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Late Summer: How Did Your Garden Do?
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

August 25, 2002

ycandrewjoepye2.jpg (68295 bytes)
A favorite late season combo in my garden: Tall Eupatorium fistulosum 'Selection' (Joe Pye weed) with purple coneflowers, Miscanthus 'Morning Light' (foreground) and Karl Foerster's feather reed grass in the back.
(Photo: Andrew Leyerle)

With the gardening season coming to the end of August, it's the perfect time to take stock. For us in southern Ontario (my garden is just outside Ancaster, Ont. near Hamilton), it's been a strange weather ride. It started in late April with almost a week of 30ºC temperatures, followed by a spring so cold and wet that I waited until the 2nd week of June to plant my tomatoes.

Then early in June, drought hit for six tough weeks. But since the middle of July, we've had horrendous heat and humidity (and more smog days than one cares to count) and one torrential thunderstorm after another, resulting in more than six inches of rain in four weeks! Our lawn, which had gone dormant, is now lush and green, yet in areas just a few miles away, the grass is brown and the landscape looks sadly drought-stricken.

September is just around the corner, so now is a great time to decide if your flower garden needs a tune-up. I've been looking at my garden critically to decide which plants need dividing and moving - there are clumps of Geranium sanguineum in that category, as well as other cranesbill geraniums that can't seem to take the heat and need to be moved to a shadier spot or tossed out. Knautia macedonica has taken over in a couple of areas and some clumps will need to be pulled out. I've also noted that Persicaria polymorpha is crowding Eupatorium, and that one of them must be moved in the spring.

If you're a new gardener, late summer stocktaking can be a little disheartening. Just remember, it takes several seasons and a lot of tinkering to get things looking the way you want. When you're starting out, it's easy to think that all you have to do is plant perennials, and with the exception of weeding, watering and cutting back, your garden will be done.

But here's what really happens: in the first year your new plants are underwhelming - the clumps small, the flowers sparse. By the second year, they've grown fuller and have more flowers, but in the third season - watch out - your plants look like they're on steroids, and you look like an accomplished gardener.

The trouble is your perennial garden doesn't stop there: it keeps changing. Some plants grow so aggressively they crowd their neighbors out, their spready habits too much for your garden. Then there are plants that go into an inexplicable decline, and others you decide aren't the right color or haven't met your expectations.

The solution? The vigorous plants that you like, you divide and move to other garden beds, or give away (what are friends for?). The ailing ones you can't bear to part with, you try in a new spot that you hope will suit them better, the aggressive ones, and those you don't really like, you boot out to the compost pile.

Then you start adding plants and moving others around to fill gaps or to create more compatible plant combinations. I did this so much when I started out that my husband said my perennials should have been on wheels. All this activity adds up to gardening. Veteran gardeners are quick to tell you that no garden is ever truly finished. (It does get better: I don't move my perennials nearly as much as I used to do.)

If your garden doesn't meet your expectations, consider also the following possible reasons:

  • The planting areas are all over the place. Look at the entire yard, not just the individual planting beds. Try to link the beds up, rather than having one here and another over there.

  • The beds are too narrow. A thin bed isn't wide enough to show off layers of plants. If you have a skinny bed that can't be widened, for example, a tiny patch between a hedge and walkway, fill it with low growing ground cover plants (one or two kinds only - not a hodgepodge mix).

  • You may be cramming in too many different plants and only having one of each. You'll get more impact from plants if you put three of one type in a clump, rather than three different ones. Repetition of key plant groups, or of a key color creates harmony and coherence.

  • Not screening eyesores. Treat the space around your house as a garden, not a yard. Your backdrop should complement your plants. Make storage sheds or garage walls into garden features (vine covered trellises can hide ugly ones), screen utilitarian necessities like the compost pile, air conditioning units, heat pumps, and so on, with attractive fences or evergreen shrubs.

  • The garden and house seem divorced from each other. Look out the windows to make sure the picture is pleasing from inside the house too.

  • Nothing stands out. Add contrasts in texture and form - bigger leaves next to fine ones, or spiky flowers next to a rounded, mounded ones. You could be asking plants to do all the work; perhaps, the missing element is what designers call a 'focal point'. Try adding a birdbath, sundial, an arbor or a trellis. And, of course, no garden is complete without a bench - or two.

Colour gardening workshops at Royal Botanical Gardens:

If you live in southern Ontario or within an easy drive of Hamilton, there are a couple of terrific garden workshops coming up in October. Royal Botanical Gardens is presenting colour experts Sandra and Nori Pope, the Canadian gardening couple who wrote Colour by Design and run Hadspen House Garden in England. Painting with Plants is a day-long event on Sunday, Oct. 27, featuring the Popes and other speakers, and Colour by Design, on Monday Oct. 28, is a full-day workshop with the Popes.

For full details and a sign-up form, see Registration deadline: Oct. 10. For more information on the Popes and Hadspen House Garden, see


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