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A Sense of Herbs - August surprises

August 14, 2005|By Dorry Baird Norris

In early August, forecasters' weather icons repeatedly showed clouds slashed with lightning bolts and dripping rain. Each afternoon, the skies clouded over and thunder claps reverberated. But nary a drop of rain fell.

Then, after 11 dry days with temperatures reaching into the 90s, there was no nicer sound to wake up to Tuesday morning than the gentle sound of rain on the window.

Combined with the smidgen we got over last weekend, my garden received a little more than half an inch of rain in the last week or so. A mere drop in the bucket, but at least now it won't be like pulling the weeds from concrete.

In spite of the evil weather, the mid-August garden is full of special treats. The eye-catching and hummingbird-attracting cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) has burst into bloom. The brilliant red tubular flowers are as showy as the cardinal's red robes from which it derives its name.

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Here, the common variety is growing next to its fancier cousin, the purple-leafed hybrid Lobelia fulgens 'Queen V'. The hybrid seems to produce more flowers per stem. Am I glad I planted these perennials in the Captain Fleete Garden, where I can see them while I work in the office.

My work schedule these days is planned around the times the hummingbirds come to snack - they are really prompt. Yesterday one lit on the upside down tomato cage that is the trellis for the purple stemmed hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab) and sat for several minutes. It was a real treat to see a hummingbird, so close and so still.

I was puzzled when I saw yellow flowers among the branches of the Kousa dogwood and a huge purple-flowering anise hyssop. On closer inspection, they turned out to be on a black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) that I planted early in the season and simply forgot about. It looks better here than on a trellis or in a hanging pot. This is the bonus to having so many plants in an untidy garden - each day is full of lovely surprises.

The Pee-Gee hydrangea that three weeks ago looked to be flowerless is finally blooming, and blooming with a vengeance. Obviously, the heavy pruning I did last fall has enhanced the plant.

Rosemary and roses are in flower again. And joy of joy, more than half the cuttings I made from my hardy rosemary have taken root. The record for the rosemary cuttings I brought from California is almost as good. Now the question is: Do I leave them alone in the window box where they seem happy or move them to pots of their own? Since communal living seems to agree with them, re-potting can wait until next spring.

The heat makes you want to settle quietly in the shade with a cold drink, but there's much to be done.

The 'Hansa' rose is ill - whole branches are turning brown. I think it calls for research and major surgery. Long sleeves and heavy gloves are not my favorite summer attire, but prune I must.

I suddenly have too many anise hyssop plants. They looked so inoffensive in the spring. If this happens in your garden, pull up the surplus as soon as the flowers fade. Then cut the remaining plants to the ground to prevent an anise hyssop explosion. They are hearty re-seeders. And while you're at it, those fading bee-balms should also be cut down - and those swamp milkweed pods nipped off.

Speaking of re-seeders, if your hollyhocks have formed seed heads, collect them and strew the seeds by a wall or fence. The plants will grow some now and bloom next year. I intend to collect a handful and sprinkle them around the small log cabin at the Rural Heritage Museum on Sharpsburg Pike - just as a 19th-century pioneer woman might have taken time to grow something pretty to relieve drudgery of her daily life.

Hope you've been feeding your potted plants every other week. Surely the hot weather led to extra watering. That watering drains nutrients away from the soil.

The amaryllis bulbs you set outside for the summer need a final meal, too. By Labor Day, the bulbs should be tucked inside where it's dark and dry and allowed to rest. Don't cut the leaves off until they are completely dry. That was the mistake I made last year. Because the soil was wet, new leaves began to form using up so much stored energy that there were no blooms.

Now I must get out there and attack the weeds. As Benjamin Franklin said, "One today is worth two tomorrows." Especially when the weeds are setting seeds.

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