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Great Gardening: After a hot dry summer, it’s time to regroup

It was a very tough season, as we all know. After extended drought, the rains came ... but enough to save the stressed landscape plants? Too little, too late? Or just in time? And what will you do differently based on the summer of 2016? I hope you don’t throw in the towel (or dare I say trowel)?

Even in normal years (whatever that means), what you do in September greatly affects your garden or landscape plants next year. Here are some suggestions for what to do this month, honed by recent experiences. While I must generalize, these observations are based on seeing many gardens and talking with many gardeners.

Flower beds

Daylilies remained star performers throughout many extremely hot and dry weeks, with the advantage of tuberous roots that retain water. Compared to them, many other perennials were disappointing and showed drought stress – wilting, drooping, browning leaves. Many just blasted through their blooming times. Plants that like lots of moisture – Astilbe, Rodgersia, Sanguisorba, Ligularia, turtlehead – survived but looked less lush and quit sooner than their ideal selves. Even my Japanese anemones, usually lovely into October, are about two-thirds their size and quickly droop.

Of course it depended on how much the gardener watered and how moisture-retentive the soil. I rarely water my established perennials but did so, a few times, when they looked distressed. Some gardeners tripled their water bills, especially if they were showing their gardens during walks, tours or special events.

So for the future, consider some of these steps to make it all better:

• Add compost into and on the soil. For new plants stir in lots of it all around the roots. For established plants add a couple inches over their soil systems (under any mulch you’re using). Or use compost as mulch. Compost retains soil moisture best.

• For perennials that need moist soil, make a bog. Dig a deep, wide hole and fill it with peat, manure and compost – and watch those Ligularias ‘The Rocket’ soar like rockets.

• Group plants by their moisture and light/shade preferences. September is fine for transplanting.

• If some plants took a beating in full sun this season and would do better with a little protection from the midday or late afternoon blast furnace, you have two choices: Move them or add some shade. Would a pergola or small tree or fence or taller plant (on its western side) make a difference? Big-leaf hydrangeas (H. macrophylla – the ‘Endless Summer’ types) are the first to cry, “Water, water – I’m too hot!” So give them afternoon shade somehow.

• Invest in an in-ground watering system or high-quality soaker or drip hoses for next year – possibly on sale somewhere still. Consult with a water systems expert now instead of next spring. Or with the memory of back-breaking hose dragging, (my personal complaint) acquire enough hoses to leave in place and extra water wands. Just do whatever it takes to make efficient watering easier.

• Give up some plants that are water guzzlers. Replace them with drought-tolerant plants but remember that they too need water until they are well established.

Container plants

This summer some container plants did worse than usual unless you watered daily or more. If you chose the plants that usually struggle in summer heat – million bells, Lobularia, New Guinea impatiens – then you’d do better next time with really heat-tolerant ones such as portulaca, vinca, ivy geraniums, and (mostly in shade) begonias.

• Shop now for larger urns, pots, baskets. Larger pots hold more moisture, and add drama as well.

• Evaluate where your color splashes are most important (typically provided by annuals). If you were regularly watering large flower beds, maybe a large container would do the same job while demanding less water and effort. You must water containers of course, but with high quality potting mix you’ll have an easy job and high performance.

Landscape design

This season is perfect for improving soil or building new beds, both raised and in-ground. It’s the right season to plant or even transplant most trees and shrubs, and a great time to get professional landscape help – call a CNLP today – even if you just start the project now and complete it in spring. You can also seed or sod patches of lawn or make a new lawn in late summer (but get lawn care professionals’ advice).

• Review the placement of your beds and change the shape and locations now. For super-hot summers, would it be better to have the colorful beds nearer the deck or visible from the kitchen window rather than farther away? As my British friend Mike Shadrack often comments, we Americans tend to garden for the benefit of passers-by on the street rather than for our own views from the house. So if gardens become tougher to care for, then make them count – for your enjoyment.

• If gardening in hard-baked soil has been too difficult, make some new raised beds and fill them with enhanced garden soil.

• Many weeds and non-native invasive plants thrive in hot, dry conditions. If they have become your torment, then weed what you can now (especially anything with seed heads) and then cover the beds or open soil areas. Use any mulch you have, or an opaque tarp or heavy black plastic. Put down thick newspaper sections or cardboard underneath mulch (to block light and slow germination). These coverings will kill most of the worst weeds so you can start out one step ahead of them next season.

• Make a rain garden. This may seem to be an oxymoron – we’re talking potential future droughts and I’m mentioning rain gardens? But in drought-riddled times, when finally the rains come they tend to run off the hard-baked soil, too quickly for lawns, trees or other plants to take up the water. Well-placed rain gardens or catch basins are a smart choice for all extreme situations.

We know some extreme weather will happen, whether next year or soon. So learn from the recent past. Let’s not quit – but make it easier.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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