The cruellest month

Summer's end brings challenges for Oak Bay's gardeners

Christin Geall

I’m having a garden party this week and what possessed me to entertain when the garden is sub-prime, I can only attribute to July’s glory (when I ordered the invitations).

Now, three weeks on and the fete days away, all I can see is decline: the mildewy sweet pea skeletons stretching fingers of bloom seven feet in the air; the Bells of Ireland sighing with exhaustion, their last contortions more yogic than elegant; the grumpy old roses yet to rise to a second flush…and don’t even get me started on the grass.

August, not April, is the cruellest month in the garden.

Constance Spry, the great floral designer and plant lover, once chose August as the only month to be away from her garden and I understand. Everything is tall – grandiloquent even, but like a vintage rock star on tour, sort of wan and sad-making. Autumn’s colours have yet to seep into the golden light of fall and the evenings themselves are getting closer, longer, and the plants are feeling it, giving up.

Such doom and gloom on a sunny warm day!

So in the effort to ‘be here now,’ I’ll try chronicling what is looking good: the dahlias. Hands down, late summer is their time. I’m growing a swath of them corralled in twine to prevent them from toppling under the weight of bloom. My favourite is ‘Labyrinth’ – a complex mixture of shaggy pink and orange, set atop a fine deep green 5ft plant. Second best this year is ‘Bracken Rose,’ prolific in dusty rose blooms, epitomizing the best feature of dahlias: cut and come again. Snip your flowers and don’t let up on watering to keep the flowers pumping through September.

The Rudbeckias sown in the spring are now in making tiny prairies in the garden. I’m growing ‘Sahara’ this year and the daintier yellow R. triloba which shoots up to six feet in one year. The Saharans range from burgundy to maize, all with a dark centre that works well with Physocarpus or Ninebark. I grow ‘Center Glow’ which is charming in spring, but all the Ninebarks make excellent shrubs in our climate and by August form nice studded fruits on their flowering stems. (You can cut up to 30 per cent of a Ninebark back every year without ill-effect.)

One thing I glossed over earlier in the midst of my moaning: powdery mildew. Nothing glossy about it – it’s a fungal disease that flourishes in our summers of hot dry days and cool humid nights. (Powdery mildew appears on both sides of a plant’s leaves; downy mildew only on the undersides – in cooler weather). I’ve come to accept powdery mildew as part of the garden, attacking first the zucchinis, then the peas, and finally the roses. One remedy is milk: try a 10 per cent solution and don’t fret about watering from above on your mildewed plants. Apparently the fungus spreads through wind and the water may actually help control the disease.

Only for my roses do I reach for the fungicide spray which is the only real nasty I use in the garden. I can’t bear to see new shoots on climbing roses blanketed in white before they bloom. Of course, I probably reach for the heavy meds too late. The spray honestly doesn’t seem to help anything more than my pride (of having tried).

Christin Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener and creative non-fiction writing instructor at the University of Victoria. She writes here twice a month on all things gardening.

 

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