The Spice of Life

July is a great month to experiment with plant material. With balmy gardening weather and post spring specials on plants at the garden center, you can afford to try some new plants with little to lose. There is still plenty of growing season ahead in July so flowering annuals can be planted to supplement your spring plantings with an experimental twist! How many times have I found new plants that I have grown to love by experimenting outside of the traditional spring planting season. As an example years ago I became enamored with a couple of flowering annuals, Verbena bonariensis and Gomphrena, leftovers of spring no one wanted.

A field of Gomphrena

In the busy spring season without knowledge of these plants, shoppers left them behind for more traditional choices like Begonias. Now discounted from spring pricing I took the “what do I have to lose approach”. I had everything to gain. Variety is the spice of life and adding new plants to your “hort”-folio is an investment in your personal garden prowess as well as enjoyment. Both of these flowering annuals became favorites of mine and have since added to the diversity of my plantings. They bloomed beautifully causing people walking by on the sidewalk to ring the doorbell to ask, “what is that plant?” I would make plant converts one by one and their legend grew. To a degree this is what happens today on sites like Pinterest where education of new varieties provides the spice of experimental interest for our landscapes.
With our busy lifestyles I believe your landscape should work as hard as you do. I also believe that mono-cultures are not a good idea in the landscape and that as in life, diversity is better. Each plant has its season in the sun when it takes center stage. Within a diverse group problems do not spread like wildfire and the diversity presents continual visual interest as each plant plays its role. You learn this by extending your reach, experimenting with plant material. The lazy hazy days of summer afford you this opportunity.

Hibiscus ‘Sultry Kiss’

I had a teacher who always said, “If you haven’t killed any plants you’re not trying hard enough.” How true. In July without the fear of frost we can try all kinds of plant material including those that provide a tropical feel in the landscape. From Herbs to Hibiscus, Morning glories to Monarda, try your hand at something new in your landscape this month….you’ll be glad you did.

Climbing the Walls

Vines and vineyards have a rich storied history. From the Middle East to France and beyond there is evidence of wine production dating back to 4,000 BC and beyond with numerous Biblical references celebrating vines… about “Da-vine” intervention. I use grapevines on fencing in my yard, not for the production of grapes, but rather the aesthetic feel it provides in my landscape. The same can be said for Hops (Humulus lupulus).

Hop to it!

With the interest in craft beers, growing hops not just for production but their ornamental qualities has become popular. Hops are an herbaceous perennial easy to grow. Provide sunlight and plenty of support and by August and September the presentation of foliage and “nuggets” (hops) can be quite spectacular! Hops like a rich, well-drained soil, so till deeply with good organic matter for best results.
The list of vines you could try in your yard is extensive and fun. If you don’t have a lot of yard space going vertical may be just the answer to create an intriguing enjoyable landscape. From Climbing Hydrangeas to Trumpet Vine, Honeysuckle to Wisteria, you may find you have to apply “tough love” and at some point slow their growth to encourage blooming via root pruning. A vine wants to grow and grow sometimes in lieu of producing blooms. In those cases some root pruning or stress will show the vine who is boss and get it to bloom.
Remember vines grow. It is their “nature”. Provide sturdy support structures with a tendency to “overdo it”.
For days of “vine and roses” here are some vines I suggest you try in your landscape to get growing.

The wonder of Wisteria….a showstopper!

• Wisteria. Make sure to have a strong structure for this vine with plenty of room to grow. A Wisteria can swallow a structure or building but planted in the right place the blooms and results are stunning.
• Clematis. The key to Clematis is “cool roots and hot tops”. This blooming vine is notorious for its presence at mailboxes and on lamposts.

The bashfully beautiful Clematis in dappled shade

Mulched at the base with organic matter in the soil in a sunny area the flowers are simply gorgeous.
• Climbing Roses. Heavy feeders that need sunlight and support, if given these three elements a climbing rose can provide floriferous results for years to come.
• Trumpet Vine. This aggressive grower is easy to grow with some even labeling it “invasive”. That said if you have the room to grow, this woody vine produces blooms to attract Hummingbirds to your yard and provides a visual explosion. (note that both Trumpet Vine and Wisteria both may benefit from root pruning see mention earlier)
• Honeysuckle. With sweet yellow to orange and red blossoms this easy growing vine will attract pollinators, butterflies, hummingbirds to your landscape. Prune back hard in fall and the following year watch it grow!
• Climbing Hydrangea. With white lacecap blooms in summer and aerial rootlets this vine is a “clingy” must in the aerial landscape with glossy green foliage.
• Hops Humulus lupulus. An herbaceous perennial that is ornamental in summer and has broad interest due to the craft beer industry.
• Passion Vine Passiflora. For exotic blooms this might be your vine. Not hardy in most areas of Michigan (herbaceous habit surviving in zones 6 or warmer) don’t let it keep you from trying this vine for its intriguing blooms.
• Morning Glory Ipomoea. What’s the story morning glory? Easy to grow from seed in warm weather this vine has adorned many mailbox posts and lampposts in its day. A tender annual its tendrils are fast growing and adept at pirouetting.
• Moonflower. This tender annual vine has unique unfurling white blooms perfect to be used on decks where evening entertaining will take place. With moonflowers as well as Morning glories go easy on the nitrogen fertilizer (which grows more foliage). Supplementing with some high phosphorus will encourage blooming in lieu of foliar growth.

