Best antidote to schizophrenic gardening season is water and more water

When thunder rumbled recently, I did not care that my swimming laps would have to be postponed. My hope was that the rumbles would continue and move closer to home. They did. Winds whipped up the hill and rain poured. Water gushed like rivers from the downspouts, and with it my resolve to install rain barrels.

We had had only a trace of rain in six weeks. The ground was hard. Trees, lawns and plants were brown.

This has been a schizophrenic garden season. With abundant spring rains, homeowners and gardeners were slow to realize the need to water late this summer. Spring and early summer were among the most floriferous and green in memory. We enjoyed cool temperatures and plenty of rain. Our garden gave profuse peony, hydrangea, iris and rhododendron blooms. Then came six weeks with only a trace of rain and warm temperatures.

When I returned from a trip the second week in August, my husband said he had to water. That was the beginning. We hand-watered newly planted tiarellas, camellias, leucothoes and an oakleaf hydrangeas, as well as older rhododendrons we had not had to water all season.

Then, during the first week in September, an email came from Maxalea, the nursery that has planted 15 trees on our property since 1984.

"With the spring rains long gone and the last significant rainfall occurring weeks ago, the ground is extremely dry," it said. "Maxalea encourages you to make sure your landscape is being watered, especially through the fall season when plants need to have a sufficient amount of water before they go dormant for the winter."

We dragged out the hoses. We watered some of the garden with the variable spray attachment. We watered other parts with sprinklers. We did not worry about the lawn. The young shrubbery, trees and tender plants will die without water, but the lawn will come back after a few downpours.

I wish the other challenges of this garden were as easily remedied. We have phytophthora on the rhododendrons, and about the only cure is to keep pruning off infected branches. The information-rich Missouri Botanical Garden website,, says it often comes from the cultivation nursery, usually not the commercial nursery from which bushes purchased.

No matter which, it is irritating to see a third bush succumb after the purchase of 10 pricey plants three years ago. Luckily, two failed just months after planting and were replaced gratis.

All of the leaves on a young dogwood tree, watered by us and professionally fed, wilted and then turned brown. Several old lilacs seem besieged with verticillium wilt. Large sections of those will have to be pruned too, sterilizing the saw after every cut.

The only benefit of this drought is that our garden looked so awful, I cut down all of the powdery mildew-infested peonies, bug-infested phlox and withered daylily leaves. I dug out a lot of invasive white violets. Most of the garden is now cut down for winter. Some of it has been mulched.

We are about to take down three towering trees near the house and garage. Gone already are three old Doctor Van Fleet roses, climbers that somehow had been planted decades ago in a bed near the front of the garden. Too large for the site and blooming only once a year, they, I suspect, were chosen by my mother for their clear, pale pink. That is just why I will choose three pale pink Drift or Knockout roses that will bloom all season. As soon as temperatures cool, I'll plant these hardy roses that do not mind fall plantings.

The best antidote to this challenging month is to divide, transplant, replant with a few new selections, and then water.


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