July in the garden

Having had an unusually dry and sunny beginning to summer, there is a danger that certain plants may ‘run out of steam’ this month if they have been stressed due to lack of water earlier on. Cutting back early flowering border plants, herbaceous geraniums being a prime example, as soon as there’s been a good dose of rain, or if you are able to provide irrigation, should result in a new flush of growth and flowers. In fact, getting into the borders for a bit of editing, weeding, feeding and propping up should ensure that plants can carry on performing for the rest of the summer and ‘gird their loins’ for further periods of heat induced stress.
Before we had, as I write this, the spell of thundery weather with occasional downpours, I had been thinking this might be another ‘summer of 1976’—notoriously hot and dry with severe water shortages. Using irrigation is fine as long as there aren’t hosepipe bans, or if you have your own water supply (I am fortunate enough to have a deep well) but looking after your soil, with regular applications of humus rich mulch, is a better long-term bet. The shift over the past few decades to a more prairie style of planting, lots of grasses and late season perennials, also favours a less water dependant palette of plants compared to the traditional ‘high summer herbaceous border’ style which epitomises the classic English country garden look.
Talking of prairie style planting; I have recently been weeding self-sown ox-eye daisies out of an established perennial border. It brought to mind that age-old gardening debate regarding ‘when is a plant a weed?’ The reason why these thuggish daisies had started to take over the border was because someone else I work with, and the last person entrusted with weeding this particular section, considers ox-eye (Lecanthemum vulgaris) to be rather beautiful and therefore had not weeded out the self-sown seedlings while they were still tiny.
I think they are beautiful, when they are madly flowering in a wildflower meadow, roadside verges, etc., but I do consider them to be weeds when they have sown themselves into an ornamental planting scheme where they don’t belong.
Native plants, of all sorts, have the potential to be ‘weeds’ because they tend to be better adapted to our soil and climate, due to the simple fact that they have evolved to thrive here, and are therefore likely to out compete, eventually killing off, any non-native, ornamental, plants which they seed into. Having spent good time and money in obtaining, planting and nurturing a curated collection of pretty plants, having a bullying daisy invade their space, killing then off, is, to me, intolerable.
In this case there is a happy ending because, having cut the invasive daisies down, prior to seeding, they were dug up and are currently being kept moist in readiness for replanting back into an area of establishing flower meadow, once it’s been mown down in late summer. In a meadow they will have a lot more competition, from other native plants, which will suppress their thuggish tendencies. Hence they will cease being a ‘weed’ and regain their rightful status as ‘meadow flower’. Conversely, I have ornamental bronze fennel seeding itself into my wildflower meadow at home…but that’s another story!
Elsewhere in the garden there are certain timely tasks which it is traditional to do in July, cutting off the long, whippy, growth on wisteria being the most often quoted activity. This is really just a very specific example of a task which you should have been doing ever since the beginning of the growing system; the ongoing maintenance of shrubs that have finished flowering. Any shrub which has the potential to outgrow its allotted garden space will benefit from regular pruning and reshaping over its lifetime once it has reached maturity—wisteria is just a specialised case because it is a shrub (actually it’s a ‘climber’) that is trained onto walls and pergolas and has especially obvious extension growth.
More ‘ordinary’ shrubs have less obvious extension growth or spent flowers but they benefit just as much from some gardener intervention when it comes to rejuvenating them, in order to maximise their flowering potential and to maintain their vigour over a very long lifetime. The major reason why shrubs of the Weigela / Philadelphus / Deutzia etc. persuasion outgrow their usefulness is simply because they don’t get the kind of regular attention that the more needy Wisteria receives and, left to their own devices, they become congested ‘blobs of doom’ in the garden. Show them some love and attention, with regular pruning out of spent flowering shoots and thinning out of the oldest stems, and they can be just as glamorous as their more ‘show off’ cousins.
Although the fresh bloom of early summer has evolved into a slightly less shiny state of affairs by July, keeping on with regular maintenance will ensure the longest flowering period possible and the best chance of keeping the garden looking good. During the very hottest, driest, weather the lawn will practically stop growing and will only require mowing in order to remove the flowering spikes which the grass will want to produce. In really dry spells then raising the cutting height, really short mowing adds additional stress to the sward, is a good idea. Most flowering plants and especially the tender ones used as bedding in summer containers, benefit from regular dead-heading, as do any repeat-flowering roses not grown for their hips. Feeding and watering, as ever, of pots and containers is also critical to keeping them happy until the first frosts.
If you want to get a bit more involved in your horticultural activities then high summer is the best time to take all sorts of cuttings. The heat and high light levels of the season so far should ensure that cuttings taken now have the best chance of being successful. There are many specific ways of taking cuttings, depending on the plant in question, but the general principles are the same: pencil thin cuttings cut with a sharp knife; leaves removed or reduced except for a few at the tip; inserted into an ‘open’ (not claggy) compost; cover with a polythene bag / propagator lid; keep in a light place and covered up until rooting has taken place. You’ll know that they have rooted when they start making new leaves / when they aren’t dead. There are plenty of online resources which cover this, and every topic under the sun, in more detail—good luck!