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It's Not Too Hot to Tend Late-Summer Blooms


The dog days of summer are doubly so in the garden, or so it seems while waiting for cooler weather. Some gardeners think it's too hot to do anything now, but that's not quite true.

The weather is actually perfect for planting all kinds of seeds--flowers, vegetables, perennials, even shrubs and trees--in flats or packs. They sprout fastest in a warm-to-hot soil. All you have to do is keep them moist. Seeds that take weeks to sprout at other times of the year are up in days.

I just planted seeds of lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower, and they're already up and growing like summer weeds. They'll go out into the garden in a few more weeks, and I guarantee I'll have the first broccoli on the block.

Old-time market gardeners always planted in late July and August for early fall crops, even in super-hot San Bernardino. The foliage isn't gray for nothing. Young plants can easily stand 100-degree days. They need to ripen in cool weather but they grow just fine, and very quickly, in the heat of late summer and early fall. Lettuce too grows fast in warm weather. If you start now, it will mature in the cooling days of early autumn, and you'll have lettuce to go with those last few tomatoes.

Sweet Peas by Christmas

Earlier in this century, Southland gardeners liked to amaze visitors with vases of sweet peas at Christmas, and it still works. They did it by planting seed in the ground in August.

Don't bother with those paltry bush-type sweet peas. The tall vining kinds are infinitely superior. Some nurseries have seed at this time of the year, but if you can't find any, try some of the interesting, and intensely fragrant, varieties offered in the Shepard's catalogue, 30 Irene St., Torrington, Conn., 06790, (203) 482-3638. It even has a ruffled variety called Winter Elegance, developed for just this purpose, for the cut-flower growers.

Late Summer Color

I always visit nurseries at this time of year to see which perennials are still blooming in all the heat. I'm hoping to find things to put in my borders, which are beginning to look decidedly pooped.

I don't plant now--I just buy, while plants are in bloom, then wait until the cooler days of October to put them in the ground. Hopefully, they will bloom at the same time next summer.

On one 90-plus-degree day last week, I stopped at a deserted Hortus Nursery in Pasadena and picked out two dwarf day lilies for a border that still has a smattering of pink and lavender blossoms. 'Cranberry Baby' and 'Raspberry Pixie' should make a nice addition with their deep fruit-ice colors, and the grassy foliage makes a nice foil for the roses.

For the front yard, kept drier and dotted with sunset colors like golden yellow, orange and red--that look so good at this time of the year--I found a crocosmia. named 'Norwich,' a shocking orange, easy-care bulb from South Africa that blooms in late summer.

California's Fuchsias

On one of those 90-plus days last August, my wife stopped by the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery in Sun Valley and came home with a trunkful of California fuchsias (you can also find them at better nurseries).

Right now they're brightening the front yard with flame-colored flowers, set against cloudy gray foliage. They're doing the same thing beside Highway 18 at Big Bear and next to Highway 1 in Big Sur.

Though related, they are most unfuchsia-like, blooming in late summer or early fall in the hottest, sunniest, driest places, spots that would make a fuchsia faint.

Botanists haven't decided if they should be named Zauschneria or Epilobium (I vote for the former, even though a mouthful), but nearly all have striking orange-red trumpet flowers that glow like embers in the warm late-summer sun.

Hummingbirds love them and they are great on hillsides. They may be low and mounding or make fluffy bushes of several feet, but all spread underground. If you want to control their spreading, keep them on the dry side.

In winter, you can cut and tidy up those that die back or just leave them alone if they look presentable.

I have a mounding 'Everett's Choice' growing through clumps of the dwarf, burgundy-colored flax named 'Jack Spratt,' and nearby E. septentrionalis 'Select Mattole' makes a starched gray mound in a dry area.

But, it is the bigger, billowy kinds I like best, the scarlet flowers mixed in with penstemons and salvias in my border. 'Armstrong,' which probably tolerates the most garden water, has been blooming for a month and shows no sign of quitting. 'Catalina,' native to that sunny isle, is frothy with large flowers.

I've found them amazingly tolerant of occasional watering (for a native plant), so if you've wanted to add natives to your garden, plant a couple of these, but wait until fall to put them in the ground. They add brilliant color just when gardens need it, and the hummingbirds will be most grateful.

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