“I’ve got a column for you,” said my well-dressed host as we toured his garden not so long ago.
I gave him my full attention – Calliope isn’t consistently cooperative each week and one must seize upon inspiration whenever it is offered.
“How,” he said, inserting a dramatic pause, “can we make August exciting?”
We both chuckled at his plaintive delivery, but the man was obviously scarred by summers past. Sixteen years in a Mid-Atlantic climate and I can understand exactly where he’s coming from. Let’s consider the progress of a (dare I say) typical growing season in these parts:
Early spring: Cool evenings, cool mornings, cool mid-day. Winter is over. All is right with the world.
Mid spring: Still on target for the perfect gardening year. A little more sun, lots of rain, bugs low, humidity lower. Spinach is perfectly tender. English garden porn lies open on every available surface in the living room.
Late spring: First concern surfaces in the back of the mind. Could it have been slightly humid this morning? Worries are summarily dismissed as we tour other gardens and stand mesmerized in a field of opium poppies.
Early summer: No, that definitely was humidity. Why didn’t we get the drip irrigation system up and running last fall? What did that thermometer just say? Is that for REAL?!?
Mid summer: What the h*** just happened? Does Southwest have any deals out of here right now? Etc.
And the rest of the season usually involves fantasizing about autumn.
With very little variation, this happens every year. Sure we have a slightly shorter spring, a wetter June…a buggier July, but all-in-all we are faced with a hot, humid summer that flattens annual bedding and takes the zing out of everything else. August is brutal.
How do we make it exciting? By matching our plant choices to the climate. Think tropically.
Many shy away from tropical plants because they assume they’re hard to find, hard to keep alive and hard to overwinter. Thankfully, there are braver souls taking chances out there and changing marketplace availability. And with a frost-free garage, cold basement, or deep, dark cellar, you can be just as daring without committing to winter houseplants. If you’re hesitant to let them loose in your garden beds, use them in well-watered pots on your deck or patio in sun or part-shade. You’ll come around eventually.
Here are just a few to think about:
Canna (Canna spp & cvs.): Tops my list for versatility, availability and vigor. Many species are just at home in water as in soil. Rhizomes overwinter in a plastic bag in a frost-free space. Try ‘Pretoria,’ ‘Tropicanna,’ and ‘Red Stripe’ for incredible foliage and gorgeous blooms.
Banana (Musa spp. / Ensete spp.): Musa basjoo is our hardiest banana. Find a south facing wall and a bit of mulch and you may very well start a tropical rainforest. Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ is the red banana you’re seeing everywhere right now. This one must be dug in fall, cut back and brought into a space between 40-50°F to keep it alive but dormant. Water only to prevent desiccation. So worth it.
Caladium (Caladium spp. & cvs.): A little trickier on the over-wintering front (bulbs must be kept above 55) and are later to surface (they need WARMTH), but a fabulous foliage plant happy in your shady, moist spaces.
Castor bean (Ricinus communis): Yes it’s poisonous. So are foxgloves, yew and green potatoes. An annual that grows insanely fast from seed with red (or green) palmate leaves that accent any garden – tropical or otherwise. Very little to lose on a $3.50 seed packet.
Rice-paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifer): I might lose my gardener’s license for mentioning this one, but oh, boy – what a plant. I grow ‘Steroidal Giant’ for the drama, but smaller cultivars are available. Killed to the ground each year, but make no mistake, it’s trying to take over. Best in part-shade.
There are many more (begonia warrants a column unto itself), but copy space is cruelly limited and I am pushing it. As for pests – Japanese beetles, but what else is new? Handpick and pray. Aphids love the new foliage, but neem oil is an effective executioner.
Making August exciting in June? You bet. Plant now and watch these guys hit summer with chests out and chins in the air. It’s their kind of season.
This article reprinted with kind permission of The Frederick News Post