Hot and Dry, Then Lashing Rains: Gardens Give Up
A Quick Tonic to the Rescue

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.

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.

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."

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