Of Wonders and Weeds
By PAULENE POPARAD
July is for .... the agony and the ecstasy of a rain gauge.
Unless we’ve had several days of soaking rain in the interim from when I
write this to when it’s published, there is little joy in my garden these
days. It’s survival of the fittest.
Early on this spring I had a feeling we’d have a hot summer. We were
overdue. But little did I know that for some unknown meteorological reason
the rain this season would either 1) never get near the house 2)
dissipate as it heads our way, or 3) rain teasingly for a few minutes and
then pass by us.
Case in point: June 25 we were at a large family party in LaPorte. Skies
darkened and a few rumbles of thunder were the only signs that a good rain
was imminent. Those present knew better than to curse the rain that chased
us, temporarily, inside. With glee I later headed home, eager to see how
much the rain gauge was filled. But as we approached Michigan City, the
pavement was dry. In Burns Harbor the rain gauge told the sad story --- zip,
The poor thing has sat empty for quite a while now. In the morning I look to
see if there has been a shower or thunderstorm so uneventful it never
awakened me; I’m always disappointed. Those big cracks in the parched soil
in unmulched areas of the yard remind me of what my skin must look like
under a powerful microscope if I forget to apply moisturizer.
We did luck out and have a late afternoon thundershower recently. It rained
hard for a time and I thought surely it totaled half an inch at least. In
truth it was just under one-quarter of an inch. As I wrote this a gentle
rain began to fall. The next day the rain gauge was barely wet.
In early June my daughter-in-law Jeanine asked if I were tired of watering
the garden. I told her I was not watering yet, holding out hope Mother
Nature would not be a neglectful caregiver. But she was and if had I watered
when the early daylilies were beginning to set bud, some of these cultivars
wouldn’t be smaller than usual now. You can be sure the late-flowering
varieties got a good shot of H2O courtesy of the hose.
Have you noticed the sweet and field corn planted in the area? Some is waist
high, I suspect because that farmer bet we wouldn’t have a late frost and
planted early when we had rain. The scrawny corn likely was planted later
and more affected by the drought. It’s unfortunate because not having a late
frost prompted some plants to grow exceptionally well, only to be hit with
little or no water.
Times like these we need to be water-smart, not wasteful. Guidelines tell us
to water in the early morning or very late afternoon and generally to water
the ground, not a plant’s leaves. And even if your yard appears to be flat,
be attentive to slight elevation changes and always water at the top of a
hill, however slight. It’s disheartening to return after 20 minutes of
watering and see you’ve watered the lawn or driveway and not your plants.
That crunchy, wheat-colored turf underfoot is dormant and will green up
again when rain and cooler weather return. Our trees will not be so
flexible. But do protect the grass by not walking along the same path
repeatedly when it’s under stress. The smaller or newer or sunnier a tree
is, the more attention it likely will need, especially if it is planted in
less than ideal soil.
In an average summer the value of mulch can’t be overstated. In our extreme
summer of 2005, mulch is a must, but be careful not to add it too deeply so
it takes a significant rainfall before the plant even gets wet. Two or three
inches of mulch are usually recommended. Before the mulch goes down, it’s
good to topdress with compost. And a slower, longer watering is always
preferable to a short, teasing blast.
Weeds will overtake unmulched ornamentals in a drought, greedily sucking up
what water does fall. Be vigilant for weeds, but pull them after a rain or
dampen the area first. And be sure to knock off any loose soil on the weed
roots; topsoil is too valuable to throw away.
We also can help our plants survive the drought by deadheading (cutting off
the spent flowers) as soon as the blooms begin to fade. I’m cutting my
plants farther down than I normally would to help them compensate for less
No matter if you take all the right steps, some plants will just be wilters
and balk at heat and drought. I’ve learned the bear’s breeches or acanthus
spinosus is among them. I bought one in late 2003 at Van Wade’s unbelievable
nursery in Belleville, Ohio. I had envied Bev Stegeman’s acanthus clump and
thought if she could grow it here, so could I.
In 2004 the long, thistle-like jagged leaves (“Is that a weed?” asked
Bernie) cultivated since Roman times grew well and by autumn a new offshoot
had formed. This spring one flower stalk came up, but because the light
purple, hooded acanthus flowers with white centers encircle the 32-inch
stalk half way up, it’s quite a sight. Yes, I’ve taken lots of pictures.
Books warn that acanthus can be invasive, but mine has not been --- yet. It
does keel over in the heat, but bleeding heart and poppies die back only to
resprout in late summer. I’d hate to let the acanthus die of thirst on the
hope it will return, especially since it comes from such a special place. I
need to email Bev about hers.
Talk about unusual plants. Last year at Planter’s Palette in Winfield, Ill.
I bought a teucrium beurgerianium ‘Lemon Lime’, its small, yellow leaves
splashed with medium green. The tag said it was vigorous (WARNING: This is a
marketing word for invasive and I should have known better) so I sought more
information. Can you imagine doing an Internet search for the plant and
finding NO matches? I even stumped local nursery professionals when I
The 30-inch tall ‘Lemon Lime’, which looks like a salvia and we now think is
a relative of the germander family, grew well and flowered lavender as I
recall, albiet half-heartedly, last fall. Then this spring it started
growing again and proceeded to send out runners five feet in all directions!
Luckily, they could be ripped up easily and I even let three new plants grow
on, but today I saw the babies were having babies.
We planted a ‘Crimson King’ maple this spring and I saved the large pot,
having to split it down the side to get out the tree’s large root ball. I
may cut out the bottom and sink the pot around the ‘Lemon Lime’ for a year
and see if that tames the beast next spring. Otherwise, it’s outta here.
Recently at Planter’s Palette I bought a hardy ageratum ‘Cori’ that should
get 18 to 24 inches tall. I thought ageratum were just annuals. This is
another wilter in the pot but it may toughen up now that it’s planted.
‘Cori’ will have large fluffy heads of purple fall flowers. Just so it
doesn’t send out runners. I tried to order ‘Cori’ once by catalog but it was
out of stock. I’m not the only person buying it, apparently, so that’s a
Having a plant’s history in the garden can be helpful. Oakes Daylilies’
website has a section where gardeners can rate each cultivar sold. It’s fun
reading the comments and seeking how the individual daylilies perform in
different areas of the country under varying conditions. The negative
observations yield good information, too.
Sometimes, wilters in the plant world have no rhyme or reason. I have three
clumps of the lovely summer phlox ‘Natascha’, each clear lavender-pink
flower petal ringed in white. Only one clump is normal and blooming. The
other two, in the same area, shriveled up to almost nothing. All were
treated and watered the same. This is the second year this has happened.
OK, so I’ll continue to water the temperamental two and move them later,
really amending the new soil to ensure it stays evenly moist. Beyond that,
maybe they’re just genetic duds.
The way this summer is going we’ll probably see more 90-degree temperatures
with “isolated” and “scattered” thundershowers forecast. Translation: don’t
hold your breath for rain. Hey, we couldn’t even rely on a hurricane to give
I apologize for the absence of this column lately but my first priority is
my family and we’ve had a lot going on, not the least of which is we had a
contractor gut our 1950s kitchen down to the studs and update what were the
home’s two original rooms that were here in 1884. Thanks to Jim, Cliff, Jim
and everyone whose craftsmanship realized our dream.
Now it’s time to devote my energies to the garden again. And in this heat
and drought, energy for both me and the plants is in short supply.