Field Notes 15

Northeast BY DARYL BEYERS / New Canaan, Connecticut, Zone 5

When the Flowers Fade

AT THE HEIGHT OF SUMMER, every New England gardener suffers an aesthetic crisis as our gardens play a trick on us. Our eyes and noses have reigned in the garden throughout the months of May and June, even well into July. We have been vigorously assaulted by a multitude of fragrant and sightly sources: the yearly sequence of magnolia, rhododendron, lilac, hydrangea, chestnut, and more. But once July comes to a close, the joy of the garden is no longer in subtle shadings of bloom, or scents brought gently upon a breeze. The garden turns from a visual to a visceral pleasure. Those of us unable to accept interesting foliage displays in place of the intoxicating beauty of blooms become overwhelmed by the color green, no matter how many shades and textures it assumes. So we must find another approach to the garden, one that relaxes our hearts and our minds, as well as our eyes.

This struck me most vividly one morning when I was deadheading a small rhododendron in our woodland garden. Though it was pushing out fresh foliage, the dead flower heads, hangers-on of a glorious spring past, had become a distraction. But I found that removing them could be enjoyable. I held my hands poised as if about to strike the first measures of a piano concerto, then let my fingers fly, gently pulling at the spent blooms. Strike and pull, quickly and gently, as the stems, seeds, and spent flowers tumbled to the garden floor—in this action I discovered a pleasure not only in the sight of the rhodie coming clean, but from the actual contact with the plant, and the playful nature of the movement.

When the idle influence of the dog days weighs heaviest upon us, we must venture into the garden and prepare for the coming explosion of autumn—the asters and ornamental grasses, sedums and cyclamen, colchicums and fall crocuses. It is time now for our hands to be busy, and our hearts to relax from the swoon of spring and early summer. It is time to delve into the garden, rescue diminutive perennials from their overgrown neighbors, pinch off unsightly leaves and stems, trim and clip, pull and cultivate. It is time to get down and dirty—to dig deep into our garden, not simply view it from afar.

You will still catch that magic misty morning view, or that whiff of geranium reminding you that high summer is not all touch and pull. But deep inside a border, you will also discover a patch of precocious volunteer seedlings, or startle a baby rabbit from beneath the lamium and finally understand why your new Lilium formosanum and toad lilies never grow any taller.

As in life, we have been dazzled by the incredible allure of a youthful season. Now into our mature days, we cultivate more subtle pleasures, and discover beauty with discreetly refined senses. Our gardens are no less beautiful without wondrous tresses and colors, for they now possess an inner beauty only their closest confidants enjoy. H

To do in the garden

  • As plants finish flowering, fill the gaps by dropping in oriental lilies prepared in plastic pots. A pot of mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea) that has become a bit too leggy can still make an impact nestled beside a rosebush.

  • The near-perfect plants for “dropping in” are dahlias. Be sure your dahlias are staked properly. By now the major blooming stalks will be obvious—support each one with a discreetly tied pea stick, or make a cat’s cradle using cobbler’s filament.

  • Make the rounds of your flowering vines. Tie any new growth spurts to trellises using black twist ties, or weave them up and through neighboring trees and shrubs.

Worth growing

‘Venus’daisy mum Dendranthema morifolium ‘Venus’

This garden relative of the florist’s chrysanthemum (Dendranthema xgrandiflorum) brings blooms very late to the garden. Surviving the first frosts, each shrubby plant produces a profusion of single pale pink daisy mums. They require full sun, and rich, well-drained soil to perform best. Notorious for their shallow root systems, dendranthemas should be well mulched for the winter. They are easy to dig, and each spring division will produce a two-foot plant by October. Sources, page 74.

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