Last month I warned that setting out tender annuals too soon is not a good idea. Not everyone listened. Yes, I saw you at that local house of temptation, your favorite plant supplier, buying those luscious ferns, begonias and mandevilla hanging baskets, so I couldn’t resist buying some, too. Then, just as I feared, we had a frost and it all had to come back inside or be covered for a week.
Now we can safely leave all our annuals outside. Temperatures are no longer dropping to frost levels. In fact, some days already feel downright tropical. Now is the time to sit back and enjoy the beauty of your garden — but just for a few hours, because it’s also time to prepare for summer.
This month I want to discuss preparing your flower beds for the hot, dry days ahead. Let’s begin with developing rich soil in your beds to ensure healthier plants. I am often asked, “Why aren’t my hydrangeas blooming or my boxwood growing?”
It may be that you didn’t consider the type of soil you were planting them in. Soil pH can influence what will grow in your garden. Every plant has a preferred pH, which is measured on an acid to alkaline scale of 0 to 14. The preferred pH will be the same as each plant’s native region. According to books on soil conditioning, most plants can adapt and grow nicely in soils ranging from pH 5.5 to 7.5. If soil pH is above 8 or below 5 it may restrict growth. Most plants have difficulty absorbing nutrients at this level. This is one of many reasons more people are using native plants, which are suited to our region.
The good news is that you can amend your soil to alter its pH. To lower the pH of acid soils, add lime. Adding peat will raise the pH of alkaline soils. Your local county extension office can do a soil test for you. I found additional information on soil condition online at about.com, “Four Easy Do-it-Yourself Soil Tests,” by Colleen Vanderlinden.
Another necessary task to prepare for summer is mulching or top dressing. If you prefer to use commercial mulch, I like the kind that will decompose into your soil and enrich it, instead of the large pieces that never go away. Mulching is a process requiring time, energy and money. As a retired person, I am watching all three. My recommendation for people who fall in my category is groundcovers. They are a one-time expense, or even free if you have gardening friends willing to share. Mulch must be renewed every year.
Groundcovers do the same job of protecting and shading the ground as commercial mulch does. Many can withstand light foot traffic. I have had success with Ajuga, also called bugle weed, and sedums. Ajuga is evergreen in winter, protecting the soil from harsh weather. In early spring it starts returning to its original color, either dark green and burgundy, or variegated, such as “Silver Beauty.” The variety “Chocolate Chip” is chocolate brown, bronze and maroon. Ajugas have a lovely blue or lavender flower spike that shoots straight up four to six inches from the rosette of leaves close to the ground. In mass, the color is wonderful. If the runners creep too far afield for your liking, they are easy to pinch back. These runners make instant transplants to expand your bed or move them elsewhere.
There are many kinds of sedums suitable for groundcover in full sun. Be sure to check that they can be used as groundcover when you buy them, because some sedums grow fairly tall. Three to six inches is about right. I have been very pleased with “Angelina,” a bright green sedum. My other favorites are the stonecrops “Blue Spruce” and “Dragons Blood,” which has brilliant red flowers in summer and dense, low green foliage tinged with red. Sedums cover quickly, don’t require much water, and will grow on poor, rocky soil.
There are many other wonderful groundcovers which you can find with a little research. Pachysandra has a dark green leaf and prefers shade to semi-shade. Vinca is another. Or try Lamium, a tough but showy perennial. It forms a spreading patch of small silver and green leaves. Soft pink flowers appear in spring and bloom off and on until fall. For shady areas where you don’t need to walk, larger plants do a good job. Two old favorites are ferns and hostas closely planted.
For sun or shade try Lysemachia, more commonly known as “Creeping Jenny,” which also is popular spilling over the edges of containers. The leaves of this perennial can be a cool lime green to bright yellow depending on the amount of sun it gets.
Groundcovers work by covering exposed soil, retaining moisture, shading the feet of your plants and smothering unsightly weeds. They’re easy to plant because their roots are shallow so you don’t have to dig deep. Just scoop away enough soil to cover the small roots, water in, and wait for the show. Keep your eyes open for more choices when you go shopping, visit other gardens, or read gardening books and articles. I would sum up my love of groundcovers by saying it’s a joy to plant something that’s not only pretty but saves me time, effort and money.
If you want to see specimen plants and creative ideas, mark your calendar for “Danville In Bloom,” a Standard Flower Show June 1-2 at the Community Arts Center. Admission is free. This show is presented by the Garden Club of Danville. Flower designs also will be on display in ways you’ve never thought of before. I hope to see you there!
Helpful hints from local gardeners
This month’s first hint comes from Kay Arnold, a member of the Garden Club of Danville.
In flower pots, rather than stones or pebbles in the bottom for drainage, use Styrofoam pellets. Enclose them in a mesh bag so that when you empty the pot they are contained in the bag to prevent mess. In a very large pot, which would use up lots of potting soil, fill the bottom of the pot with as much as one-third of the volume either with Styrofoam pellets in a mesh bag or chunks of Styrofoam. This saves both potting soil and weight, making the pot easier to move. A coffee filter in the bottom of a pot allows water to drain out, but not soil.
Another tip is to buy an inexpensive package of vinyl or latex gloves and wear them for gardening tasks that require a delicate touch, such as transplanting seedlings or pinching off tender shoots. They will keep your hands and fingernails clean but allow you to be more precise than heavier gardening gloves. The gloves with light powdering inside will keep your hands drier. If you are careful pulling them on and off they can be worn several times.
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