Surviving the garden doldrums of August

Ways to slow down and enjoy your yard

Many yard chores – such as weeding, mowing, and watering – raise the question, "Isn't gardening supposed to be fun?" By midsummer it certainly wasn't for me. When the heat and humidity were too much to bear, I simply ignored the garden and retreated guiltily into the house.

None of my gardening friends knew of my neglect – it was my own little secret. I imagined everyone still puttering away in his or her garden – feeding, weeding, watering, mowing, resowing, and pruning.

In my fantasy, others were starting seeds, or nurturing vegetable seedlings for their fall gardens – being the perfect gardener I obviously was not.

Then, one August day with temperature and humidity both hovering around 100, I stopped by to see a friend. No one answered the doorbell, so I went into the back garden. There she was, looking very contented in the shade as she lay in a hammock, dipping tuberous begonia petals into a lusciously cool peach-yogurt dip – a recipe I had given her – savoring each bite.

She was so relaxed yet intent on the beauty and sound of a two-tier birdbath/fountain that I must have startled her. She glanced around the garden and then stared at me with a look that implied both guilt and smugness.

I was rather appalled to see the state of neglect her garden was in. Then I began to laugh uncontrollably when it dawned on me that my own garden was in a similar state. We both shared the same little secret; however, we each dealt with it in a totally different manner.

By late summer many gardeners become burned out. They never feel they have enough time to accomplish all they want to. Yet, since late spring they have been trying to fit in as much work in the garden as they can.

Change of attitude

Although both my friend and I were experiencing summer inertia, she seemed to embrace and make peace with her negligence.

My friend's attitude provided an eye-opening lesson: Accept the summer garden slump as an intrinsic part of the gardening year.

One way to overcome the August doldrums is to create a personal retreat, a spot in which you can sit down, relax, and enjoy your own small space in the garden, especially in the evening when the heat abates slightly.

Making a retreat isn't a major project, the type that you certainly wouldn't want to undertake in the hottest part of the year. Instead, you'll find that it generally requires only minor modifications to the existing landscape – alterations that add sound, shade, and comfort, making the garden a pleasanter place to be, however high the temperature climbs.

For example, instead of sitting poolside baking in the sun, seek out a place where the view is equally good but where you'll be surrounded by cooling evergreens, hedges, or trees. Investigate small nooks among well-spaced trees.

If there is little shade, consider innovative ways to make some. A beach or market umbrella casts ample shade for one person. Choose one with a swiveling top so the angle of the umbrella on the pole adjusts easily.

An inexpensive and practical alternative is to tie a sheet (any color will do, but white has the coolest look) to four tall bamboo stakes or other supports at least eight feet high to create a sideless tent. Stretched taut, the material has a rigid appearance; if loosened a bit, the slight billowing adds informal charm.

It's cooler at night

Consider adding fragrant night-blooming plants to the garden – maybe moonflower (Ipomoea alba), the night-blooming cousin of morning glory. At dusk, sit near the vine, watch the luminescent white, five-inch flowers slowly unfurl, and inhale their sweet perfume.

Angel's trumpet is one of the common names for two tropical plants – Datura species and Brugmansia. Both have six- to eight-inch-long trumpets. Datura trumpets face upward and last a single night. Brugmansia blooms hang like resonant bells and last for several days.

Four-o'clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) are self-seeding annuals. In their native Peru, they may bloom at 4 p.m., but in other areas four-o'clocks open to the rays of the setting sun, which intensify the hues of the small pink, white, magenta, yellow, or pink and white flowers.

The sublime aromas of night bloomers are not just for human enjoyment; they attract the insects and other creatures that are their pollinators. Sit quietly and you may have the pleasure of seeing a magnificent luna moth flit from flower to flower, feeding and pollinating as it goes. With its four- to six-inch wing span and pale ivory color, a luna moth is a rare and breathtaking sight.

Beyond the flora and fauna that are at their peak in evening, the biggest advantage to spending nighttime in the garden is that the weeds and imperfections are invisible in the dark!

Fragrant plants enhance any garden space. My favorite summer scents include the sweet aroma of old-fashioned petunias, the vanilla perfume of heliotrope, the classic bouquet of roses, and the fresh smell of a neighbor's newly mowed grass.

Don't overlook the importance of water in the garden. The very sight of still water evokes a sense of serenity. A plain birdbath reflects the world around it. Float one or two fresh flowers on the water for added beauty. Birds come to visit, happily bathing and splashing themselves. Add a small fountain for its soothing tones.

Consider a water garden. It can be as complicated as you want, yet a simple container with a single water lily may be perfect for your space.

Finishing touches

Look for elements that encourage a slow pace, such as a padded chair, bench, settee, or hammock, and a small table for drinks, snacks, or reading matter. Think comfort. If you're not happy with the space, you'll ignore it, and that is a big waste of time, money, and effort. It's important to take the time in the planning process to get it right.

Remember, only you need to be pleased with the space.

Finish off your retreat with a garden ornament – whatever tickles your fancy. A pink flamingo or a garden gnome sets a jovial tone, while a Victorian gazing ball tends to be more classic and subdued.

Now it's time to plunk down in the hammock and forget any responsibilities, especially gardening. A cool, thirst-quenching drink (maybe a pitcher of ice water with several slices of lime, orange, lemon, or cucumber floating in it) is essential; snacks are optional. Time to kick off the shoes, lie back, relax, and enjoy your own little piece of paradise.

Enjoy the sounds of the great outdoors

Capture the wide world of sound in the garden, while avoiding intrusive noises such as power lawn mowers (old-fashioned push or reel mowers are OK), leaf blowers, electric hedge trimmers, chain saws, and chemical sprayers.

To enjoy your garden more in all seasons, listen carefully for (and encourage) a wide range of sounds:

Critters

Buzzing bees

Singing birds

Chirping crickets

Cooing doves

Croaking frogs and toads

Whirring hummingbirds; sphinx and luna moths

Hooting owls

Peeping tree frogs

Tapping woodpeckers

Plants

Rustling bamboo

Swishing ornamental grasses

Murmuring hemlocks

Crackling dry leaves

Sighing pines

Weather

Pelting or drizzling rain

Thundering storms

Crackling lightning

Man-made sounds

Burbling fountain

Clacking of a Japanese deer scarer

Rushing waterfall

Tintinabulation of wind chimes

Children's laughter

How hot is it?

Did you know that you can tell the temperature in summer without a thermometer?

Count the number of cricket chirps in 15 seconds. Multiply the result by .80 (or 4/5) and add 42. The result is the temperature in Fahrenheit – where the crickets are.

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