In early September I scan my garden. We have hot, humid summers here in the Piedmont, so some of my plants look rather sad. They slump and bow. However, the nights are getting cooler, so the roses perk up, which lifts my spirits. While the roses come back to life, I assess the garden, wondering what works and what doesn’t.
Right now my Amarcrinums are in full bloom and will remain that way throughout the month. I remind myself that I really must order more of these wonderful, tough plants that tell me autumn is fast approaching. My Lantana “Miss Huff” is lovely, adding great color to the autumn garden — I really need some more. Perhaps I should divide the Tagetes lucida, mint marigold, as part of it would do well in the perennial garden, which needs late autumn blooms. My mind moves over possibilities as I walk through the garden.
It’s important to know why you garden. I know gardeners who want to provide for wildlife or desire a cutting garden. Some want a pollinator garden while others want to limit their gardens to native plants. Some are greedy like me, wanting flowers in their gardens 12 months a year.
Once you know your gardening goal, you can ask yourself the pertinent question: Does my garden match my objectives? Because I want flowers throughout the summer, I have to ask myself if I achieved this aim. July and August are hot, humid, and dry — tough conditions for plants. Consequently, I depend upon daylilies in July to provide the color I want and have found that Phlox paniculata “John Fanick” and “Robert Poore” will last up to the middle of August. Joe-Pye Weed then picks up, and, with cooler nights, my roses come back to life. However, Eupatorium purpureum, the large Joe-Pye Weed, is marginally successful as it flops unattractively after a summer rain, so next year I shall try the shorter E. purpureum “Little Red” or “Little Joe.”
This is the time to look at your plants objectively: It’s okay to dislike a particular plant. After four years of coping with two unruly “Cl. Pinkie” roses, I pulled them out this summer. “Cl. Pinkie” was doing exactly what it should be doing — growing like a teenage boy (which I know about as the mother of four sons). When I pulled them out I was astonished at how much room I had, and after careful research I put in my order for “Rosanne” to climb the pillar and for “Dark Desire” and “Plum Perfect,” two shrub roses, to go where my other “Cl. Pinkie” had resided. These three roses will arrive next spring.
Are some plants becoming too aggressive? If so, now is the time to think about taking them out. After years of behaving itself, the spring blooming celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, decided to become thuggish, overtaking all plants in its wake. While I love its yellow flowers in the spring, it is residing on valuable real estate, so out it goes. Likewise I am taking out two Camellia sasanqua “Yuletide” as I find their shape unattractive and their small flowers rather dull. I gave them their chance for five years; to my eye they offered little.
In the midst of the spring planting mania, did you misinterpret the available sun and light? This is very easy to do, and as far as I know gardening books don’t warn you of this potential trap. Thinking there would be plenty of sun, I planted a lovely climbing rose, “Cl. Cécile Brünner,” against my fence. Alas, I forgot to calculate the leaves on my neighbor’s trees. In March there is an abundance of sun, but by May the leaves shield the area from the necessary six hours of sun roses require to bloom. Because she blooms beautifully for me in April and I love her graceful shape, I’m keeping “Cécile” where she is, but I know the summer shade will prevent any repeat blooms.
By the same measure, there is one part of my perennial border that does not do well. I now realize when I experience my March perennial planting mania the sun is out in full force; come May, the leaves on the nearby Japanese maple have turned this sunny area into a somewhat shady area, one that does not accommodate the sun-loving Salvia and Monarda. I’m now looking for plants that survive in what nurseries euphemistically call “sun-shade,” plants such as our native Spigelia marilandica that can survive the March sun and the May shade.
Gardens go through fads, and as with all fads enthusiasm can wane. What charmed us five years ago may elicit yawns today. I once installed a whole row of azaleas against a wall of stone. The magenta flowers enthralled me until one day I realized I was looking at a blob of color rather than individual flowers — and I dislike blobs of color. Then the tropical look enchanted me – no leaf could be too big — until I grew to appreciate that the Carolina Piedmont was different from Florida. The ornamental grass phase then settled in because I was coping with more and more deer. Once the fence arrived, I could plant what I wanted, which turned out to be sustainable roses.
Do you have some plants that just don’t perform well? I have a tough time with Echinacea, which for some unfathomable reason doesn’t like me. While others in the area grow beautiful Echinacea, mine are spindly and flop. This year I decided to concentrate on E. purpurea, the mother of all echinaceas, and E. purpurea “Kim's Knee-High.” The jury is still out as to whether I will give up or give them one more year.
Fall is thought to be a good time to plant in many areas. However, if the plant is only marginally hardy in your area, wait until spring to plant. The zone 8 Lady Banks rose, a wonderful harbinger of spring, can survive in Piedmont gardens provided she’s planted in the spring and not the fall: She needs warm weather to develop a good, strong root system if she is to endure our winters.
Periodic assessments and reassessments allow me to keep up with my gardening objectives. Conditions change, sometimes so slowly that the gardener isn’t aware they’re even occurring. Sometimes we simply don’t like a particular plant. Sometimes we’ve put the wrong plant in the wrong space. We can easily misread the sun and shade requirements. So assess, reassess, and make your changes. A good garden is the result of good planning — and lots of reassessment.