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Great Gardening: Summer's not over!

The end is near! The sky is falling! It’s over! This is a typical reaction around Western New York in August.

Why do we think this? Is it the Erie County Fair with its agricultural messaging about haying and harvest time? Is it the first cool night when we close the windows? Is it the sight of the corn and red tomatoes at the farm stands? Or maybe it’s just the back-to-school advertising that trains us.

Resist, we must. Let’s ignore all the signs. Let’s fight the urge to close down the garden. Let’s stop thinking or saying “summer is over.”

What’s great about August?

1. Eating from the garden. Even if you have been cutting lettuce and arugula for weeks, now there is so much more in your garden, at the farmers market, and stores with local produce. We’re eating fresh onions, beans, potatoes, and cherry tomatoes that are grown here. The basil and garlic are ready for making pesto. The sweet corn is from Eden and nearby towns. Blueberry farms are ready for us to pick our own or to buy from stores that offer local produce.

A panicle hydrangea is a popular pick for late summer blooms. (Photo courtesy Proven Winners)

2. Waves of flowering perennials. While many daylilies and the other July performers have peaked, now we see an astounding show of bright yellow, orange, and pink perennials: Black-eyed Susans and other Rudbeckias (including the 7-foot ‘Herbstonne’), giant Cup Plants (Silphium perfoliatum), asters, New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), turtlehead, and goldenrod.

3. Lush and luxurious annuals and tropical plants. If you chose good plants and watered through the dry weeks, if you protected a few (like succulents) from too much rain, and if you cut back or fertilized the container plants, then you now have masses of flowers and foliage overflowing your window boxes, pots and baskets. The tall cannas, bananas, and grasses stretch high in giant pots, surrounded by petunias, coleus, and sweet-potato vines – finally all are stunning.

4. Panicle hydrangeas. After all the worries about whether or not the big-leaf hydrangeas would flower, some hydrangeas always flower in August: Hydrangea paniculata is the easy, dependable one. The plants are mostly tall (more than 6 feet), with mostly pointy flowers in whites to pinks. But now there are round flowers and shorter cultivars in the genus. If you’d like to add these for a better show in the second half of summer, look at them in garden centers now. (In June you cannot tell what they will look like. Do read the label for the mature size.)

5. Bees, birds, spiders, and butterflies. In part because of the flowers you are growing, you are seeing monarchs on the milkweed, bumblebees on the St. John’s Wort, and garden spiders stretching their dramatic webs from coneflower to daisy. Hummingbirds are sampling the cannas and salvias, birds are swallowing up the insects, and bats are gobbling mosquitoes at dusk.

There’s one more great thing about August for many WNY gardeners: You did it!

The pressure is off. You produced beautiful gardens that were seen by thousands of people during garden walks and tours. Your work and generosity, your taste and artistry, and your seriously great gardening have been praised, applauded, and written about.

And even if you don’t put your garden on a garden tour, enjoy the fact that you have made something beautiful for your friends, neighbors, family, the animals, and for yourself.

Sit back and enjoy. It’s the best part of August.

Much time remains

Typically, gardeners and homeowners are frenzied in May and June as if in a race to get it all done, to get the yard and garden ready for summer activities – which is all the more reason to savor August.

We have two months, well into October, to do great gardening.

• We can make the most of what we already have – maintain the container plants, dead-head perennials, and insert a few new plants into gaps in the garden.

Now is a good time to think about paths and other hardscape features. (Sharon Cantillon / News file photo)

• We can build new beds, amend soil, and expand gardens to prepare for new perennials, shrubs, and trees to plant now or next spring.

• We can pull or smother all the weeds that we couldn’t remove earlier.

• We can observe which plants are outgrowing their locations and make notes and plans for re-design.

• We can also do the “hardscape” – the paths, walls, fences, gazebos – and schedule professional landscapers who can do this kind of work until the snow flies.

Most of all, August is the absolutely right time for lawn renovation and for starting new lawns.

Get going. It’s far from over!

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant. She and Jim Charlier are the authors of “Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95). 

Sally Cunningham: Visitors asked, gardeners answered

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