The Garden Life: Balance planning, spontaneity with garden tasks




At this time of year, as spring becomes summer, we find ourselves with an endless list of garden chores. There’s always the need to deadhead spent flowering plants and to fertilize perennials and roses. All healthy plant material removed from the garden can be added to the compost pile. Broadleaf evergreen shrubs will appreciate a shot of fertilizer as soon as they are finished flowering for the season. Here in Southwest Washington, there are products specifically made for the nutrient requirements of our acid-loving plants such as azaleas, camellias, and rhododendron.

I find that there are two distinct methods of working in the garden. The first is to begin a specific project with a distinct plan in mind. The second way is by chance; puttering around until you run right into a job that needs to be done. Both methods have their place in the maintenance of our gardens. On the planning level, I find it helps to have a few basic tasks that are done on a regular basis, specific to the season. One very logical daily garden chore in the height of spring and summer is deadheading perennials.

Deadheading keeps the garden looking fresh, keeps the visual focus on those plants in bloom and often encourages perennials to send out a new flush of bloom. The time spent deadheading also serves as a time to collect flowers for indoor vases and pots. Our gardens are living entities, so there will always be a spate of spontaneous chores. Consider the individual weeds that come up one at a time, weeks after we have done major scheduled weedings in perennial and shrub borders. The wayward bramble sneaks its way into a planting of ground cover. Obviously, these can be taken care of without scheduling. Get them out when you see them.

There are also season-specific chores to keep you busy through the summer. Mulch perennial beds with compost to suppress weeds and conserve moisture. Plant out late-season vegetables. Garden centers are filled with veggies ready to transplant. I’ve even seen tomatoes and eggplants in the nursery with fruit already on the vine. Use your best judgment to determine whether these veggies have been well taken care of while in their small pots. If they have suffered from lack of water they will show stress in burnt leaf tips and cracks in the skin on tomato plants.

I have learned from many conversations with fellow gardeners that growing vines is often a less-than-satisfying endeavor. I fully understand because I, too, have tried to grow many vines and had less-than-stellar results. I finally realized that I needed to pay more attention to well-grown vines. Although we see many vines in gardens, in reality most are beautiful only when they are in bloom. At their worst in midwinter, I liken deciduous vines to Medusa’s head of serpentine hair on a bad day. In addition, few vines are in bloom for an extended period of time.

Vine + shrub = beauty

One thing you can do that will immediately change your results is to plant your vine to grow up through the inside of an attractive shrub. One perfect example is to grow a clematis vine up and into the branches of an established broadleaf viburnum. In this situation the shrub has enough strength and stature to support the vine. Once the vine grows up through the shrub, it can then stretch itself across the surface of that shrub. When it does so, it receives substantial support and maximum sunlight, two important factors in a well-performing vine. When the vine is not in flower, the handsome form of the shrub becomes the most important factor in this plant combination.

I’ve always kept a garden journal with me to track the progress of my garden. These days, I find myself carrying around a note card with a pen attached so that I can write down jobs to do as I see them in the garden throughout the day. Later I will add these to my computer journal, including the location of new plantings and details of seasonal bloom. At the end of your work day, don’t neglect to give yourself the rewards of relaxation and appreciation. I love to set aside time on clear, warm days to sit back in a comfortable outdoor chair with a cup of coffee and a favorite book. We create a garden because it’s the perfect place to read, dream and relax with a friend. After all the work is done, enjoying the results of our efforts is well-deserved.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at