We stand at a golden moment in the growing season, before prolonged sticky heat saps the garden but after the late spring monsoon.
The excessive rains of May and June bring certain plant woes, some yet to appear, but for now everything looks lush and verdant. This extends to the lawn, to ground covers, to summer-flowering perennials, shrubs, you name it. There is only one thing for the gardener to do about this luxuriance: Take credit for it.
The rains coincided with the growth spurt of spring and served to stretch burgeoning stems and leaves to levels of tropical exuberance. This has undoubtedly increased the display of flowers as well, not least with hydrangeas. Beyond the mopheads and lacecaps, it’s hard to miss the wonderful flower shows of oakleaf hydrangea, smooth hydrangea and Hydrangea aspera — the last a much underused hydrangea with large, velvetlike leaves and enormous lacecaps beloved by bumblebees.
The rain was a boon to ferns, of course, but also to the supremely elegant Japanese hakone grass, which likes a little bit of shade and lots of moisture. My ardor for day lilies has waned over the years, but the rain has certainly set them up for an epic season of bloom. The calycanthus is a handsome, large, glossy green shrub that needs good soil moisture when it stirs into bloom in May. The flowers are large, wine-colored and fragrant. There are native and Chinese versions and crosses between the two. Aphrodite was developed for its fragrance and reblooming qualities, and its pronounced scent places it above the one I planted, Hartlage Wine.
Some ground covers get rambunctious with spring rain. A gardening friend once ripped out all the lamiastrum, or yellow archangel, because of its thuggish qualities, but I planted it on a dry hillside, which served to contain it. In droughts, it withers away but always comes back. In wet springs, it goes a bit mad but is easy to chop back.
The sweet, low-growing Mazus reptans, another ground cover for partial shade, ebbs and flows with the moisture and is, for now, cresting nicely.
Most of my gardening friends have welcomed the flood because it ended a long, hidden and worrying period of dryness that stretched back well into last year. But such extremes, we are told, are becoming the norm in an age of climate change. How should the gardener respond?
Some woody plants grow in poor soil and can handle both drought and flood. Among trees, the list includes sycamores, red maples, swamp white oaks and pin oaks. But you need a pretty extensive knowledge of more obscure plants — especially of smaller trees, shrubs and perennials — so that you can plant enough to make such an area look like a garden. Even if your mind is full of beautiful wading plants, finding them can be a challenge, even in the Internet age.
Another approach is to do wholesale amendment to the soil in a given area by carting in sand, gravel and grit, and working it into the native soil. You then plant things that demand dry conditions. This means forgoing such plants as hydrangeas, azaleas and hostas, along with wood mulches, and selecting dry-loving perennials and shrubs. With imagination, the palette is boundless and includes such things as lavender, catmint, poppies, thyme, coneflowers, liatris, salvias, baptisias, wild quinine, asters, goldenrods, agastaches, sedums, dianthus, phlomis and certain irises.
Grasses love this environment and so do bulbs. You will sense that such gardens are full of exciting potential if you do your homework, and you have a sunny location. Drainage is key and allows these plants to survive even when we get more than 10 inches of rain in a month, as we just have.
Yet another way of dealing with adding organic matter is to incorporate lots of leaf mold and compost to your soil, so that it acts as a sponge, holding water without becoming sodden. By creating raised beds, you can lift plants higher and add more material.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I found myself alone in a community garden of some 150 plots. This may seem strange for such a time and place, but I should mention that this was in the midst of a torrential downpour. I had to harvest a head of cabbage to make soup. A friend mentioned you make soup in the winter, not during a tropical monsoon, but a fellow is entitled to his fixations, even if they cannot be explained.
The rain was so bad that a river zigzagged its way between the plots, gouging through the wood chip paths that gardeners had laid so laboriously.
In a neighboring garden, a line of Swiss chard was doing the backstroke, and in the garden next to that, the water was up to the lip of the eight-inch boards that came together in a corner. But the raised beds on the other side of the planks were not inundated, and the gardeners’ effort of elevating the growing beds a few inches had paid off.
I returned a few days later and saw that gardens with raised beds showed little or no evidence of the deluge other than a bit of soil crusting.
To the gardener, there is nothing more depressing than standing water that won’t drain. But if you have done your soil work and erred on the side of too much amendment, you can watch the rain all day long and not fret about it.
After all this rain, I can only expect a summer that will turn too dry. Knowing there’s plenty of water in the reservoirs for garden hoses, a dry spell can be managed. What really sticks in the craw are those August days that are droughty but heavy with humidity. Succor then comes with anticipation of the fall when it will be warm but not hot, and breezy without the gales, and it will rain lightly while you slumber. Dream on.
Gaps in flower borders can be seeded still with quick-to-flower zinnias, which will bloom from August until frost. Keep seeds and seedlings watered and thin as needed to leave eight inches or so between plants.
— Adrian Higgins