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The Lost Garden Season

August 24, 2009

As August winds to a close and the days grow noticeably shorter, I’ve begun to think of this summer as the “lost garden season.” Normally, the garden is at the center of my life in the summer. Each morning, I begin my day by taking my first mug of tea outside with me as I tour the garden, deadheading as I go and savoring the sights and scents of flowers in bloom. Once or twice a week, I take a bucket and fill it with cut flowers for the house. I spend hours sitting out on the deck, drinking in the beauty of the garden.  And I write long, enthusiastic descriptions of the garden in my journal. Summer is also the time for progress on new garden projects – designing new plantings, digging new beds, happy trips to various local nurseries to browse and to buy plants.

But none of this has been true this year.  Why not?  I can identify three contributing factors: family events, weather, and garden pests.

Family Events

In mid-May, my elderly mother fell ill and has spent the summer in a repeating cycle of hospitalizations and rehabilitation facilities.  In many ways, it has been a lost summer for just about everyone in my family.  My mother missed the glories of her own garden – the lilacs she loves in May, the big fragrant flower heads of pink peonies in June, and the blooming of her spectacular Casablanca lily (this year with four stems and more than 35 enormous flowers!) in August.

My mother’s illness meant that I spent about half my time in southern New England and was sometimes gone for a week or more at a time.  Between the worries about my mother and the press to accomplish as much as I could during the times I was at home, I found it hard to keep up with garden maintenance, much less take on new projects or find time to relax and enjoy the garden.


Due to some of the lousiest summer weather on record, this was a lost summer season for most people in New England. In Maine, it was exceptionally cool and rainy for all of May and June and the first half of July. Local farmers struggled to get crops in the ground, only to see them wiped out by blight.

I spent considerable time at the beginning of the season weeding, laying out soaker hoses in all my flower beds, and then putting down mulch on top of the hoses – only to find that I never needed to water. The wet summer was a boon to weeds, which have grown up knee-high even through several inches of mulch. Even if I could find time to weed, I couldn’t quite talk myself into going out to do it in the pouring rain. Finding time and motivation to work on garden projects like digging the new fence garden was even more difficult.

All the wetness turned my morning garden tours into a chore rather than a pleasure. On many mornings, I needed to don head-to-toe rain gear to keep myself from getting soaked to the skin; and I didn’t even try to take my morning tea with me or to take the extra time to gather flowers for the house.

In these wet conditions, many of my plants acquired fungal infections which turned their leaves black and stunted flower growth.The heliopsis (false sunflower), which I have growing in three different flower beds and which usually provide a long season of cut flowers for the house, were particularly vulnerable.They, in turn, infected other plants around them, including tradescantia, the tall rudbeckia nitida ‘Herbstsonne,’ balloon flower (platycodon), and delphinium. Daylilies in sunny parts of the garden responded to all the extra moisture by putting out an unusually large number of flower scapes (one of the few bright spots in the season), but many of the plants in the partly shady beds didn’t flower at all, or sent up only one scape with a few buds on it.

Garden Pests

The cool wet weather brought some extra garden pests. The biting insects have been vicious and have made working in the garden a misery. The cool weather in early July extended the black fly season by several weeks, and all the standing pools of water provided ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. In August, I’m still wearing the mesh shirt with head and face protection that I usually need only for the June black fly season. Slugs have also been particularly in evidence this year. This week, I noticed Japanese beetles all over the white platycodon in the circular bed (a plant they have never touched before), and many of its buds had been eaten completely or turned into Swiss cheese.

And then there are the usual pests. I have found the depredations of the woodchuck particularly trying this year. I usually have a resident woodchuck in my garden; the blue and yellow border, which backs up to the woods behind my house, is a particularly tempting target. This year, the new delphinium plants I put in were eaten almost immediately, the phlox paniculata have been eaten so regularly that none of them has bloomed at all (although I saw some buds on one plant just today, so there’s still hope), and the tall rudbeckia nitida has been left with few lower leaves and a somewhat odd shape. Right after I thinned the morning glory seedlings planted to grow up the fence in the new fence garden, the woodchuck came through one night and ate half the remaining plants. Because I was much less in evidence in the garden than usual, this year’s woodchuck became quite bold. One morning, I went out to find that the annuals growing in containers on the deck had been eaten; and a couple of days later, I found the animal lumbering up the stairs to the deck in broad daylight. Of all the garden pests that I am visited by, the woodchuck is the one most likely to trigger dark thoughts. In Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Dell, 1992), Michael Pollan likens the escalation of his war against the woodchuck to the stages of the Vietnam war. Although I haven’t actually taken any of the desperate measures that Pollan tried (like pouring gasoline down the woodchuck hole and throwing in a match), I did find myself succumbing to violent fantasies about sitting by the woodchuck hole with my garden spade and bashing the animal when it appeared.

There’s Always Next Year

As family events are calming down and the weather has been improving, I may still salvage a little of this garden season.  I have hopes that I will finish digging the new fence garden this fall. And, to look on the bright side, next year will almost certainly be better!
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