Holey Moley

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Last week my garden began to get holey.No, it did find God. And the holes aren’t what you’d expect from mysterious marauders either. Instead, they are the virtually unavoidable ones to be found in any garden design or plan.

This might not mean anything to some gardeners, but with our second gardening season beginning just after Labor Day, holes or blank spots in our gardens spur us on to want to make things perfect again.

My work garden may be a bit different from yours. It’s designed for spring and fall enjoyment. During the summer, we just try to maintain things. Plants die during the season, some need to be thinned out and some holes or spaces can be caused by plants that die from disease or severe insect feeding, while others can be made worse by deer and rabbits. But come mid- to late summer, the holes appear. And must be filled.

We try to plan for these spots early in the year by setting up a late potting of some annuals and late perennials that can be held in the cold frame or holding garden. In late July, and through August, these substitutes are unpotted and used for fillers. Doing this makes the garden look full and well thought out during the whole season and frees us from the need to use the utilitarian chrysanthemum as filler.

In spite of learning from our mistakes, we still find that some spaces just can’t be filled by what we have left in our holding area. At this point, the scouting of local garden centers becomes a necessity.

Just 20 years ago a trip to the local garden center in late July or in August was downright depressing, and usually unfruitful. All that we’d find were the dregs of annuals and a few super-bargain perennials that we knew wouldn’t perform for at least a year.

Today this is no longer the case. Most of the growers and garden centers on the East End are full of color and imagination through the whole summer, including this special late-summer niche market.

This welcome change began with the introduction of annuals that were sold in 4-inch pots instead of the small cell packs that we’d find in May and June. Soon the wholesale growers and retailers realized that they could extend their season by more than a month, then two, and eliminate the dead period of late summer.

Now the majority of late potted material is available at better garden centers from Westhampton to Montauk in 6-and even 10-inch pots. The plants are in full bloom and you can fill in a blank garden spot very nicely, or you can replant a container or a whole area that you need in full color for the end of the season.

In my late-July through mid-August tour of nearly a dozen garden centers last year, I put together a list of some of the more common plants that were available in 6- and 10-inch pots. At the better garden shops, where the plants are well cared for and faded or poor quality material is trashed instead of continually displayed, I saw some really great stuff that made wonderful fillers. Among the best and highest in quality were: nicotianas (flowering tobacco), celosias, vincas, New Guinea impatiens, geraniums, portulacas, gazanias, zinnias, lisianthus, salvias, begonias, cosmos, nierembergias, cannas, sunflowers, rudbeckias, ornamental grasses and many others, including large potted perennial Oriental lilies.

These late potted bedding plants also present a second opportunity for gardeners who want to put a large pot on the front porch or refill the nearly dead contents of that planter at the window. It also presents the possibility of doing something new and different, such as planting a new wooden tub, fancy ornamental pots (many of which are on sale now), an old milk can or a pair of unused riding boots. You choose the container, shape, size and cost to fit your needs and desires.

Remember that the deeper the pot or container, the less water it will need and the less attention you’ll have to give it after planting. Pots with a small soil volume will dry out quickly and may require your daily attention. Also remember that pots with sides that get direct sunlight will also dry out more quickly than those that are shaded. Pots on the windy side of a deck or house will also dry faster than those on the calm side.

Last summer we found that a large clay pot, 18 inches in diameter, needed water twice daily on the hottest, sunniest days.

Remember also that darker-colored containers absorb more heat (as in unpainted clay pots) and may dry more quickly, while a comparable white plastic pot in the same spot might take twice as long to dry out. Of course, there’s the problem of aesthetics versus convenience. Put the potted plant in the plastic pot inside the ornamental pot; problem solved.

Another thing that helps cut down on watering is the use of mulch on the top of the soil that is applied after planting. This mulch serves two purposes as it shields the soil from the sun, keeping it cooler, and it also reduces evaporation and the need to weed.

Too often a critical problem develops with ornamental planters because they lack drainage holes or the drainage is inadequate. This can get critical in late summer and early fall as the temperatures begin to fall and evaporation is reduced, leaving the soil wetter longer. If you do buy a pot without drainage holes you must either make a hole (which can be very tricky) or provide internal drainage with a layer of small stones or pebbles at the bottom of the pot.

Another consideration is whether the pot or container is unglazed or porous. A clay pot that is glazed white and has only a small drainage hole won’t breathe like an unglazed clay pot, so additional drainage in the form of stone at the bottom may help. Remember also that many valued pots, especially those with poor drainage, must be protected from freezing in the winter as they will easily crack and split if any water accumulates.

Avoid the temptation to just dig a few shovelsful of garden soil and use it in your planter. At the very least, garden soil should be amended with 50-percent soil-less potting mix or compost.

Tall plants—such as dahlias, sunflowers and lilies—may also need staking now. The choice of staking material can be critical if you choose the wrong color. Stakes are available in a dozen shades of green and natural, as are the tying materials, which range from twist-type paper-coated wire to natural raffia, which blends perfectly when used with light colored stakes.

Don’t overlook twigs and stems from trees and shrubs. With foliage stripped these stakes can blend into your planting and be virtually unseen. Beech twigs are great for this and they’re incredibly pliable.

As always, keep growing.

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