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Great Gardening / By Sally Cunningham

Even though we have weeks more time in the garden - with wonderful September weather and kids-free time for some - the passing of Labor Day has a benchmark feeling.
So let's not resist; let's ask ourselves what could have gone better, what has satisfied us and what has not, and what we might do now to make 2013 a better year in our gardens and landscapes.

Heat, freezes, drought

No doubt weather dominated the gardening saga for 2012 - specifically, our early, extreme warmth in spring, followed by severe freezing and then many weeks of drought. We have talked about drought and watering all summer ad nauseam, and yet I am compelled to warn one more time (truthfully, several more times are likely) that we cannot let one good rainfall make us complacent.
That soil - where the tree and flower roots are - is desert-dry, and even 2 inches isn't going to saturate it. While looking out at a lovely downpour, I fully expected to go out with a shovel in the morning and find white, compacted clay 3 inches down in several spots around the landscape and flower beds.
For our plants' winter survival and our future gardens, we must measure rainfall week by week until the ground is thoroughly frozen (November?) and we must water our permanent plants deeply once a week, in every week that there is not a long and heavy soaking.
Double the effort for anything planted during the last two or three years - especially conifers. That's because conifers dry out worse than deciduous plants during the winter; they continue to lose moisture through their leaves (needles), while plants that have dropped their leaves will simply go dormant.

Starring plants

This week, I'm delivering a new talk called "Best of Show" - the winning annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, as seen during the 2012 bus tours, open gardens, walks and tours of the National Garden Festival. Preparing it forced me to look at several hundred pictures to see what jumped out from all those great gardens. Certain plants clearly emerged as superior performers, at least during midsummer when the festival touring took place. Among the standouts:
Perennials: Rudbeckia "Herbstonne"; Echinacea "Hot Papaya" and "Coconut Lime"; Crocosmia "Lucifer"; Acanthus mollis (Bears Breeches), and many specific, amazing daylilies.
Annuals: Dragonwing Begonias; Acalypha "Bourbon Street" and "Beyond Paradise"; Musa (Bananas); Mandevillas, and Perilla Magilla.
Trees and shrubs: Japanese maples; Smokebush; Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet); Katsuratree and hydrangeas - including H. arborescens (smooth-leaf), H. quercifolia (oak leaf), H. paniculata (panicle) and H. macrophylla (big-leaf), with so many great cultivars.
For some, the "best in show" of their gardening summer is a spectacular moment in the garden, however brief. We remember certain plants for the huge flowers, tall spikes or bright fruit, even if their glory is short-lived. Delphiniums, tea roses or the wisteria vine may be that for you.
For others, what counts is a long performance from plants that earn their space in the garden week after week. Coreopsis verticillata "Moonbeam" (and even longer flowering new cultivars). Geranium "Rozanne" and Sedum spectabile are in that category. My choice is skewed by my reviewing and photography effort from late June through July, so my "best" list is missing some June and August beauties.
Now, before the winter amnesia sets in, make notes about what plants worked and what didn't.

The work you do

While it's fresh in your mind, how did you enjoy caring for your yard this year? Personally, I enjoyed the hours of watering by hand and feel satisfied that I kept everything alive. Weeding wasn't as difficult as usual (even they were drought-stressed) and I used the scuffle-hoe while watering with the other hand. I'm also comfortable with how many beds I have, the square footage that is planted, and have come to terms with my plan for upkeep - what I can do and when I need professional help.
But if your experience isn't so happy, this is the time to re-evaluate. Consider:
. Irrigation choices: At minimum, think about where your hoses are connected and stored, and how that influences your watering decisions. Extra hoses, placed nearer your landscape areas, could make a difference. However, if you're losing your investment in landscape plants, and if you just can't do the watering you know you should, look into professional irrigation systems. You may be surprised at the DIY choices and the affordability of professional jobs.
. How much garden?: As our lives change, so does the size of the garden we want. Some retirees are cutting back just when others finally have time for the large garden of their dreams. Look at what you have and whether it serves you now. Also think about the lawn. Are you mowing weekly when you'd rather have a meadow? Would an island of ground covers around the trees be easier, prettier and more nature-friendly than the grass that struggles to grow in the shade?
. How does it look to you?: Were you proud of your garden this season, when you had guests for a key event? Does the garden please you when you need it to do so? Consider when you're there, when you travel and when you entertain. Perhaps a simpler planting, focused on June blooms, the Fourth of July or September color, would serve you better. Once you know what you want, work with a CNLP (Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional) or horticulture professional to choose plants and a design that will suit your actual lifestyle.
Whether it's Labor Day, today or Halloween, it's a good time to think about your garden - past, present and future.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.