Curing the August doldrums

Published 8:16 am Thursday, August 9, 2018

It was unspeakably hot and dry, and then we got lots of rain. My hostas look as if they’ve been subjected to a long session in an oven. The hellebores are flat on the ground, and even the daylilies look stressed. Everything looks tired, just like me. It’s time for a mini makeover.

I can’t do anything about the weather or the way my plants look, but I can do small adjustments here and there that make the overall garden look less tired.

First step: do something about the pots on the porch and by the front gate. The petunias are spent, and the zinnias have a bad case of powdery mildew. If I cut the petunias back to the edge of the pot and fertilize them, they’ll continue blooming until frost. The zinnias just need to be removed and replaced with whatever looks interesting at the local garden center.

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This year, I’ve decided to replace them with bromeliads and rex begonias; they’re readily available, and I like the new colors and textures that they add to my pots. The begonias have leaves mottled with deep burgundies and silver, hints of cooler weather to come. The bromeliads add new shades of green and perhaps pink or orange if they bloom. They’re a tropical contrast to the cool colors of the begonias.

I’m replacing the zinnias with new pots filled with variegated yucca and several types of sedum, including a Virginia native that’s winter hardy, thus giving me a head start on late fall plantings.

My next step is to tidy up the perennial beds – remove spent bloom stalks from daylilies; cut dead leaves from hostas and hellebores; dead head the roses; and then weed, weed, weed.

By late summer I’ve usually got an absolute infestation of mulberry weed. This garden thug grows and sets seeds so quickly that I’ll never manage to get rid of it, but I still need to be vigilant so that every corner isn’t overrun. Smilax, green cat briers, are also a problem. They’re natives, but intrusive. They have deep taproots and clamber through whatever is in their path. Some also have nasty prickles that resemble cat’s claws.

My final step is to check out sitting areas to see if they need to be tidied up so that they’ll be ready to use again in a few weeks. My new construction project for this month is to build a fire pit using an idea I saw in Austin. I’ll take an old washing machine drum – the cylindrical container that holds water and clothes – paint it with a heat resistant matte black spray paint and then place it on a decorative design of stones and bricks. The best feature of this do it yourself fire pit is that when it’s lit, the fire shows through all the little holes in the old drum. It’s like a super large lantern.

With a little luck, by the time I’ve done all of these projects, the weather will have completed its heat, high humidity, torrential rain tantrum and the August doldrums will be gone. I’ll be able to use the new fire pit, plant bulbs and think about how many leaves I’ll have to rake when the oaks finally drop their leaves in December.

CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener. She can be reached at cynthia.