Heat advisory

Heat advisory
July in the garden
Use containers for a fresh start. Mulch immediately after weeding. Learn to prune all the different shrubs.

Horticultural wisdom counsels the gardener to surrender to the torpor of summer and do as little as possible—a welcome respite for those who’ve been working steadily since spring, and in the heat and humidity of a Central Virginia summer, certainly the better part of prudence, especially for the slackers.

If you began weeding, edging and general sprucing up in March (or at least April), like any decent person, you could enjoy these sweltering afternoons in the hammock, or better yet, from an air-conditioned sun room, surveying in pampered comfort the personal Eden your discipline and superior character have created. But for those of us who have been remiss—distracted by false priorities, overcome by the inexorable march of the dreaded vetch or crabgrass, oppressed by inertia—yet resolve to save the garden still, is there not some passage through the encroaching jungle that does not lead to heat stroke or despair?

Tuck in a couple of nasturtiums to trail over the edge, and some dill for height and its pale chartreuse flowers that provide landing pads for beneficial insects.

As with all disasters, triage is the best approach. Turn your attention to areas closest to the house and give up on the back 40 ‘til temperatures abate and spirits are refreshed in the fall. Look first to the main entrance (not necessarily always the front door); then in descending order to the driveway, deck, and views from the kitchen and family room windows.

Fresh container plantings can distract the eye from distant disasters and get you up out of weedy patches. A half-barrel or like-sized ceramic pot filled with sages, rosemary, thymes and basils thrives on a hot patio. Tuck in a couple of nasturtiums to trail over the edge, and some dill for height and its pale chartreuse flowers that provide landing pads for beneficial insects.

You can go classic cute with a little wheelbarrow or wagon tipped on its side spilling out impatiens or caladiums in the shade (geraniums or lantana for sun) or use a funky old chair or elegant tripod to anchor an instant bed. Place a bale of potting soil where you need it and slit it open, beveling the sides down to the surrounding ground. Pop in a flat or two of colorful annuals, water well—make it muddy—and mulch to keep the moisture in.

If you’re resolved, it’s never too late to clean up a bit of overtaken ground and reclaim a modicum of respectability. Wade into the worst of it and spend at least 20 minutes at a stretch early in the morning or evening with proper tools that allow effective search-and-destroy missions against enemy roots. Long-forked asparagus knives and sturdy-bladed soil knives let you dig down deep for tenacious tap roots; sharp-nosed trowels, hoes or multipronged claws scrape the surface to dislodge shallow rooted invaders without bringing more weed seeds to the top.

Mulch immediately afterwards or all is lost. Use 2-3" of good quality shredded hardwood for shrubs and trees or 1-2" of organic mulch (compost, pine tags, shredded leaves or grass clippings) for perennials. Keep it away from the crowns of perennials and the trunks of woody plants to prevent rotting, disease and insects.

I’ve had success with vegetables using thick layers of overlapping newspapers covered with straw. Wet them down before mulching. Black plastic can be good for warming up the soil early in the season for strawberries and tomatoes, but for perennials, shrubs and trees, organic is best as it allows air and water circulation.

Marc McVicker, nursery manager for Monticello’s Center for Historic Plants, gives a specialty hands-on pruning workshop on Saturday, July 21, at Tufton Farm. Visit www.monticello.org or call 984-9816 for more info.