Lettuce be careful out there

I remember as a kid on hot summer days drinking from the garden hose. The water always tasted funny. No doubt as the hose baked in the hot summer sun it gave a distinctive flavor to our refreshment. Today we are warned and studies confirm that water from a garden hose can contain in addition to bacteria some toxic chemicals. I am told lead levels, bromine, phthalates, BPA and other ugly stuff I can’t pronounce can be in your garden hose. I just wet my plants. Better be safe than sorry, don’t let your kids drink from the garden hose. It does explain a lot about me. I’ve considered bottling water with the garden hose taste to sell. There may be other baby bloomers out there like me who might buy it just for nostalgia sake.

I just wet my plants

In addition I was intrigued when I saw a British study about garden injuries and what lands people in the hospital. Garden hoses were on the list and in the top ten. I’m sure as a tripping hazard when left laying around. “Water” you waiting for? Roll up that hose. Of course the top issue was the lawn mower with everything from injuries while servicing to foot injuries while mowing to flying projectiles! It is without surprise the lawn mower tops the list in both the UK and the US. The number 2 item on the British list is quite surprising however. Flower pots were the second listed item causing gardening injuries. I would suspect hand cuts and dropped pots as well as lifting causing back injuries. Don’t let your day “go to pot” with a trip to the ER. Get your neighbor to help.
Pruners, spades, Electric hedge trimmers, shears, and garden forks all obviously made the top ten list. Interestingly the innocent hose and sprinkler made the list of dangerous accident causing objects. I suppose if you set the sprinkler and run it could result in a mishap. A significant amount of injuries however occur when an unintended “trip” is the result of an errant garden hose. It’s far better to take a trip to the beach and put your toes in the water than to end up at the doctor. I would think weed whackers would be on the list. Your “whipper snipper” is prone to kick up some dust and debris so make sure always to be wearing protective eye wear when using them.


I was reading with great interest a British study recently that implied the gender roles in the home are being rewritten including three quarters of women happy to tackle the job of mowing the lawn previously considered a task of the man of the household. Meanwhile six in ten men would be willing to make dinner every night and clean up afterwards as well. This survey of 2,000 Brits indicates gender roles have evolved in the home and an understanding that a chore shared is a chore halved. I believe it only makes sense that when it comes to yard work, cooking, cleaning and other household chores that teamwork always beats the culturally assigned gender roles that Mom and Dad demonstrated years ago. In the turf classes I have taught with a show of hands, hands down women believe they could do a much better job of the lawn and landscape then the man in the household. Conversely this study showed one in 5 men felt they could do a better job of cleaning and tasks their fathers would have declined to do. Whether it is weeding, mowing, cooking or vacuuming today’s home and garden inhabitants understand that a partnership beats previously culturally defined roles.

Mow and Behold!
Mow and Behold!

Out in the yard the green green grass of home (Tom Jones 1967 oh this dates me) can become a tiresome chore for household partners when the calendar turns to August. My first word of advice is to raise the deck on the mower. Cutting the grass short in the heat of summer is not a good idea and adds stress to the lawn. Longer grass blades shade the crown of the plant, increase surface area for photosynthesis and reduce weed growth and development comparatively to a scalped or short cut lawn. Irrigate in the morning when watering is most efficient (sun and wind evaporation is less) and avoid irrigating at sundown (to reduce disease stress). August is a great month to plan for rejuvenating your lawn with the coming month of September one of the best months to seed a lawn, feed a lawn and control weeds. Fall is the perfect time for lawn establishment and rejuvenation.
Some are abandoning the typical urban front lawn for alternatives and I say more “flower” to you. Even though our lawns are great for trapping dust particles, cooling the earth and generating oxygen, alternatives are available. Groundcovers and ornamental grasses are easy to grow hardy substitutes for a well groomed lawn.

Calamagrostis Karl Foerster lines a drive
Calamagrostis Karl Foerster lines a drive

Ornamental grasses are spotlighted in the landscape from August to October as they “dance” for our attention as drought tolerant landscape show stoppers. Perennial, deer resistant, drought resistant and hardy easy to grow plants, Ornamental grasses are available in a wide array of cultivars to enjoy. My neighbors looked questioningly as I replaced a large swath of lawn with ornamental Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ grasses at my lakeshore landscape, but now are true believers. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Consider ornamental grasses and move to the head of the “grass” for the “grass” of 2016. Congratulations and enjoy.