I was just dipping into Marjery Fish’s ‘A Flower for Every Day’ and the doyenne of cottage gardening sums up June pretty nicely;
“June is the month that takes care of itself. Even the dullest garden can’t help being colourful in June.”
She goes on to draw inspiration from the hedgerows and verges which are full of honeysuckle, wild roses and cow parsley. My closest wild verge is brimming with cheerful pink campion which seems to take over from where the bluebells left off, after their dominance in May.
Mimicking the gay abandon of nature is difficult, in a contrived garden situation, because, thanks to our temperate UK climate, we grow plant species which hail from all parts of the globe. They would never be found, cheek by jowl, in nature so they don’t have the natural ability to all get along with each other. Like rugby players crashing a genteel tea dance, there will always be the downright ‘thuggish’ species which trample the more delicate specimens.
Hence, in June, when suddenly the borders appear to double in size overnight, the gardener needs to do a bit of refereeing. If the plant supports, pea sticks for me, that you inserted a few weeks ago, have been overrun, threatening collapse, then now’s the time to shove in a few more to keep the ‘lunatics from taking over the asylum’.
Another trick is to perform the ‘Chelsea Chop’, albeit a week or two after the flower show itself, which is where you deliberately chop back some of the later flowering perennials (Helenium, Rudbeckia, Sedum etc.) so that they remain stockier, flowering a little later, than the ones left at full height.
I’m wondering if, with the very dry start to the growing season, herbaceous borders will be naturally shorter and less prone to collapse this summer? I’ve noticed that my meadow plants have barely reached half the height that I would have expected by now. Meadows flower earlier than herbaceous borders so there is a chance that, if rainfall returns to normal, garden plants will ‘catch up’. Most meadow grasses are already flowering, or even setting seed, so they’ve peaked and won’t grow any taller.
Now that pots, containers and hanging baskets have been planted up, with annuals and tender perennials, the summer ritual of regular watering and liquid feeding can commence. Even if we have a lot of rain, the restricted amount of soil that plants in containers have access to, together with the fact that they are planted unnaturally densely, conspire to demand extra hand watering. I always use a watering can for this (tricky if you’ve got a lot of hanging baskets—I don’t!) because it’s the only way to judge precisely how much water your plants are getting.
Container plants really benefit from feeding, once the nutrients in their potting compost have been exhausted, because they have got to work hard if they are to keep on producing flowers right up to the first frost. Whichever feed you choose, add it to the watering can at the rate suggested on the packet. Usually there is a choice between adding a reduced amount, at every watering, or adding it at full strength, on a weekly or fortnightly basis. I tend to favour the latter as keeping the compost constantly moist means that, in very dry weather, I’d get through gallons of water and therefore an excessive amount of feed if it was added to every can. During periods of very wet weather, when containers require watering less often, if I still feed every other week then at least they are not going without the nutrients they need.
With warmer weather, even more vigilance is required to stay one jump ahead of pests and diseases. Most pests are controlled naturally, by predators, but an infestation may require a little intervention in order to give nature time to catch up. Aphids can be ‘blasted’ off plants with a jet of water, being careful not to damage the foliage too, which should limit the damage they can do while the population of ladybirds, lacewings and the like builds up sufficiently to keep the aphid numbers down.
The infamous ‘Lily Beetle’, being an ‘alien species’, has no such natural control so must be dealt with physically or chemically. The adult beetles are pretty obvious, they are vermillion red, about a centimetre long, with a black underside. They are sneaky little blighters and tend to hide on the underside of lily leaves except for when they are sunning themselves, I suspect they are advertising for a mate, when they sit on the tops of the lily plants. Even then they have a trick up their sleeves. If they spot you approaching, they will instantly drop off the plant and land, black side uppermost, on the dark soil where they are very hard to spot. Not only that, they also have a signalling system, a faint squeak, that warns fellow lily beetles that danger is approaching so that their mates drop to the ground too!
In contrast to the shiny, red, adults, the larvae are disgusting, fat, maggoty, grubs which eat lily leaves at a voracious rate. They tend to start at the bottom of the lily stem, eating the leaves in a manner so that only a shrivelled brown remnant of the glossy, green, original remains. Consequently, they may well have destroyed a large proportion of leaves before you spot them.
To make matters worse, the nasty fat grubs will not be immediately apparent because, as a disguise, they cover themselves in their own excreta so that they look like lumps of bird poo, rather than beetle larvae. They can be controlled by meticulously combing every lily stem to remove the grubs by hand – if you can bear it. To control them with an insecticide you’ll have to use a product with acts ‘systemically’; the active ingredient enters the plant and kills the grubs as they eat the leaves. The most widely available product is ‘Provado’ which is also known as ‘Vine Weevil Killer’ (although vine weevils seem increasingly resistant to it these days).
After the evils of the lily beetle, I feel I should end on a more pragmatic note and remember that, even if every lily in the garden is eaten, there are still tons of other flowers to enjoy on herbaceous perennials, bulbs, shrubs and trees during this month of plenty.