September 17, 2012

Ways to care for perennial garden after hot, dry summer

AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — That soaking rain we had a couple of weeks ago was a welcome relief to the extended drought we had been experiencing. 

Most areas got 3 inches overnight, but that was two weeks ago, and we need more. With such a heavy rain, most of it ran right off into rivers and ditches; there just wasn’t enough time for it to soak in. It helped, no doubt about it, but separate episodes of rain, one inch at a time, would be much more beneficial. So keep watering your late-season gardens as well as any trees and shrubs you’ve planted in the last couple of years to help them get well-established before winter.

Mums, or chrysanthemums, are for sale everywhere. I usually recommend treating these as showy annuals; enjoy their color through the fall then toss them on the compost pile. If you want to try to get them established in your perennial garden, plant them as soon as you get them and pamper them through the fall. They’ll need to grow a good root system to anchor them in your garden soil before the ground freezes this winter. It’s a bit of gamble as to whether they’ll come back next year and bloom, but you might want to give it a try. My gardens are so full right now that I just enjoy mums in pots on my front porch.

My perennial garden looks pretty bedraggled right now. Drought and insects beat up a lot of my plants. I expect them all to come back next year, though, so all I need to do now is cut any unsightly stems down to the ground. By removing the tattered plants, my remaining plants will look that much better. My peonies, baptisia, balloonflower, fall aster, giant Solomon’s seal and coral bells all look great right now. Except for the asters, these plants aren’t in flower, but their foliage is beautiful with various textures, sizes and colors.

This is not a good time to divide most perennials. It’s better to wait until early spring when their first shoots begin to appear. But as I clean up around my perennials, I make mental notes to myself about which ones will need dividing next spring, which need to be moved farther back, which one my friend wants a piece of. I’ve become realistic over the years and now realize I just can’t remember all of this come spring when everything is happening at once and I’m in a race to get all my gardens going. I’ve taken to leaving notes to myself, right in the garden, as reminders of all these good plans I made the previous fall.

I take quart-sized yogurt containers, cut them into 1-inch-wide strips and then use a permanent marker to write notes. I then stick the marker that says “needs dividing” right next to the sedum “Autumn Joy” that has begun to flop open in the fall from being overcrowded. The catmint that Kathy wants a piece of gets a marker saying just that, stuck in the soil right next to it. Then next spring, when the plants are just an inch tall and are not looking crowded any more, I will see those markers and remember what needs to be done.

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to