Coming home from a vacation can give a gardener a nasty jolt.
That’s what struck me after eight days of not being here to tend my garden, while the sun beat down and the weeds kept growing. And, of course, I returned to a massive email and to-do list pileup. Except for plants about to die from thirst, the garden remained neglected a few days longer.
Finally, today I started outside shortly after sunrise and gave it my all, starting with watering. The forecast is for intermittent rain showers, but I know that can be a false promise. We should never rely on the possibility of showers if plants need water. It is easy to underestimate how quickly root systems dry up and die, and equally easy to overestimate how much rain has fallen or might fall soon. Dig around your plants after a rainfall or watering, and you’ll soon see whether the moisture reached the roots (8 inches down for a small herbaceous plant, or 18 inches for anything bigger).
Even between some trickles of rain, I left the rain wand running at the base of key plants for 20 to 30 minutes, to saturate their entire root systems and surrounding soil. Meanwhile, I weeded around those plants – not wanting those weeds to steal the water – and used my hand pruner and hedge clippers to dead-stem and cut back finished flowers and unruly or unattractive foliage. And I did some thinking about my landscape and gardens and all the things I wish I had done this year.
This season in particular we should all forgive ourselves, understanding that it was the wettest local June in recorded meteorological history and most gardeners had a very late start for planting, rearranging, mulching, or starting new beds or hardscape projects. I hope everyone also forgives their landscapers for taking so long to show up for spring/early summer cleanup, planting or new projects.
Professionals had a lot of days when they couldn’t work in your soil without doing more harm than good – this on top of the perpetual challenge of juggling potential and existing clients’ needs in a very short season. (Hint: Start a landscape project now with a good professional; you can accomplish a lot in the fall.)
Following June’s downpours, we also experienced odd weather patterns in July. Remember record-breaking days around 90 degrees? It was not the perfect time for most planting, or weather that inspires most gardeners.
The exceptions are the amazing showcase gardeners – our garden walk, bus tour and open garden hosts – who garden in spite of the rain and blazing sun because tourists might show up. Most of us, however, postponed garden tasks for longer than usual this season.
Enough excuses. I still wish I had done a few things better, sooner, differently.
I wish I had mulched.
I meant to buy many bags of shredded bark to mulch my paths and some landscape beds. Some paths are still covered with thick cardboard, which did slow down the spread of weeds, but why didn’t I find at least a day to just cover it? For flower gardens, I have mixed feelings about mulch, especially after observing so many beds in Canada (Quebec in particular) that are open soil and never mulched. Instead, even in formal government or estate gardens the gardeners hoe weed seedlings or just pull or dig weeds. I personally love pine needles (free) as mulch, or might use cocoa shells among flowers. For my landscape beds though, I wish I had spread the newspaper or cardboard and then added 2 inches of dark shredded bark to define those beds and thwart the weeds. Still can do.
I wish I had fertilized.
Even as an organic gardener who regularly adds compost to the soil, I know I would have better or larger flowers (or fruit production) if I would fertilize on a regular basis. For container plants, a regular fertilizing routine produces better flowering (whether low-strength liquid fertilizer in every watering can, or a biweekly pattern), and I’m too inconsistent. For ornamental trees and shrubs, early spring or late October fertilizing can help a lot with root growth, foliage and flower or fruit production. (Except when an arborist or CNLP advises otherwise, we should not routinely fertilize woody plants or herbaceous perennials from early August until they go dormant.) For perennials and annuals in the garden, I wish I had used the wonderful organic fertilizers that I took home, at least a couple of times in late spring and early summer. (I’m going to give my few annuals a couple more shots before their life cycle is over.)
I wish I had planted.
I know all the reasons I couldn’t plant a couple of young trees and perennials during June and July. (For one, I’d be traveling and it’s tough to show a house-sitter the complicated watering procedures.) Still, I wish I had gotten the thornless hawthorn and black mulberry into their future homes already. I will still do so before August ends. (Yes, it’s fine to plant in summer as long as you commit to suitable watering during the dry weeks.)
I wish I had watered.
I wish I had gone around to the far side of the house to see my beloved Disanthus cercidifolius (wonderful, rare, large shrub with amazing fall color) that I planted 13 months ago, because it became very stressed while I was gone. I soaked it, stirred some compost in around it, cut out any dead stems, and will not neglect it again. Reminder: Root systems are small for all recent plantings; we shouldn’t neglect them.
And I didn’t even mention that I wish I had weeded more and sooner.
Hindsight is easy and informative if you use it for constructive self-criticism and learning. Now it’s time to stop the self-flagellation and get back to gardening.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.