Lessons from a Dry Summer

Rachel Burrows

Some of us have had our first frost and it is a good time to look back over the summer to see what worked and what did not. It was a difficult summer for gardeners and farmers. We had little snow cover and a dry spring followed by an even drier summer. Not only was it hot and dry but also we had drying winds to contend with. When we did have rain, it was often in the form of violent thunderstorms with heavy rain that was not absorbed by the soil. Many times I watched the skies darken and felt very hopeful than a good rain was on the way, only to see the clouds sail on by!

One of my big successes was my new low maintenance bed. Last year I put down a thick layer of newspapers, followed by a mix of topsoil and city compost. I then added a layer of river stones as mulch and I planted it with grasses, sedums, penstemons and daylilies. This year, not only have I not watered it once, the weeds have been kept to a minimum. It looks fantastic right now with a mix of tall and short sedums and grasses. I particularly like the dark leaved sedums and they look really effective against the stones. The grasses are flowering and look good gently blowing in the wind. I used a similar process around my deck, mulching a 2-foot wide strip with stones. I put landscape cloth underneath and this has helped to keep the weeds to a minimum. I planted some ground hugging thymes in pockets through the stones and they are spreading nicely.

I am becoming more and more of a fan of mulch. My 20 foot berm is mulched with wood chips and this has helped enormously with water retention and weed control. I watered the shrubs on the berm deeply twice during the summer.

Shrubs have been a good investment but do need a thorough watering to get them established. I had to replace a maple and really didn’t water it enough. I intend to give it and my new cedar hedge a deep weekly watering right up until freeze up. However some shrubs such as sand cherry, ninebark - both the golden and Diablo varieties, burning bush and Rosa rugosa have done well without any additional watering. I will not prune my butterfly bush as hard next spring as it took a long time to come back and flower.

My lawn went dormant and has been a bit of a disaster. However it is starting to come back but I am noticing a lot of dandelions. I live in the country and rely on a well so do not water the lawn. I will overseed this fall with a drought tolerant mix such as Ecomix. I usually mix in some clover seed, as this does stay green.

The city compost has been an invaluable asset to improve my soil. Soil health is crucial to establishing a successful garden. By amending the soil you build up the organic mater and increase the soil’s ability to hold water. I spread my own compost on the beds in late fall and have discovered that cantaloupe melons will grow from discarded seeds! Last year I harvested a dozen melons and this year will probably have half a dozen.

I tried growing some new and different tomatoes this year with mixed results. Black cherry is a large cherry tomato with a wonderful flavour but it is not as prolific as some other varieties. I like Round Yellow and Cherokee Purple for their unusual colour and great flavour. However Amish Paste was a disappointment and I think that I will go back to Roma next year for a plum tomato.

Many of my perennials went over quickly and left some holes in the garden. However taking my shears to perennial geraniums, penstemons, ladies mantle and dianthus has resulted in a second flowering. It has also been crucial to keep deadheading to ensure continuous bloom. It is useful to have the odd container to pop into any “gaps”. Sometimes you can get a really good buy on annuals late in the season and use them to fill in any holes.

This year I used a polymer mix for my hanging baskets. These mixes are specifically for containers and help to retain water. I also found that slow release fertilizer was helpful. I must remove some of the perennials from my containers this week and plant them in the garden. This will give them a chance to establish a root base prior to freeze up.

I have learned that deer love tulips and the tender shoots of lilies. I know now that I can only plant tulips right up by the house as the deer nipped off every one of my tulip flowers! They munched on the fresh green tops of newly emerging perennials and I really have to train my dog to chase away the deer!

I have dug up and composted some varieties of phlox and bee balm that are very susceptible to powdery mildew. There are newer, mildew resistant varieties that look wonderful. Life is too short to put up with plants that are prone to diseases and pests. Some of the plants that did exceptionally well this year include penstemons, day lilies, Echinacea, coreopsis, gallardia and Oriental lilies, (that is the ones that the deer did not eat!) Fall is a great time to divide and move perennials. Assess what worked and what did not and take appropriate action.