Midsummer. The secret garden wants water, debugging and cleaning every single morning. Plant poop is a constant reality.
My very tall Asiatic lilies are done. After their huge, gorgeous flowers emerge from the candelabra top of each thick stalk, individual blooms last three or four days. Then, exhausted petals begin to drop. The challenge is to spot those flowers that are nearly done, and snap them off while they’re still hanging on. If I wait too long, cleanup gets trickier, as I must weave my arm between the stalks to pluck withered petals off the ground, or tease them from leaves further down the plant. It’s much better to stand on tiptoe, arch my arm, carefully reach deep into the bed, snap off the dying flower, then back off without disturbing nearby blooms. It’s a workout that involves balance, judgment and coordination, as I must s-t-r-e-t-c-h to reach flowers without falling into the bed and wreaking everything. That’s what we gardeners have nightmares about.
There are lots of other ways to ruin a lily’s few days of life; I can mis-align my armpits and snap off a stunner as I reach up and over, or incorrectly position my elbows, or feel around behind other lily flowers to pinch off a dead bloom, only to discover I’ve taken the live one next to it instead-
Ah, I hate that mistake!
But now I try to hide my sin by walking the broken flower to clean water, pooled inside a giant decorative honey-gold clay flower ‘petal.’ There it floats, colorfully serene and scented, causing oohs and ahhhhs from admirers.
But what can one do when not a single lily bloom is left? Their long stems must be left for eight or ten weeks to ripen to yellow. Eeee! What can one do with a forest of thick, tall green stalks wearing nothing but their candelabras?
Some gardeners scatter a few lily bulbs here and there in the garden, making the big ones’ future nakedness harder to notice.
Not this girl. Obstinately, I mega-group my lilies for a jaw-dropping show, and so, of course, I must eventually pay the piper.
Then, a few years ago, I hit on the idea of making the many clumps of leggy, topless stalks serve as support poles for annuals and perennials that love to twine and climb.
-Annual Mandevilla, for instance, which boasts delightful red or pink flowers, can be trained to scramble up and around them. Just as the lilies are finishing the mandevilla will have grown sufficiently to clamber in and around their stems right up into the candelabras, to dangle their blooms. Everybody’s happy.
-Perennial Type II (summer-blooming) clematis is also happy to dress their bareness.
-Perennial Crocosmia makes a great statement, too. Their fat, sword-leaves’ flame-red flowers look stunning as they rise as high as their slowly ripening neighbors.
-Annual silvery licorice, when fed and watered regularly, can grow to astounding lengths, and so be trained to weave its silver vine-arms between the stalks, and even blanket the garden floor. Plus, it sniffs of – well, you can guess.
-An annual dwarf tropical canna lily’s wide bronze or green or outrageously striped leaves and bright flowers, set among lilies, are ready to distract the eye exactly when needed.
-The annual, graceful fronds of purple fountain grass blur those naked poles, which return the favor by serving as support for that grass’s graceful, arching fronds.
-And morning glory is glorious as it winds in and of lilies’ ladder-y stalks.
My most time-consuming task is to deadhead (an awful name for a vital job). Every dying flower and naked stem must be culled every morning.
I trace exhausted daisies’ stems until I find tiny leaflets or buds that hint that a new daisy might form there. Ha! I cut just above that promise.
Newborn day lilies (so named because each flower lasts exactly one day) look so very much better when their dead brethrens’ withered blooms are snapped off.
Perennial geraniums (cranesbill) easily take twenty minutes of deadheading. (But- when more than half the plant needs this, simply grab a scissors and cut a third off the whole thing. New growth and flowers should happen, only shorter.
-Annual geraniums and balloon flowers take just seconds to clean.
-My few remaining roses (which stab me for my trouble) must be cut to the closest 5-leaved formation, and their dead petals cleaned away.
-Then there are pansies, violets, bellflowers, sage, and on and on, all wanting daily assistance.
-Even coreopsis and the butter-yellow evening primrose don’t escape my fingers.
The result, though, is enormously satisfying. Cleaned and spiffed up, the garden looks fresh and vital to its many visitors every day.
How much time do I dedicate to all this? Well, about two to three hours every morning at this easier time of the season.
If I don’t deadhead, cherished plants stop producing flowers and simply sit there.
Finally, in early September, I stop cleaning and pruning perennials. They’re allowed to rest until next year. Annuals will still need daily care until it gets too cold.
I dread the appearance of the gorgeously carapaced Japanese beetles, which are nearly impossible to dislodge from favored flowers. They’re voracious eaters. A giant canna lily, for example, can be destroyed overnight.
I’ve stopped smacking the beetles between my palms. They don’t crush, and my hands get too sore. Sometimes I try to pick them off every morning and drop them into soapy water, but it takes hours on a high ladder, and frankly, it’s not effective. There are just too many. Water blasts and chemical sprays make them yawn.
EXCEPT for one.
Bayer has created a spray guaranteed to kill Japanese beetles. I tried it last year and was richly rewarded. Piles of beetles dropped away. So I’ll use it again, on the hibiscus, roses, and English and Boston ivy.
‘Spray days’ must be windless, and not super-hot later. I spray very early, to avoid killing bees. These beetles are as adaptable- and prolific- as cockroaches, and will probably develop immunity to this product in a few years, but right now, Bayer’s spray will save my garden once again.
(One reason I chucked out my magnificent alley rose garden six years ago was because this wretched, beautiful insect had all but destroyed every bloom.)
Oh- and I also try to remove every yellowing, saggy leaf or limp, broken frond from everyone.
‘Dirty plant underwear’ is never an asset.
Did I mention weeding?
It never ends.
Plants like my thirsty meadow rue, which has seven-foot tall, completely hollow purple stems that grow delicate, perfect blue flowers- happily gulps gallons of water every three or four sunny hours. It’s probably stupid to grow rue, which loves to frolic in bogs, but I’ve stubbornly persevered for years because I love the darn thing. It always arrests attention. So I water. And water. When every branch stands straight up and out, with no hint of a droop, all is well. For a while.
When my chores are done, this cooler weather and light breezes encourage Bryn-dog and me to greet guests and lie back to enjoy the beguiling scent of plants like purple basil and the nine-foot tall Oriental lilies, now in full bloom.
Our summer-at-the-lake air effortlessly wafts other gardeners’ wonderful plant perfumes through Traverse City’s big-treed neighborhoods, lightening every heart.