Time to ready garden lessening its upkeep

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, June 5, 2022

Summer is here, at least in effect, not waiting for a particular date to start tormenting gardeners. Time to ready the garden for the onslaught by lessening the garden’s upkeep.

After decades of dragging hoses and wishing the shade didn’t include humidity, I have gradually started following the “take it easy, drop unnecessary chores” approach of wiser gardeners. This is especially important now that I am older, and am gone weeks on end while lot covering flower shows in cooler climates.

It’s not like I have an automatic watering system or a lawn to mow. My overstuffed little cottage garden, including stuff planted in a big rectangular container in the back of my old pickup truck left out in the sunny driveway, basically has to fend for itself.

So, before I leave my garden basically on its own I do what I can to ensure everything survives, even thrives, with little or no direct input. I take as inspiration what my horticulturist great-grandmother Pearl did a century ago in her tour-worthy garden of flowers, shrubs, herbs, wildflowers, vegetables, and fruits that were the talk of her garden club. Keep in mind that for much of her gardening life, she didn’t even have running water, much less a hose; I still have one of the dipper gourds she used to laboriously, judiciously parcel precious rain barrel water around the neediest plants.

Her main tricks were to stick with well adapted plants that could survive winter freezes and didn’t require a lot of summer watering, and she didn’t plant new stuff in June. This isn’t as limiting as it may seem because before big box stores selling alluring but iffy plants from afar year-round, folks bought plants in the right season grown locally by family nurseries or peddlers going town to town. Nobody shared plants that weren’t going to survive because they all knew each other and would remember.

Some of her summer flowers I carefully mowed around included roses, stunning vitex, althaea (rose of Sharon), native oakleaf hydrangea, daylilies, liatris, canna, lantana, abelia, gardenia, nandina, naked lady bulbs (Lycoris), elephant ears, and figs, all of which can actually survive in bone-dry cemeteries! Foliage of ornamental grasses, iris, and artemisia artfully complemented flowers, and her bird bath, driftwood, ceramic frog, and urns carried the scenes all year.

These plants and techniques worked a hundred years ago, and still do. Email me for a free brochure on the best easy-care plants for Mississippi summers.

Meanwhile, to ready my garden for its summer neglect, I composted the now-bitter lettuce, mildewed English peas, snapdragons, violas, foxgloves, and other bedraggled winter and spring plants. Knowing that Mississippians can plant summer stuff, including zinnias and peppers, as late as early august, I leave those pots and garden spots empty (read: no watering) until midsummer. Some weeding and mulching, and I’m done for awhile.

I cut the fading foliage of daffodils, dug and trimmed the garlic planted last October, and clustered potted plants where they get morning sun but not all day radiated heat. To keep things quirky and interesting, I stuck little gnome figurines, glass bottles, and other ornamental tchotchkes here and there, and have already paid a neighbor’s teenager to come by every couple of weeks to feed the pond fish, drag random fallen limbs to the burn pile, hide any delivery packages, and write down how much water is in my rain gauge.

So I’m nearly done til fall, ready to head to the flower shows. One more good mulching, and I’ll wish my plants luck and expect to see them when I get back.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.