Boosting Summer Color
After the first ebullient rush of spring color melds into summer beauty, many gardens experience a few hiccups along the way. The best way to avoid color gaps is to make the rounds of local nurseries as soon as you notice a dull corner or bland border. This is almost a civic duty, as supporting local nurseries helps ensure that they’ll still be around when the pandemic eases off. Since staying home and staying safe means many of us are not doing our usual activities, it’s wise to funnel whatever cash we can into the things that give us the deepest pleasures in this stressful time. For gardeners, surely keeping our gardens fresh and full is nearly as important as keeping food on the table.
To refresh your memory, take pictures of any garden gaps, including nearby plants that will become supportive companions for your new acquisitions. When you get to the nursery, consult those images before getting carried away with whatever catches your eye. That’s not to say you shouldn’t bring home every plant that calls your name; of course you should if you can. But do make sure that at least some of what you gather will add zip to those blank spots. If a place is truly blank, as when an early riser also goes early to bed, placing a large pot or container over the slumbering plant will allow it to remain dry and dormant. Fill the container with something that doesn’t require a lot of watering (once established) to avoid drowning the sleeper with sloshing overflow.
These days, nursery visits may require a little more planning, as some places now ask customers to make appointments or offer curbside pickup only. Fortunately, our computers can be our best friends, allowing us to shop with our eyes at home, place an order, then swing by to pick up our new treasures. If you’re worried that you might miss something dazzling this way, call ahead and ask the staff what else is looking fabulous right now. If you let your fingers do a little more walking than you intended to, you may need to pick up a few more pots and containers as well as some good quality potting soil. Happily, that’s a small price to pay for the refreshment both you and your garden will feel when you get your new beauties snugged into place.
Refreshing The Weary
If you can’t splurge as much as you’d like to, you’ll get a similar reward by refreshing what’s already on hand. Long bloomers like catmints (Nepeta) can be trimmed back by half to promote new growth that will be blooming a just a few weeks. Look before you start cutting, as there may already be a strong flush of new growth at the base. Avoid cutting those hopeful new shoots and you’ll get a second bloom even sooner. Foliage plants like horehound (Marrubium) and lamb’s ears (Stachys sp) can get a hard trim now. They also may already be showing fresh growth at the base, so cut with care. Overblown mallows and flopsy annuals can also be snipped back now; to encourage fresh blossoms on established plants, water well, refresh the soil with a handful of compost, and feed them with a balanced 5-5-5 or even a 10-10-10 fertilizer.
I usually shear my santolinas now as well, cutting back their lazy sprawl in favor of tight and tidy new growth. Santolina, aka lavender cotton, isn’t related to either of those namesakes, Instead, it boasts several species with deep green, silver-grey, or lively lemon or lime foliage that adds enticing texture to beds and borders. The button flowers are small and cute; I usually let them bloom for a few weeks so the pollinators can drink their fill before shearing them off to refresh the foliage. Silvery S. chamaecyparissus is a perfect mixer for almost any color, from lemon to midnight purple. It looks demure with clean whites, soft blues, and gentle pinks or dramatic against broad red canna leaves and vivid orange horned poppies (the burnt-orange Glaucium flavum v. aurantiacum is my favorite). I’ve always got room for green S. neopolitana, which can be kept in a tidy mound or allowed to sprawl in relaxed, long-armed swirls. S. virens Lemon Fizz is a knockout in a sunny border, where its fine textured, netted foliage glows as brightly as any flower and stays brilliant all year round.
More Color, Please
Many gardeners wonder how they can get their own color baskets and annual containers to look as full and lush as the bold baskets seen in public places. They also often ask why the bountiful baskets they buy don’t stay splendid all summer. There are really two related issues here. Those gorgeous baskets and color bowls grew up under strictly controlled conditions. From infancy, their every need, whether for heat, for light, for water, or for food, was met promptly. The result is spectacular, because the combination of consistent moisture and frequent feeding results in abundant, sturdy growth.
