Gardening in Central Virginia

Gardening in Central Virginia

The arc of the sun reaches its zenith on June 21st, bringing the first day of summer. From then ’til December 22nd the golden orb tracks steadily back towards winter. If you haven’t yet been invited to a summer solstice party, plan one now to celebrate the longest day of the year.

Cocktails at twilight are an excellent opportunity to revel in the sweet scent of Nicotiana alata or N. sylvestris, which wait for sunset to come into their own. Start these old-fashioned annual flowering tobaccos from seed (Thompson & Morgan catalogue has a good selection) or acquire them as transplants from select growers like the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants or Eltzroth & Thompson. Don’t fall for the candy-colored “Nikki” hybrids, which have had their scent bred out of them.

Consider also the moon vine, another fragrant summer treat. They’re a bit tricky to start at home (you need to soak the seeds overnight), but worth the effort as they can be difficult to find in the garden centers. Delectable whipped cream buds open languidly in the gloaming into pure white blossoms that do a respectable imitation of large porcelain sand dollars. Give this special morning glory full sun and entice it along twine strung about the deck posts and railings. It will all collapse with the first hard frost.

Our path around the sun determines the beginning of summer and winter, but many people look to the moon for the best timed garden tasks. A moon waxing towards full reduces the pull of gravity which results in more moisture in the soil, conducive to sowing seeds and putting out transplants.

As the moon wanes, the increased pull of gravity reduces water content and favors a harvest of root crops like carrots and onions that profit from drier conditions. This is also the time to get the best results from mowing the lawn and pulling weeds.

From planets spinning in space to plants rooted in the ground, the garden contains a multitude of cycles. Fine old gardens in France suspend all other activities in order to dead-head lilacs in late spring, so important is this activity to good bud set for next year. Immediately after flowering is the best time to shape and thin any flowering shrub. Along with the lilacs, give some attention now to overgrown forsythia and azaleas before it gets any later, or you risk harming developing flower buds.

Our prolonged cool spring might cause some difficulties with hot weather crops like tomatoes, corn, zinnias, marigolds and okra. There’s not much these plants will do until the ground warms up. Old-timers listen for the first whippoorwill or look for oak leaves the size of a squirrel’s ear before planting their corn. The oak leaves are long enough, but here in the hollow, we have not yet heard the plaintive cry of that increasingly rara avis.

Set the mower on high and cultivate the shag-rug look over an astro-turf buzz to shade out weeds and give your lawn lots of leaf surface to feed its roots. Don’t bag clippings. They’re one of nature’s fastest sources of nitrogen. If they clump up, rake them out and dispose of any excess in the trusty compost bin. Get with your composting, people! Steve Murray, master composter at Earlysville farm Panorama Paydirt, says the largest component of landfills is kitchen garbage.

Through the Garden Gate opens private gardens maintained by their owners to the public for a $5 fee. Saturday, June 9, from 9am to noon, find your way to 1647 and 1641 Oxford Rd. to inspect two city landscapes that take full advantage of their circumstances and sport a variety of specimen trees and shrubs (call 872-4580 for more info).

Gardening in Central Virginia

Gardening in Central Virginia

“…The flowers come forth like the belles of the day, have their short reign of beauty and splendour, and retire, like them, to the more interesting office of reproducing their like….The Hyacinths and Tulips are off the stage, the Irises are giving place to the Belladonnas, as these will to the Tuberoses, etc….”

Say what you will about him, Thomas Jefferson had a way with words. He had fun in this letter to his granddaughter, skirting the blatant sexual display of flowers (the pistils and the stamens, to be exact, glistening dewily at the center of those luscious petals) with the romantic rhetoric of his day. But, ever relevant, he shares every gardener’s concern with succession of bloom.

Most everyone nowadays at least pays lip service to “four-season interest”—bark, foliage and bright winter berries—but what most people want from a garden is lots of flowers lots of the time. Anyone can “do spring”—just stand back and let Nature have her way—but early summer can present a challenge. How to follow the eruption of dogwoods, azaleas, bleeding hearts and bluebells?

In older days, large gardens could devote great swaths of borders to different times of year, but smaller modern landscapes work well with mixed plantings that show off the different seasons in the same space: a small tree or large shrub anchoring different layers of shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs.

Kousa dogwoods extend the season nicely, decorating themselves with dramatic star-like flowers a good month after our native dogwoods have finished. They have a different look, often multi-trunked and shrubby, great for screening the ubiquitous unsightly view. Add one of the smaller crape myrtles or a smoke bush at the other end of the bed if you have sun (perhaps a Stewartia or Japanese snowbell if you don’t) and you can see yourself through summer with sultry blooms.

The true lover of floral display must not fear getting involved with annual bedding plants. Do not hesitate to embrace geraniums, petunias, begonias, impatiens, salvias, marigolds and zinnias. They pay their dues by producing vivid color up ‘til frost. Pop them in the border or use them in containers at entrances and on the terrace.

Don’t forget to harden off greenhouse-grown plants. Hardy perennials and herbs that have been started indoors, as well as tender annuals, need gradual acclimation to cooler temperatures and wind before being set out after the last date of frost, around the middle of this month.

Heat lovers like tomatoes and zinnias won’t do anything but sit in the ground until the soil warms up, even if it doesn’t freeze, so wait ‘til the end of May before setting them out. Move them up to larger sized pots if necessary in the meantime, and bring them in on cold nights.

This cool spring is perfect for over-seeding bare spots in the lawn. Rough up the ground with a steel rake and scatter an inch or so of compost. Generously sprinkle a mix of good quality hybrid fescue seed if you have sun (creeping red fescue for light shade), tamp down with the back of the rake and scatter a thin layer of straw. Keep the lawn moist and avoid foot traffic until the seed germinates.

The tulips and daffodils of April will give way to peonies, iris and roses, as the merry belles of May beguile us into late spring, reminding us that the promise of one flower after another is the enduring allure of the garden.