The Garden Life: Gardeners wise to follow natural calendar

By Robb Rosser, Columbian Gardening columnist

Published:

 

The period of summer that we are going through right now is one of the shortest seasons in the natural calendar. This is a season of quick changes, not as dramatic as the changes of autumn, but distinct from the long, hot days of summer, with moderately warm, "al fresco" evenings. I can already feel the onset of clear, cool nights when I stay out late in the garden. Yesterday. I woke up to a fine mist and tomorrow they predict rain.

By a natural calendar, I'm referring to the division of the seasons by the natural cycles of the year instead of the usual month-by-month approach. We have all been trained to think of the seasons as three-month periods beginning with December, January, and February as winter. That puts us into summer for the months of June, July, and August. This summer division was further ensconced in my thinking by an annual, three-month summer vacation, a practice that has changed dramatically since my school days.

As a gardener, it makes more sense to go by the natural cycle of the year: pre-spring, early spring, spring, early summer, midsummer, late summer, early fall, fall and winter. This approach allows for variations in the climate and conditions in different regions and even different microclimates of the same region. Those of us living and gardening in the Pacific Northwest are usually quite aware that we don't follow the timetable of weather patterns in other parts of the country.

The divisions of the natural garden cycle are observed, rather than written in stone. They help us know when to do specific garden chores such as mulching the garden for winter protection. We watch for signals from the garden itself. There are the emerging snowdrops to signal the change from winter to pre-spring. Apple blossoms confirm the onset of spring. Tulips will follow shortly. One of our signal plants of late summer is the snowberry, with ripe clusters of showy, large, white, marble-like fruits. In the months ahead, we can watch for ripe elderberries to usher in early fall.

As a gardener who keeps a garden journal, this helps me recognize the signs of the seasons, even if they don't arrive and depart on a calendar schedule. I recognize my gardens habits from year to year. Late summer in my garden features an exuberant display of multicolored perennials and planters full of long-blooming annual flowers. It's a way of keeping track and feeling more certain about specific chores such as pruning roses or planting spring-blooming bulbs at the best time, however unseasonal the weather is in any one year.

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Flowering annual garden plants require regular deadheading, as well as consistent water and fertilizer for continuous flower production. The point of annuals in the garden is for their long color show. If the flower heads are left on the plant after dying back, the plant gets the message that it no longer needs to produce flowers. The true purpose of all plants is seed production. Once seed is produced, most plants will cease forming new flower bloom. Cut the spent flower heads off before they have a chance to set seed and you will be rewarded with a continuous flush of flower production.

Shrubs, vines, and other woody plants provide the year-round framework on which to build your seasonal display of annuals, perennials and bulbs. Many woody plants are remarkably colorful, with flowers, fruits, fall foliage and bark providing long-lasting beauty. Many shrub-like plants cheerfully accept smaller plants around their feet or climbers scrambling over their shoulders and producing a second round of bloom. Plant clutches of spring-blooming snowdrops and daffodils or summer-blooming lilies among your shrubs to add color in another season.

Viburnum trilobum "Wentworth," known as the American Cranberry bush, is an outstanding native that has three seasons of interest. In late spring, it produces abundant heads of white flowers. The flowers are succeeded by clusters of edible, 1/4-inch berries that turn bright, glistening red as they ripen in late summer. Finally, in autumn, the three-lobed foliage takes on stunning shades of burgundy. "Wentworth" has an upright habit that makes it useful as a screen or an informal hedge. This is a shrub that flowers best in full sun, but tolerates partial shade. It requires evenly moist but well-drained soil.