Early June is an odd time for gardeners, no longer spring but not quite summer. In the flower garden, it’s typically an in-between period, when perennial gardeners sometimes complain there isn’t much color. This color gap happens especially in gardens that depend on traditional flowers – between the spring bulbs and lilacs time and the moment the roses peak; between the peonies’ and irises’ short but gorgeous displays and the debut of the daylilies and the other summer perennials.
For a few weeks, vegetable gardeners can only harvest their salad greens, peas and possibly asparagus and rhubarb and then must wait as broccoli, beans, tomatoes and peppers get going. There’s even a waiting period for gardeners who count on annuals for excitement, between the planting of 4-inch seedlings and their eventual bursts into full-sized blooming plants.
My own garden is in its doldrums as well, although I know it’s temporary. Earlier, the Camassia finished just as the old rugosa and moss roses opened, and hundreds of alliums looked great, against a richly red Smoke Bush.
Lilacs had a great year, followed by a vibrant Mock-orange show, and the Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus) never looked better. But right now the plants that are in flower are modest and impress only me – the cute little orchid-like Melittis melissophylum (Bastard Balm), several colors of Tradescantia (Spiderwort) and a few delicate perennial geraniums and coral bells. And that’s it.
But one of the joys of perennial gardening, and the reason to walk down a garden path on a drizzling, chilly morning, is the anticipation of what’s coming. Give this garden a week and it will offer up hundreds of fat, purple, ball-shaped flowers of Campanula glomerata (one of many kinds of great bellflowers), clumps of red-leaved, white-flowering Penstemon ‘Husker Red’, ‘Knockout’ and ‘Oso Easy Paprika’ landscape roses, foxgloves, several kinds of Thalictrum (Meadow Rue) and fluffy white Goat’s Beards.
Not that flowers are all that matter; turgid hostas with shiny leaves are fully expanded, while ferns, Acanthus zebrinus (Bear’s Breeches) and daylily leaves are pristine, richly green and sturdy. Every garden is different, but yours surely has a lot coming on also.
While you wait
It’s not all strolling with coffee or beer mug in hand, though. Get busy, whenever the weather permits, with the myriad tasks of this spring-to-summer transition:
• Weeding time, still, always: The generous rainfalls have produced wonderful plant growth, but that includes weeds. Hoe or pull the annuals before they go to seed, and dig or smother the perennial weeds. Intervene now; save five times the hours later.
• Mulching moments: Now that every plant’s roots have received a full portion of water, it’s a good time to mulch most gardens. Mulching retains soil moisture, prevents some weed growth and makes gardens look pretty; organic mulches add organic matter to the soil as they decompose.
In a flower or landscape bed your mulch might be shredded bark, cocoa shells, pine needles, wood chips or any of these on top of cardboard or newspaper. Compost itself, the ultimate soil additive, is also wonderful mulch, placed right on top of the soil. It will decompose, feed your soil organisms and add enormous fertility.
Avoid mulch buildup beyond 3 inches; don’t smother little seedlings or crowd plant stems; don’t mulch around trunks volcano-style. Once you have mulched, whenever you water, be sure that the water is getting through the mulch to the plants – another reason to leave some space between the mulch and the plants’ crowns or trunks.
• Containers, annuals, baskets: June has just begun and you haven’t failed as a homeowner if you did not hang flowering baskets from the porch hooks, or filled your collection of planters, window boxes and urns with tropical plants and flowering annuals. Get to it, though, as some varieties are bound to be disappearing in even the most fully stocked garden center and nursery. The risk of frost has (almost certainly) passed, although it’s always wise to listen to weather reports and protect plants in case of a rapid temperature change, terrible windstorm or unrelenting deluge.
• Seeding: You may be surprised how quickly some seeds germinate and flower. It’s not too late to sow a patch of Nigella (Love-in-a-mist) or Amaranthus, nasturtium, cosmos or many kinds of herbs. Vegetable gardeners can still produce squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, some melons and beans by planting seeds directly into the soil now.
• Prune early flowering plants: Look at your lilacs, forsythias, redbuds, magnolias and others that bloomed already, and decide whether they need pruning. Many never do. If the lilac is too tall for your enjoyment, if the forsythia bloomed poorly, or the flowering quince shaded the window, then learn how to prune it. That does not mean flat-topping or shearing those plants. It means selectively removing branches that reach too high, or that are damaged, crossing or rubbing. Cut back such branches from above another branch or bud, somewhere lower in the shrub or at the ground level.
• Fertilize: It is a good time to fertilize perennials and most woody plants, if you have not done so. Organic fertilizers, that feed the soil slowly, can be applied any time. Synthetic, quick-release fertilizers – according to directions and with great care to avoid run-off – may be applied for just awhile longer, but it is not smart to use quick release fertilizers on most perennials and woody plants during drought periods or past mid-July.
• Plant, overhaul, revitalize: You can still start the project of designing or redesigning your home landscape. If you didn’t have time, or couldn’t get a landscaper’s attention earlier in the spring, you can still plant and transplant almost every kind of herbaceous or woody plant, as long as you take care to do it properly, with a plan for all-season watering.
It is almost time for the extended summer garden touring events, for which our region is famous, when most of our gardens are peaking. We may have to wait a bit longer for those precious times; fortunately we still have plenty to do.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.