Marjorie's eLetter for Late Summer 2012

Late Summer 2012 E-Letter
By Marjorie Harris

late summer

My apologies for the months of silence. For once it had nothing to do with health, merely a hectic schedule that's barely allowed for deep breathing, let alone working on a newsletter. I'm always thinking about it, but by the time I get home at night I'm completely knackered, and weekends seem just as full of work. The garden, however, has held up well in spite of a heat wave of completely new dimensions. It's gorgeous overall, but look at the poor Japanese maples. They've suffered.



Gardening against the odds is how it has felt all summer. After such a mild winter, we've got all the curses gardeners want to avoid: fungal diseases, infestations of bugs (Japanese beetles, lily beetle, sow bugs, earwigs), and a relentless sun that seems hotter than ever before. In other parts of the country, it's been unrelievedly cold and wet, so all of the above, except the sun, is what they've been up against. But onward and upward we go.



How often can I emphasize this? It doesn't matter where you live, maintenance is a principle of gardening so basic and so important that you can, I repeat yet again, never let up. It astounds me that people will spend a lot of money on a garden and then imagine that it will look after itself. A new garden takes a lot more work than one that's been long-established. A well-planned mature garden should be self-sustaining.

The core principles of good garden maintenance are watering, compost and mulching. These are followed by deadheading and pruning. And it's pruning I'd like to draw your attention to here. I always tell clients who want to look after their own garden either to take a pruning course or bring in an expert. Don't horse around with your plants, whacking at them in a haphazard way (unless it's an old lilac or forsythia, which are great to practice on and hard to kill).



This was formerly a lovely weeping tree, reduced to an awkward-looking brush cut by an overzealous gardener who said, "I was trying to tidy it up." For starters, you don't tidy a weeping tree. It's fine to cut out dead branches to keep it slightly in control, but the sprongs which so irritated this gardener are where they are precisely because they're going to grow into a soft weeping shape. If you don't like crazy-looking or eccentric plants, don't buy them.

A weeping plant does tend to look disheveled but you must be patient. I've watched people hire el cheapo gardeners who, with a pair of secateurs, can reduce a big strong tree like a Japanese silk lilac to a shadow of itself. The cuts here and there in this picture are not promising and, though I don't like this tree much and won't be unhappy to see it go, no one should allowed to prune this badly.



When I first started gardening, I read The Education of a Gardener by Russell Paige, one of my all-time favourite garden writers and a magnificent designer. He said that if you want to understand the structure of the plant, lie down on the ground and look up at it.

I read this when I was very young and have been doing it ever since. Paige meant that you have to learn the plant you are going to take a whack at in just the same way a surgeon learns the parts of the body he's going to cut into. Always use sharp instruments that have been cleaned with denatured alcohol or ammonia, something that will kill off any persistent diseases. Dirty secateurs can move disease all over the garden.

Then choose the stem or limb you want to lop off. Place the instrument so it's neither flat against the trunk nor far enough away to leave a stub (where diseases have a chance to move into the tree or shrub's interior). The right distance will allow a collar to form which helps the plant heal itself.




Here's a shot of the loppers I just adore: Fiskar's xx xxx Loppers (on the left) which I bought at (they send them immediately). And on the right the new Fiskars' Cut and Grab Lopper. Now that is a serious instrument.

They're so easy to use, the temptation is to take a run at everything in the garden. Don't. Be cautious, think before you whack.

Deadheading is a subcategory of pruning and no less important. If you have a perennial garden, get yourself either little Japanese scissors or a pair of small secateurs. It's important to keep a vigilant eye at this time of year because so many things in the garden look blowsy. You can create a more tailored effect just by cutting off all the dead blooms, or removing the stalk on hostas (they look ridiculous) so the leaves are shown to their best advantage. Daylily devotees always remove limp tassels every day to keep the plant blooming for some time.


Never go out into the garden without carrying an instrument for snicking off these things. Again nice clean ones. Here's the one I carry always:


You can call all this work 'fluffing' if you want. Imagine a photographer is coming in to shoot the garden and aim for that kind of neat, clean look you see in magazines. The edges all are sharp, there are no apparent weeds and nothing obviously dead hanging about.


If you've read Liz Primeau's lovely book In Pursuit of Garlic, you'll have been inspired to grow some -- there really is nothing as good as your own. So if you've tucked garlic in around your garden, you'll find that it's ready for harvesting when half the plant is green and the lowest leaves have died back. Leave the tops on the bulbs and let them mature for a further couple of weeks.


Here are the annuals that have held up well in this summer of mugginess and heat:

  • Plectranthus 'Mona Lavender'
  • Papyrus 'Baby Tut'
  • Every single Coleus planted.
  • Calla lilies. These are amazing and, because of the warm winter, came back again this summer!

I'll get another newsletter out next month. Promise. Maybe it will be a little more tranquil this autumn with a lot more time for thoughtful reflection.

If you need my services:  email me.


Yours Marjorie

August 2012;

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