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Mid-Summer Deadheading, Fertilizing and Season-Long Color

The Virginia forest floor is covered in green-leaved plants and ferns.
Peggy shared a photo of the forest floor from her hike. (Photo: Peggy Singlemann)

While I pen this note I am enjoying time in the mountains of Virginia where, even while hiking the trails, I am taking lessons from the natural world around me. While hiking I cannot help mentally naming the plants I pass along the trails. I spy the layers of the forest: the canopy, understory, and forest floor. I mentally note some plants have bloomed and some are blooming, while others will bloom later in the season. Take a note from nature and please walk your landscape to review what's blooming when. If you have a gap, visit your local nursery or garden center during that time of year to purchase flowering plants that will create a continuously blooming landscape. If you choose a Virginia native plant, then the pollinators and birds will benefit, too. Remember to keep working toward a landscape with a green mass of 70% native — and yes, that includes the trees.

My Airbnb has a huge Rhododendron that is far from lush, and while I'm here I am gently removing the spent flower clusters. This will channel the energy of the plant to new growth and not seed production. I will share with the owner the importance of incorporating some compost into the soil, or at the very least top dressing with it. The plant needs a boost, and these two simple steps will slowly revive this thinning evergreen.

Before I left town, I took the time to deadhead — aka remove the spent blossoms — the peonies. I did not just cut off the flower bud, but moved down the stem and cut above the first large full leaf. Again, I am preventing seed production so the energy can be put into growth; I enjoy lush peony plants. By cutting down to the first full leaf, I am forming a lovely plant to enjoy the remainder of the season.

In the vegetable garden, I sowed parsnip, cucumber, and more bush bean seeds prior to leaving for vacation. I the watered the beds well and top dressed with organic matter to help hold in the moisture. There will be frequent rain this week so I am hoping to come home to little seedlings that will need to be thinned for optimum growth and production. I use fine pointed scissors to carefully cut out the crowded seedlings to prevent soil disturbance around the one chosen seedling I will nurture to maturity. Note that pumpkins, squash, melons, corn, okra, peppers, eggplant, and sweet potatoes can be planted up to early July in zones 6-7.

As I walked my landscape, I noticed the two smooth-leafed Hydrangeas in my yard are blooming but with different colored blossoms this year. Both are grown from cuttings I took from the same plant, Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko’ but one is blooming pink while the other continues to bloom blue, despite growing just 20 inches apart from each other. Obviously, the pink blooming Hydrangea grows in soil that is not as acidic as the blue blooming plant. The higher pH chemically binds or locks up from plant uptake the naturally occurring aluminum in the soil. Without aluminum, Hydrangea macrophylla flowers are pink. Central Virginia soils are naturally acidic due to the granite bedrock, so most Lace cap Hydrangea flowers are blue, while in other parts of Virginia where the soil is alkaline due to a bedrock of limestone the blossoms are lavender to pink. At my house, time has enabled the limestone and calcium from the brick mortar to leach down into the soil just enough to chemically bind the aluminum and have that one shrub bloom pink.

I also noticed the dwarf butterfly bush that was only mildly infested with spider mites was now infested — it was covered with tiny webs and all of the leaves were more beige than green. Spider mites have piercing sucking mouth parts, so they remove the sap from within a leaf almost cell by cell. Due to the severity of the infestation, I chose to cut down the plant to encourage clean regrowth. Thankfully the plant was small enough to cover it with a good-sized trash bag, and then cut the plant off 6 inches above the soil surface, leaving enough stem to produce new growth. I cleaned up the fallen leaves and plant debris and placed that in the bag so it would not harbor spider mites and reinfect the new growth. After sealing the bag tightly, I put it in the trash, thus removing the infested plant from the property. My next step was to thoroughly wash the remaining stems with cold water to remove any lingering mites before cleaning the hand clippers with isopropyl alcohol, again to kill any mites on the tool. I immediately washed my hands before continuing to work in the border, which included working some fresh compost into the soil around the base of that butterfly bush. I will monitor the new growth for signs of reinfestation, and spray as needed with cold water or apply a soap based product for spider mites per the instructions on the label.

Another pest to contend with are deer; they have dined heavily on the plants at Maymont this past month, even the hairy and distasteful Lantana is being nibbled on! Hot pepper sprays are proving effective, at least for now, and economical to make. Rotating between two different recipes seems to work best, and the stronger the pepper presence the more effective it is against deer browsing — again, for now. The simplest dilution is a 1:16 ratio of hot sauce to water. Another is five tablespoons of cayenne pepper plus a dash of soap (using a non-detergent dish soap is best) to a gallon of water. Some gardeners also add garlic and/or eggs to the mixes cited above. Let either mixture sit for a day outside before applying. The challenge with homemade sprays is the need to apply them frequently while commercial products do last longer between applications. Regardless of homemade or store-bought, the spray mixtures must be shaken thoroughly before and during application since the ingredients settle to the bottom of the container quickly. Finally, avoid spraying in the heat of the day to prevent damage to the plants you are trying to protect; the summer sun is mighty hot.

In midsummer, I fertilize my hanging baskets and containers with a slow-release fertilizer. I also fertilize my annual bedding plants such as petunias, marigolds, Angelonia, and verbena to name a few. I only fertilize after a rain or thorough watering when the soil is moist so the fertilizer does not damage the fine root hairs of the plants.

My last bit of advice is to keep on top of the weeds despite the heat, applying a heavy layer of mulch — organic matter or straw — is easier than weeding, and it enriches the soil microbial activity while doing so.


Thanks for watching Virginia Home Grown and remember, gardening is for everyone!
- Peggy

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