Summer time; borders are at their peak, salad crops, soft fruit and some vegetables are making their way to the table, patios host barbeques on warm evenings, and all is well in the garden. At least, that’s what we might aspire to at this time of year. However, things rarely go without a hitch and no garden, just like no gardener, is perfect. Mistakes and disappointments happen, as well as accidents and unforeseen problems, that’s life, but problems in the garden are felt more keenly at this time of year as this is when many of us spend the most time outside.
Errors within an ornamental scheme can, if caught early enough, be easily rectified. For instance, if you’ve planted a white border but you only find out that a particular plant produces bright pink flowers once those flowers have opened, clearly that plant will need to be removed and transplanted elsewhere in the garden.
Mistakes like this usually become apparent in the first year after planting, and therefore the offending plant can usually be easily transplanted, even in summer, as long as it is well watered beforehand, dug up with as large a rootball as is necessary and replanted quickly to minimize root disturbance, and then watered well in and regularly watered thereafter until re-established.
However, if you decide to leave it where it is for now to avoid disturbing the display at this point (or to wait until we’ve had some rain so that the ground is easier to dig and the plant is likely to suffer less stress, which would probably be the sensible option at the moment) then that is fine too, but if you want to avoid repeating the same result next year be sure to put a discreet label on the relevant plant so that you know which one to transplant later, and remember to dead-head it to stop it from seeding more colored flowers into your white scheme. Clearly this example is just a case of minor inconvenience, but for some people a little annoyance such as this can be so irritating as to ruin their entire summer!
More problematic issues may arise as a result of pests and diseases, some of which can easily be foreseen and some may not be. For instance, if you grow roses and they are not especially disease resistant, if you don’t spray them regularly to prevent and control it, you can be pretty much guaranteed that sooner or later they will get Blackspot (the dry weather has helped to keep it at bay so far this summer up to a point but, be warned, the spores are there and the disease is resting, waiting for damp conditions to allow it spread once more).
However, a sudden population explosion in a particular pest, or losses to a hitherto inexperienced soil-borne disease may be both unexpected and distressing.
A common cause of summer garden spoilers can simply be human error, such as damaged lawns from paddling pools being left in one spot too long (likely to have been a common problem this summer I think), incorrect use of lawn fertilisers, scorched plants from a BBQ mishap, and so on.
Of course some things are more unusual on an individual basis, yet more commonplace than you might think. For instance, at Wykeham Mature Plants we regularly provide quotes for sections of replacement hedging when a car has gone through a garden hedge. If this were to happen to you it could be a pretty traumatic event, and the damage can be dramatic, yet from our point of view it seems to happen all too regularly and, depending on the hedge and conditions on site, it can thankfully be quite straightforward to rectify.
You might think that these ‘accidents’ would happen more on icy roads in winter, but from our experience it would seem to be more likely in normal conditions when drivers are comfortable and complacent.
All of these problems can ‘spoil’ a garden to varying degrees and, as I’ve already mentioned, might be felt more keenly during the summer months, but they are all issues that can be dealt with.
The main issue this summer so far has of course been the heat and the lack of rain, turning most of our lawns into parched, brown patches, causing some crops to bolt, many plants, trees and hedges to suffer drought stress, and leading to an increase in Powdery Mildew and other secondary problems which take advantage when plants are suffering from stress.
There are some occurrences though that are on another level and go far beyond inconvenience. I get quite passionate about the issue of flooding and have a great deal of sympathy for people who go through it – with the ground baked so hard I hope that when the weather does finally break and the rains come that this isn’t followed by the misery of flooding.
THINGS TO DO IN THE GARDEN IN AUGUST
Trees, shrubs and hedging planted within the last two years require regular watering until established, and this is a particular problem with the prolonged dry weather but is a necessity if they are to survive.
Pruning evergreen hedging
Keep feeding seasonal flowering containers, such as hanging baskets, window boxes, and also tomato or pepper plants in pots or bags, with a high potash fertiliser, such as a good brand of tomato food, every seven to ten days, and keep a close eye on the watering. Blossom End Rot on tomatoes is caused by a lack of calcium, but is often the indirect result of irregular watering – so as well as careful watering it may be prudent to use a feed with a little added calcium.
Mid to late August is the time to summer prune Wisteria to encourage flowering next spring. Cut the whippy new shoots produced this season back to about five buds from the base, ready to prune them back again to just two buds in January.
Avoid applying granular lawn fertilizers on exceptionally hot days, or particularly when the lawn is suffering from drought stress, as these conditions make the grass more likely to scorch. Always read the label and follow the application instructions carefully. The same applies to feeding plants in general; never feed plants with dry roots or when suffering drought or heat stress as this can shock the plant.
If you’re planning on going on holiday it’s well worth investing in a simple automatic irrigation system for pots and containers. If you shop around, a basic drip irrigation kit with a timer isn’t as expensive as you’d think. If possible, you can simplify things by grouping pots together so that less supply tubing is needed.
Peas and mange-tout crops may be coming to an end, but if you keep up with regularly harvesting beans, especially runner beans, and Sweet Pea flowers for that matter, you can prolong the crop for weeks still to come.
If it isn’t too hot, August is the ideal time to give evergreen hedges their annual trim, or their second and final trim of the year if two cuts are appropriate. In general, it’s best not to cut evergreen hedges after the second week of September.
If there are gaps in beds and borders, remember that plants in pots can be planted at any time of year as long as the ground is soft enough to dig (so if the long, dry spell hasn’t yet broken when you’re reading this and the ground is baked so hard that you’d need a pickaxe to dig the hole, it’d be best to wait I’m afraid), but remember that they will need regular watering until they have properly established enough to look after themselves. Alternatively, for seasonal colour displays, why not position pots of annuals or bedding in these gaps which can then be moved/replaced when they go over?
Take note of significant gaps, and especially areas along boundaries where additional planting for screening and/or security are needed, and start to make plans for the autumn when the conditions will be more conducive to planting.
The prolonged dry weather has created many challenges this year, but one real positive is that it has been a good year for moths and especially for butterflies and, hopefully (as long as the drought doesn’t kill off the food plants needed for the caterpillars) may help for strong populations next year too if the weather allows.
It may sound obvious, but find time to sit in the garden and enjoy it!
Most people have a seating area near the house, such as the patio area immediately adjacent to the house, but in my experience the more places in the garden there are to sit down the more time people will spend in the garden. Therefore, it’s well worth taking a fresh look at other parts of the garden to see where you can squeeze in a bench, arbor seat, or even an extra mini-patio on which to stand a small table and a chair or two.
Martin Howe is a professional Horticulturalist, currently working at Wykeham Mature Plants near Scarborough (www.wykehammatureplants.co.uk, Twitter @MaturePlants), a 150 acre nursery specialising in “instant” hedging, large trees and shrubs in sizes larger than are normally available at Garden Centres.