Good to Grow: Follow the sun to see how it affects your garden

By By Alex Cole
Good to Grow

Congratulation gardeners, you’ve made it to August. It’s that time of year again: hazy hot and humid, the three H’s that define summertime in West Virginia.

In any climate, the extremes in temperature limit what plants you can grow more than anything else, and in West Virginia, nothing is more extreme than the heat. I don’t want to be out in this, and if the hanging baskets and the potted plants are any indication, the flowers don’t either.

In the greenhouse industry we call it the summer doldrums. In the time of year between July 4 and fall, sales fall off and people give up, go inside and crank up the air conditioning.

And I don’t blame them. You may think I’m going to give some inspirational speech, send out a rally cry and try to convince you to go outside and pull those weeds or plant some trees. I’m not.

There is something you can do however, and it’s easy. Look out the window with a glass of cold lemonade in your hand and observe. It sounds simple, but studying your landscape and scrutinizing your planting decisions are the difference between a good gardener and a novice. Right now is a critical time to observe and think.

So what is there to observe in the middle of August? Well, I am drawn to the shade. Follow the shade.

Simple enough, but it’s something most people don’t think about when they plant their flowers.

The optimal planting zone in any yard is the east side of the house. Most plants open their stomata to breath in the cool morning air when the ground is still wet from dew. They close their stomata in the evening heat to conserve moisture. Therefore morning sun and evening shade is the best place to put your most precious plants, the fragile stuff and the things you intend to nurture.

Inversely, the western-facing beds are hard places to live. They get full sun in the hottest part of the day and no sun in the prime morning photosynthesis time.

The south side is the harshest place to be. Full sun all day long with no breaks is miserable. Plant a shade tree. If that is not an option, there are some alternatives.

One approach is the parking lot look. There are plenty of shrubs that can withstand the extreme heat. Knockout roses and Russian sage are the first things that come to mind — also junipers, barberries, yews, boxwoods and ornamental grasses. But none of those are native, and if you’re like me, you don’t want your garden to look like every Mickey D’s in the Midwest. There are better options.

One of my favorite flower combinations for these harsh beds is daisies, yarrow, black-eyed Susans and coneflower. I tend to plant them everywhere I go. When you plant those four flowers together in the harsh sun on the south or west side of your house, you will have beautiful and beneficial blooms from spring to fall with little maintenance. There are other options of course: sedums, lilies and cleome irises are all good, old-fashioned standards for full sun beds.

The north side of the house is where things get fun. A lot of people think full shade is hard, but there are plenty of full-shade options: ferns, hostas, lily of the valley, coral bells, pachysandra, Lenten roses, astilbes, laurels and rhododendrons are a good place start.

I’d say you’re only limited by your imagination, but that is not true. You have to work within the environment you’ve got. So look out the window, and watch what environmental constraints you have in your yard. As always, work with Mother Nature, not against her, and you can have a beautiful garden, even in the summer heat.

Alex Cole is a native of Fraziers Bottom who’s been landscaping all of his life and currently lives off the grid in a small, solar-powered cabin he built on a 217-acre farm that has been in his family for six generations. Alex has expertise in permaculture design, maintaining vegetable gardens, repairing riparian zones and creating all new perennial and pollinator gardens. Reach Alex at alexcole989@gmail.com.

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