about getting a trap for groundhogs if you haven’t already. I have found that cantaloupe rinds beat sliced apple as bait any day of the week.
Speaking of pests, the ones with six legs will be much more apparent in the heat-stressed garden. If you make a regular practice of removing adults and clusters of eggs every evening, you stand a much greater chance of stopping an infestation that can only be handled by destroying plants or pulling out vats of chemicals.
Pests with more than six legs (i.e. caterpillars) are beautifully taken care of by an organic spray with BT in it. It will take a couple of days for them to ingest the bacteria and have it make soup out of their innards, so don’t expect an immediate extermination.
July is when I’m going to start seeing disease problems in my plants if I haven’t already. I am slowly eradicating the plants which are most susceptible to the heavy moist air that gathers in this stream valley in the evening, and for spot problems I use Infuse, as it seems to be the most effective against Southern blight, which I battle a great deal in the soils here.
Tomatoes benefit from judiciously removing lower limbs as they climb ever higher. Try to keep your tomatoes trained to just one leader. Laterals get very difficult to deal with and are better taken out.
Water, water, water – preferably deeply and early in the morning. Healthy plants are often side-stepped by disease and pests.
Deadhead your annual and perennial flowers regularly. Doing so prevents the setting of seed and stimulates the plant to continue flowering. There are a few plants where this isn’t the case, but hey…plants look nicer with spent flowers removed anyway.
Revel in your garden. It’s summer. That’s what it’s here for.
Plants dry out inside as well as outside. Warmer days mean more watering. Try to keep them on a regular schedule and don’t forget to feed them too. If you are feeling lazy, plant stakes are probably the best option, but a re-potting and freshening with organic fertilizer is like a birthday present for them. Oh and, why are you leaving those plants inside?!? Give them a #houseplantvacation instead! You can read more about the fears and facts about bringing your houseplants outside in Tropical Plants and How To Love Them.
Aphids (greenfly) are in the air outside and can absolutely make their way indoors. Keep your eyes open and squelch infestations before they become infestations.
Orchids have finished their bloom time now. Cut back the inflorescence if you were lucky enough to inspire one. If you were, don’t move that pot a half inch – it’s obviously happy and orchids can be fickle. Well done and don’t forget to feed it at half strength.
It’s late. You’re tired. You’ve just seeded two flats of cauliflower, planted a new chaste tree and re-arranged your succulent trough. The remote awaits. Will you:
a) Fall asleep
b) Fall asleep in front of the television
c) Quickly pull out your garden journal and before you do either a) or b), write down what you did today so you don’t forget?
You know what you have to do. Enjoy your July everyone!
“I remember, I remember
How my childhood fleeted by, –
The mirth of its December
And the warmth of its July.”
– Winthrop Mackworth Praed, from “I Remember, I Remember”
Would you enjoy more frequent updates on what’s going on at Oldmeadow in July? I’d love for you to follow my Instagram account!