Nursery workers tell the old joke about a customer who brings in a dried out hanging basket and asks for a refund. The clerk says, “Gee, it looks like somebody forgot to water this plant.” The customer looks surprised and replies, “Water? Nobody told me I had to water it!” Though it seems silly, the sad fact is that a lot of people forget that plants are alive and have the same needs as any living things. Plants can’t meow at an empty food bowl or bark to tell you the water dish is empty, so all they can do is wilt or turn crispy. Where summers are sunny and warm, people are usually more clued in to the water needs of their plants. In a cool, windy summer like the PNW is experiencing, it’s easy to assume that the fitful rain and heavy dew will give plants plenty of water. With well established, drought tolerant garden plants, that may be true. However, plants in baskets and containers can’t send roots out to find moisture reserves in the soil. All they have to live on is what we give them.
In either situation, sunny or not, keep your baskets and color bowls looking fabulous by putting them on a feeding schedule and watering them consistently. How often you water depends on several things. Smaller containers dry out more quickly than large ones and may need daily watering, even if it a little rain does fall. For one thing, dense foliage can shed the rainwater before it reaches those thirsty roots. Wind also sucks moisture of of the soil, making moisture monitoring crucial. Hanging baskets are even more exposed to wind and heat than containers sitting in a saucer or plants in the ground. On very warm and/or windy days, you may need to water smaller baskets and containers more than once. The exposure factor is also important. Pots and baskets in windy, sunny, exposed positions will dry out much faster than those in shady or protected spots.
Although watering is the single most important need your plants have, annuals also need regular feeding to give unstintingly of their best. Where perennials can often survive a difficult year by digging deeper into the soil and blooming less or not at all, annuals have only one brief life to live. If checked in any important way, they may fail altogether. Once badly wilted, they rarely make it back to full beauty. Nursery raised plants are accustomed to receiving fertilizer on a regular basis, and most nurseries don’t feed plants that come in weekly from other growers, so you can figure that anything you bring home now is probably hungry.
Feeding Your Flock
What’s on the menu? When choosing plant food, remember that container and basket plantings need higher number fertilizers than plants in the ground. They also need faster acting food than plants that can tap into ground resources, since frequent watering flushes nutrients from light potting soils very quickly. Most chemical fertilizers only persist about two weeks at best. Thus, we should be feeding container plantings and color baskets with a high number fertilizer such as 20-20-20 every other week all season long. While most perennials will grow happily on a combination of compost mulches and an occasional dose of 5-5-5 fertilizer, containers and hanging baskets need higher number fertilizers like Peters 20-20-20 to keep those hungry, hardworking annuals well fed.
Rule 1? Never fertilize a dry plant. Fertilizer applied without watering can burn foliage or damage dry plant roots. Water containers, lawns, beds, borders, and vegetable gardens before applying any form of fertilizer. Before using a transplant fertilizer, soak new plants in a bucket until no more air bubbles appear. Let them drain, then plant with the indicated amount of transplant fertilizer. With time-release fertilizers, regular watering is more important than ever, as pelletized or time-release fertilizers can dump fast on hot days. Most are triggered to release by soil temperatures of 70 degrees: Soil temps are linked to night temps, so in cool summer regions like mine, time-release fertilizers often don’t kick in until quite late in the season and some years, they never do.
Watering The Weary
Once container plantings and baskets dry out, it can be hard to rewet them, especially if there is peat moss in the soil mix. To water from below, set containers in a deep saucer full of water or hydrate a bunch of them at once in a kiddo wading pool (always on sale by now). To rehydrate dried out hanging baskets, unhook them and place them carefully in a bucket full of water. This way, they will regain soil moisture from the bottom up. Moss baskets that are planted all the way around the sides and bottom present a challenge. It works best to hang dried out baskets from a ladder over a wading pool, so the lower plants don’t get squashed. Let the lower third of the plants be submerged for about an hour, watering from above three or four times about 15 minutes apart. Baskets that were looking very sad should be left in a shady, well ventilated place to recover their equilibrium before going back into full sun.