July and August are decidedly warm in most parts of America and the gardener, unless he is feeble-minded, ventures forth only before breakfast and after supper. Of course, there may be quick excursions to check on the beans or roses, but in general the gardener should spend the day looking out the window or reading or (if it comes to that) going to the office to do a day's work.
It is not the season to be out there pulling weeds. In favorable climates, such as in Washington, it is rarely necessary to water anything. If there is a long spell of oppressive heat, I sometimes syringe the azaleas, though I rarely actually water the plants.
In any garden there is always some plant that shows signs of thirst. I have a Japanese kadsura, an elegant small vine, that for some reason is always panting so I cater to it, though there is no reason whatever for it to keep flagging. Unless perhaps it resents the roots of the large osmanthus a few inches away. Surely in time it will have a root system sufficient to keep it from continually complaining about water.
It is just this time of year that demonstrates the value of the grapevine. I have six or seven kinds, none of them worth shooting except 'Villard Blanc,' but I love them all, partly because their fruit is admired by several animals, partly for the beauty of their leaves, partly for their refreshing vigor, and most of all for the beautiful shade they cast when trained over an arbor or summer house.
Years ago I read that grapevines made the best shade of any plant for sitting under, and unlike much that we read in faith, it is true. The thing is, grape leaves are so large that they do not crowd in on each other, as the leaves of akebia, morning glories, moon vines, actinidias and so many other vines do. They form a complete canopy without overdoing it, and the blessed sunlight comes through, filtered and chastened and perfected. No other light is so agreeable to read by, though books rarely point out that wasps are much interested in grapes from August on.
Many gardeners go through phases in which some plant or other quite absorbs them; thus they have a daffodil phase, a rhododendron phase and so forth. Once I went through a grape phase, not that I cared that much for the fruits, but I was far gone in exotic species of wild grape from Asia as well as America. Once, observing Vitis coignetiae, which I had acquired at some effort, it dawned on me it was no handsomer than the wild grapes that grew all over the river bottoms and sprang up (thanks to birds) in town gardens. Still, I find grapes somewhat like willows in this respect, that if one only had space it would be very nice to have dozens of different kinds.
More flowery, if less beautiful in leaf, at this time of the year are two surprisingly neglected shrubs, the vitex and the crape myrtle. The vitex has aromatic leaves, vaguely like Vick's salve, and they endure the hottest and driest of summers in the South and East. There are several kinds, all similar, and usually they bear six-inch spikes of crowded tiny blue flowers. The strength of the blue can vary in different plants, and sometimes you see white ones, which are not as handsome as the blue to my mind. The seeds are fragrant and often are put in linen closets.
Once I had a vitex sprout in the crack of a coping to a fish pool. I kept cutting it down, but at last it settled down to waist high, blooming like mad, and I stopped persecuting it. It cracked the coping completely off, needless to say.
The crape myrtle, the showiest of summer shrubs, is supreme in blooming from July (it may start in June, but you can count on it up here for July 14 at latest) through the summer. There are many garden varieties, including new hybrids, and while the watermelon-red varieties are somewhat brash, the pink, lavender and white sorts are delicate enough to suit the most faint-hearted gardener. The National Arboretum has pioneered in the breeding of crape myrtles and many varieties may be seen there.
The crape myrtle, apart from its cantaloupe-size masses of delicate bloom, has foliage that often colors superbly in the fall, and has bark beautifully mottled in soft colors, even approaching fawn and pink, and ardent gardeners sometimes polish the trunks with a rough towel. They do this to enhance the winter effect of the bark and they do this because they have no gainful employment and a lot of time to kill.
Crape myrtles are for practical purposes hardy along the coast up to New York and probably in New England in sheltered places about Long Island Sound. In vicious winters they may be killed back, sometimes even to ground level, as far south as northern Mississippi and coastal Virginia. But pay no attention to that. They make shrubs to 20 feet, usually 12 to 15 feet, and no other shrub of equal showiness is so desirable for gardens from Zone 7 southward. I except the oleander, equally glorious but unfortunately not so hardy as the crape myrtle, though there are some varieties even of oleander that might be tried in sheltered spots as far north as Washington. They require some searching and are rarely offered by nurseries.
Some people like altheas or rose of Sharon. The French do. In France they sometimes grow them with a single stem three inches thick and a great flattened-muffin top seven feet across. They are surprisingly showy that way. The flowers are mallowlike, either single or jammed full of petals like a powder puff. I have not seen or heard of a powder puff for years and wonder if women still use them. Anyway, that is one way to grow altheas in the garden.
The flowers are white, sometimes with deep red centers, or pink or lavender. Some kinds are rather blotched and striped, showy in a way. The arboretum is quite proud of a white one, 'Diana,' which they raised and introduced into commerce. They do not like to hear anybody say anything bad about altheas, and certainly I do not, except they are rather dull beasts. Still, many people love them and there's no law against it.