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The ruthless gardener

July 18, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

For weeks, rain has bypassed my garden. It rained in Smithburg. It rained in Frederick and Baltimore and Washington, but until earlier this week hardly a drop fell on Olde Waterford Road. Now, the garden looks refreshed.

In spite of lack of rain, the garden ran amok. I was out of commission for a couple of weeks, so the weeds behaved like teenagers with out-of-town parents. They partied. The Canadian thistle, the ragweed, lamb's quarters and other bullies sent decided they had an open invitation to party. Cleavers, poke, purslane and groundsel came to join the fun.

Now it's time to take control of the chaos. Mid-July is the time to cut back the perennials that have already bloomed in the hope that they might bloom again this season.

I used to wait until all the flowers had faded on the perennials. Then I realized they should more properly be trimmed off when a little more than three-quarters of the blooms have faded. Wait longer and the flower heads will set seeds. The plant will decide it has done its work for the year and sit there looking tatty.

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A case in point is the bee balm (Monarda). In the past, I cut the stems back to six or eight inches. Now it's cut nearly to the ground with only an inch of stem remaining. By late August, there should be new blooms - their stems will be shorter, but the color will last into the fall.

This season has convinced me that it is time to replace my ordinary monarda with the cultivar 'Jacob Kline.' It seems to be more mildew resistant, slightly taller and the red color doesn't seem to fade as quickly.

Nepeta - catmint - needs a real haircut. Trimming it back by half is not too much. Veronica shows you what to do. As the flowers fade, the stems flop. If you look carefully at the base of the plant you will see a mat of new growth. Trim the lax stems back to this greenery.

Once I thought I could simply snip out the stems of the butterfly bush blooms as they faded, but soon discovered I lack that much patience. Now when three quarters of the stems have bloomed, I cut the whole thing back. This also reduces the chance that the plant will prolifically reproduce by seeds. In some areas, butterfly bush is considered an invasive species. Since I have three butterfly bushes, I try to stagger the cutting so as not to leave the butterflies without nectar.

Don't let the seed heads on your fennel go another second! Cut them to the ground now. If you don't cut them back, you'll have a forest of fennel to contend with next year. The seed heads go in the trash not on the compost pile.

If your lemon balm has bloomed, be quick. Cut it back by half and you'll avoid growing a flock of baby balms. I think it might even be a good idea to shear the lemon balm back by one-quarter throughout the growing season. Then you are assured of a constant crop of tiny, fragrant, lemony leaves for tea.

Annual herbs need attention, too. This year I'm going to try something a little different. I plan to cut the annuals off at ground level and leave the roots in the ground where they can compost on their own. This may take a little more time but I think it may be worth the effort.

By mid-July, borage has begun to look really ratty so is ready to be pulled or cut down. Some seeds will already have dropped so there may even be a new crop of seedlings before you know it. The same is true of coriander. As soon at the seeds turn tan, cut the plants and hang upside down in brown paper bags to collect the seeds. Some will already have self-sown and should grow nicely once the weather cools.

Don't just trim the flower heads off the ornamental sages - cut the flower stems right down to the base of the plant.

For five years I've looked at the garden and wished it could take on the aspect of those wonderful English cottage gardens that seem to burst with blooms. This year that wish was fulfilled. But it won't last unless I dig and divide and take control again.

Gardening is a tug of war. You the gardener - the referee between the things that grow easily and the ones that have to be nurtured. If you're judicious, all the plants will win.

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