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Navigating the Midsummer Garden Doldrums

Casablanca Lilies
Oriental lilies are one of my favorite midsummer garden center splurges.

Talking with some of the gardeners here at Gardener's Supply, it's clear that by the end of July, the dewy-eyed optimism and boundless enthusiasm of May and June has faded. Spirits are flagging. Although our gardens may be yielding bumper crops of zucchini and beans, they're not looking like the picture-perfect vision we'd imagined.

The fact is, by midsummer, most plants are past their prime, and the heat hasn't helped matters. Your plants are maturing and have probably begun the process of setting fruit and seed. This stage leaves little energy for keeping up appearances. Foliage begins to yellow, flower production slows down, insects and diseases get the upper hand, and some plants simply die, having fulfilled their seed-producing mission. If you and your garden have entered the midsummer doldrums, here are a few tricks to perk you both up.

Deadheading. There are many perennial flowers that will rebloom if spent blooms are removed. This is true for perennial geraniums, campanulas, delphiniums, and dianthus, among others. Even if they don't rebloom, pruning often stimulates a flush of new growth with that early-June freshness. Pick annual flowers often. This includes zinnias, snapdragons, and bachelor buttons. All will usually bloom until frost if you remove the spent flowers. And don't forget about the vegetable garden. Vegetables should be picked before they get overripe. Better to harvest your zucchini and cucumbers and put them in the compost pile if you can't use them than to leave them on the vine. Once plants set and mature seed, they will slow down and usually stop producing any new fruit.

Pests and Diseases. Potato beetles, Japanese beetles, earwigs, slugs, black spot, mildew and blight are just a few of the garden scourges of late summer. I do what I can to keep up, hand-picking the beetles and trying to ignore the disease problems. At this point, your plants have already put on most of their growth, and the damage will probably not affect their performance next season. Though they may look a bit ravaged, you shouldn't despair. Try to look past the foliage and enjoy the flowers and fruit.

Weeds. Been away on vacation? It can be pretty discouraging to return home to knee-high weeds in the beds and pathways. Grit your teeth, grab a friend and go to it. Or hire the neighborhood kids to help. You'll feel a whole lot better when it's done. You'll also reduce your weed problems next year by removing them before they can set seed and drop it into your garden!

Replacing Plants. Many early-season flowers and vegetables give up the ghost by August. Lettuce and spinach have usually gone to seed. The peas have finished producing. Pansies and violas have withered in the heat. Windowbox plants have gotten leggy and weak. Empty spaces appear where plants have gone dormant or died. It can look downright depressing! This is the time to take a trip to your local nursery. For less than $30 you can usually pick up a few annuals to tuck in here and there (savvy nurseries may have some vegetable transplants, too), and a few perennials in their prime (oriental lilies are one of my favorite mid-season splurges).

There are a couple other good reasons to visit a nursery now. With the image of early summer still fresh in your mind, this is a great time to purchase a few plants that performed particularly well for you or that you've admired in other people's gardens. If your gardens could use more late-summer color, you can pick up a few pots of whatever is in bloom and be assured of color next year. At 25-50% off, these plants are a bargain as well as a boost to your spirits.

One other tip for replacing plants: I often fill holes in my perennial gardens with plants that I've moved from my cutting garden. Not all types of plants will survive the move (you need to do it in the evening, disturb the roots as little as possible, water well, and shield the plant with a little horticultural fabric for a day or two) but it's often worth the try. Some of the plants I've had success moving from one garden to another include mums, salvias, zinnias, and impatiens.

Fresh Mulch and Edging. While you're at the nursery, grab a bag of mulch. Spend an hour edging your flower beds and apply a fresh 1" layer of mulch. You'll be amazed how it spruces things up.

Second Crops. Take a tip from gardeners in the South. They have at least two growing seasons each year, coming on either side of the midsummer heat. Like the southerners, you can plant a second crop that will mature in the fall. Even zone 4 gardeners can still squeeze in a planting of lettuce, spinach, radishes and even beets. I cover all newly seeded beds with shade netting to keep the soil cool and moist. This speeds germination (lettuce germinates best in cool soil) and helps protect emerging plants from sun, heat, and insects. I find the succulent leaves of fresh salad greens a particular treat in the cool days of September and October.

Savoring and Celebrating. Though your garden may not be camera ready, there's surely plenty to celebrate. Think about how much you learned this year from both your successes and your failures. And if your garden was a total bust, you can still head over to a local farmer's market to scoop up some of the season's bounty. Tomatoes, corn, watermelon, peaches, blueberries, and freshly-dug potatoes are all delicious, healthy treats to enjoy with your family and friends.

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