Each season has its sounds and smells. In the quiet of late winter stinky skunk cabbage entices winged insects hungry for carrion. Spring brings birdsong and sweeter breezes although nature continues the rotting meat theme with the lurid purple hue of paw-paw flowers. As we approach the equinox of June 21, the legendary longest day when everywhere day and night are the same length, the fragrant heady buzz of summer reigns supreme.
The peepers’ song (our little native chorus frogs) was the opening act for bees, butterflies, moths, wasps and flies that fill the air with their whirrings. From now until the first killing frost, rich odors and bright flowers with protruding stamens and landing pads of petals lure myriad flying things to pollinate vegetables, fruits, trees, shrubs and each other. In turn they provide food for toads, turtles and birds on up the food chain. Cicadas and crickets in late August and the tang of nasturtiums will foretell summer’s end.
So what does this have to do with city gardeners or even suburban and country folk who are just trying to keep everything in check and have something pretty to look at or eat? Summer’s prime directives are to feed the hungry (fertilize roses, tomatoes, annuals), water the thirsty (transplants, containers, drought-stressed shrubs and trees) and try to keep weeds from taking over (mulch with newspaper, cardboard, wood chips, and compost).
Attracting pollinators and keeping water on your property are two of the most important things you can do to achieve the first two of these ends (weeds can become a losing battle at any time). Unless you’re going to get out there with a cotton swab, all those tomatoes and cucumbers and squash, not to mention the fruit trees, depend on bees and flies and wasps, even bats, to move pollen from one plant to another. Plant flowers, give shelter, and they will come. Spray pesticides and you will kill them. A variety of native flowers like black-eyed Susan, coneflower, beebalm, phlox and butterfly weed is best, but even the much-derided Asian butterfly bush has abundant nectar and gives a twiggy home.
When you capture runoff with rain barrels, rain gardens and permeable surfaces (avoid asphalt and concrete and look to pavers or stones set in soil or sand), it’s a win-win for your landscape and the Chesapeake Bay, which does not need any more yard waste. Barrels and rooftop catchment store water for outdoor use.
Rain gardens are swaths of grasses, shrubs and perennials in low spots that absorb runoff from streets, parking areas and roofs, i.e. impermeable surfaces. Check out the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program at Thomas Jefferson Soil & Water Conservation District for cost-share programs. Rain gardens hold and filter excess water while providing space for flowering shrubs and perennials to feed the insect world. They are not neat and tidy and have a meadowish look. They generally get cut down once a year in early spring and are not heavy feeders.
The best of public plantings teach us ways to improve our landscapes. Our city is full of rain gardens when you start looking for them. From the parking lot at Region Ten on Preston Avenue to the ones at Boar’s Head by the pond and at the bottom of the County Office Building on McIntire Road, you can study efforts to hold and clean stormwater instead of dumping it in the bay.
Our shining jewel is the University of Virginia’s Dell, which daylighted part of Meadow Creek and tamed its flow into a pond (with resident egret). Plantings along its run up to the old cemeteries reflect Virginia’s different ecological regions, from waterside to foothills. A meandering path with excellent signage leads through river birch, switch grass, bayberry, fringetree, Joe Pye weed, cardinal flower, sweet fern and more. Walk right in and immerse yourself in the songs and smells of summer.