Hot and Dry, Then Lashing Rains: Gardens Give Up

Take heart. Even a garden editor's efforts look weary in late summer. Earlier plantings in a hillside border of trees, shrubs and perennials have died off or have been beaten back by flood and drought. Weeds have taken over and the edge of the bed has lost its definition. Time for a raid on the patio and a trip to the garden center.
Take heart. Even a garden editor's efforts look weary in late summer. Earlier plantings in a hillside border of trees, shrubs and perennials have died off or have been beaten back by flood and drought. Weeds have taken over and the edge of the bed has lost its definition. Time for a raid on the patio and a trip to the garden center. (Adrian Higgins)

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006

For now, forget the noble idea of thoughtful, long-term planning in the garden. It's time for a cheap makeover.

After a disastrous season of flood and drought, and with a good two months of the growing season left, a quick fix or two can perk up the garden and lift your flagging spirits.

If it's any consolation, even the pros are surveying a shambles of shriveled perennials, wilted shrubbery, and annuals that have stopped flowering or doing much of anything else.

"We've been cutting back all the rudbeckias, which left some big holes," said Peggy Bowers, horticulturist at the American Horticultural Society's River Farm in Alexandria. "In one location we popped in some colorful containers and mulched the area."

The late-season makeover is not to be confused with fall planting season. The latter is the window between now and Thanksgiving to plant trees and shrubs for the future, to divide perennials, fix the lawn and plant spring bulbs. But September can be the sweetest month for the landscape, and this year some patching is in order. Thanks, Ernesto, for the rain, but your winds added injury to insult.

Think two steps: Clean up the mess and then plug the resulting holes.

The bed is weeded, an ailing rosebush is removed, and the lily stalks are cut back. The lawn is edged. A pot of coleus and angelonias is brought from the patio and placed between two existing clumps of the purple-leafed white snakeroot, variety Chocolate. Five succulent perennials, Sedum Autumn Joy, are planted in front of the terra cotta pot. Their height will help to hide the container. Their flower heads look white, but soon they will open in shades of deep rose pink. Three blue-flowering asters are added on the right, just out of frame.
The bed is weeded, an ailing rosebush is removed, and the lily stalks are cut back. The lawn is edged. A pot of coleus and angelonias is brought from the patio and placed between two existing clumps of the purple-leafed white snakeroot, variety Chocolate. Five succulent perennials, Sedum Autumn Joy, are planted in front of the terra cotta pot. Their height will help to hide the container. Their flower heads look white, but soon they will open in shades of deep rose pink. Three blue-flowering asters are added on the right, just out of frame.(Adrian Higgins)
Cut back flagging perennials, yank out dying annuals, weed and trim exuberant growth.

The gaps can be filled with a number of elements: potted annuals, tropicals and even houseplants borrowed from the patio. Old urns, birdbaths, birdhouses, sundials, decorative trellises and more can be scavenged from dark corners of the garden or purchased at yard sales or from retailers.

Look, too, for end-of-season sales of plants and pots at independent nurseries and the mass merchandisers. Be aware that most annuals will crash at the first frost, but the roots of tropicals such as bananas, gingers, dahlias and cannas can winter safely indoors, and house plants can be brought inside.

The makeover is completed with the addition of five small chrysanthemums and a large container of flowering salvias, nestled in the far corner to provide height and color. The mums were chosen for their neutral off-white blooms. The bed was mulched with homemade compost, given a good soaking and lightly fertilized. Cost: Five sedums, $25; five mums, $12.45; three asters, $20.95. Total: $58.40.Time: One hour shopping, three hours in the garden.
The makeover is completed with the addition of five small chrysanthemums and a large container of flowering salvias, nestled in the far corner to provide height and color. The mums were chosen for their neutral off-white blooms. The bed was mulched with homemade compost, given a good soaking and lightly fertilized. Cost: Five sedums, $25; five mums, $12.45; three asters, $20.95. Total: $58.40.Time: One hour shopping, three hours in the garden.(Adrian Higgins)
Chrysanthemums, now widely available, can be added to the mix in a range of sizes and colors. They can be grown as perennials, but are pretty drab until they flower, and are cheap enough that they can be regarded as annuals.

Perennials are still available, including a once rare and long season bloomer called gaura, now commonplace. Bowers raves over a gaura variety named Stratosphere Pink Picotee, which began flowering in early summer and will continue until frost. It has delicate pink blooms on arching stems.

Coreopsis and helenium are other useful late-season perennials.

Cindy Brown, assistant director of Green Spring Gardens Park in Alexandria, says cannas are an effective way of adding height to a gap, and tropical gingers are about to flower.

It's also possible to take potted shrubs that are either in bloom or have attractive foliage, and instead of planting them in their permanent locations -- this can be done in the fall -- stuff them into gaps.

Of course, after such a difficult summer, the wise course might be to recognize that gardens have their natural ebbs and flows.

For the weary, Brown offers this advice: "Get a bottle of wine and dream about the garden next year."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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