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Improving the Midsummer Garden

Gaps in the summer garden? Pam Baggett tells how to fill them without emptying your wallet.
rustic garden art

Caption: A bowling ball and a picture frame add visual interest to a midsummer garden. Garden and photo by greengardenvienna on

Ah, July! It’s the month of blueberries, beach trips and—unfortunately—tragic bare spots that sometimes appear in our borders. Those unsightly scourges can occur for the purest of botanical reasons. Oriental poppies, for instance, pull their famed disappearing act, slipping into dormancy as soon as summer heat sets in. If you haven’t planted a fabulous but floppy neighbor to fill the space, an embarrassing gap greets you every time you venture outdoors. Occasionally plants sicken or perish, exiting the stage like an actor who mistakenly gives his death speech several scenes too early. I once asked a horticultural genius why a third of the stems on my Phlox maculata shriveled just as it came into bloom. His reply, “Only a third?”, told me a lot about my chosen plant. In that case, a quick pruning dealt with the problem, but when my entire Phlomis fruticosa swan-dived mid-ballet, I was in trouble.

A plant’s sudden exit necessitates a response, and the obvious answer is to fill the hole with some quick green (cash and leaf). But besides being expensive, that route leaves you hanging at the end of a hose every day for a couple of weeks—not a pretty option if you’ve booked a vacation or your city is suffering through water restrictions. Instead of re-planting at an inopportune time, my favorite remedy is garden art.

Were I dripping in cash, I’d pop into my air-con’d vehicle and zip to the nearest garden center or antique shop for some serious spending. Instead, I head for the woods. A good hike not only clears my head, it gives me a chance to search for attractive rocks, lichen-encrusted branches and, since I live in farm country, rusty plow discs and other tractor parts. Sticks, rocks and rust all have a casual look that suits my country garden. City dwellers might take advantage of flea markets and yard sales. California gardener Marcia Donahue is famous for her towering bowling ball pyramids, but a single red twelve-pounder works wonders in a small space. Or use your imagination and a can of spray paint to create unusual accents. When my friend Elissa’s Japanese maple died from a freak late-spring freeze, she zapped the corpse purple and left it in place until she decided what to replace it with. Taking Elissa’s idea further, how about painting an attractive branch and shoving it into the soil?

If a tall plant from the back of the border dies, erect a teepee of dead cedar trunks or bamboo poles. String it with whatever festive items come to mind. Colorful plastic plates and eating utensils evoke the playful spirit of summer picnics. Or get a box of one-inch mirror tiles, some glue and a little fishing line and create sparkly streamers that meander around the teepee and into surrounding plants. Whatever you do, don’t bushwhack your budget in a midsummer panic. Take the insult to your beautiful border and turn it into an opportunity for creativity and fun.

Read a quick watering tip from Pam