Summer may not be the most agreeable season to toil in the garden, but a little bit of labour now can bring good results down the track. By Helen Razer.

Flowers for summer

The pink and white blooms of cosmos, 2016’s Flower of the Year.
The pink and white blooms of cosmos, 2016’s Flower of the Year.

There never was a minister for employment truly loyal to the garden. If there were, we’d all have won the right to horticultural leave by now. This time would be taken nowhere near the Australian summer sun, whose heat does little but press the earth into the hard service of nightshade. Instead, we’d give our labour to the reasonable cool of late autumn.

I shan’t dazzle you with the promise of dahlias here. No, I’ll be an honest marigold and tell you what high summer in the garden is meant for: arsing around with a beer and a hose and congratulating yourself on all the vital work you did last May. You should be harvesting tomatoes, gawping at the effect of just a little rose fertiliser and commending yourself for being the first on your street to grow hollyhock, a short-lived cottage perennial that will, I believe, come back into style. Any day now.

This is not the most productive nor is it the most agreeable season to spend in outdoor cultivation. Especially if, like me, you were quite distracted indoors last May. But it is the season we are generally given by our garden-unfriendly labour market. You can defy those oppressors and rise up with your cultivars, comrades. There is work to be done and pleasure to be had and not so much to lose but a $3.99 punnet of root-bound cosmos.

Cosmos is, in my view, a perfect summer flower. My view is, however, impaired. I cannot see well, even with the aid of spectacles, and so this big bowl of daisy with its crude pinnate leaves suits my finger-painted outlook very well. If you also favour flowers that recall the designs of a toddler, buy some advanced seedlings now, taking care to include the variety White Sensation for its appeal to hoverflies and other beneficial garden bugs. Most varieties of cosmos can be grown in sun or part shade, in a pot or in open ground. Its water needs are modest and it isn’t fussy about its soil or potting medium.

Cosmos, whose heirloom varieties will conveniently reseed, is newly available in several mutations thanks to its status as 2016 Flower of the Year. No, I had no idea there was such a prize, either. But in a search for the extravagant new Cupcakes – the blush skirt of its fused petals looks like something only Sarah Jessica Parker could confidently wear – I learnt there is an ornamental global plant faction that hands out this promotional distinction. Fleuroselect, the sort of cold Soviet name for which you just know many flowers have perished, have selected the delightful zinnia for 2017. I have in previous years grown a small variety from seed but, as with cosmos, it’s too late for that now, so take a gamble on a punnet of this slightly thirstier bloom, good for both pots and beds.

Dahlia, for which zinnia is sometimes mistaken, is a marvellously showy plant, and one with the very good manners to recede back into earth after its months-long fan dance. Certain varieties look like the pompoms of fractal cheerleaders, others like the distracted doodling of a happy grandparent. About five years ago, on Melbourne Cup Day, I planted a job lot of tubers, and every January since I toast myself for an excellent decision. Nothing seems to trouble this multizone plant, save for the weight of its own monumental blooms. (You may need to carefully place a stake next to a larger bush and affix it with scraps of old T-shirt.) There are seedlings still available in Melbourne garden centres and as dahlias enjoy such a long flowering season, you may well see her colour by the end of the season if you plant immediately. I am told by a Brisbane gardener that now is the ideal time for tuber planting in that city for a March show. It is, however, my experience that Brisbane gardeners like to brag about their flexible conditions and rich soil. For us southerners: dig some compost or pelletised chook poo in before planting in a bed or a big pot, and remember that it is too late in our zones to start from tuber.

The budget-conscious masochist may wish to sow flowers from seed but should not expect results before the return to paid labour. If you long to see a sunflower soon, content yourself with the Helianthus annuus generally available as seedling. In earlier seasons, I’ve avoided seeming like a van Gogh tragic and pleased the bees with the shiraz-coloured Prado Red or the lemony Moonwalker sunflowers, both sold online and sent by mail through one of our reputable heirloom seedbanks. But goodness: we’re already thinking about next summer when all the yard or small-space gardener craves is a little meaningful instruction for the present.

This is my finest summer advice: whether you are resuming or beginning a life in the close company of plants, do not underestimate the importance of flowers. And not just because some species keep your garden in biological balance – or are alleged to by the chap with a man bun who urged me to grow tansies as an Edenic fantasy pest-control method. Note to the organic co-op: tansies are reasonable looking, but they smell like mice and are yet to dissuade 12 armies of ants from making camp in my pantry. The maintenance of flowers is strategic in another sense. They lure you back to the garden.

For their powers of motivation, pay them largely in water. Pay them seldom, but deep, down at the root and not on the plant itself. As a general rule, patient attention once or twice a week will reward you both, so really water. You do not want to see a shallow relief of the Philippines in your soil, but entire soggy continents. Individual potted plants may have different requirements, and this will depend not only on the species but the container material. Your responsibly purchased recycled plastic will retain it well, while my nasty terracotta sheds it faster than middle-America did secure machinist employment. If you’re vacationing, apply water crystals marked “low environmental impact” to your thirsty container plants. I was surprised to discover these packets did not deliver an empty promise, but actual moisture.

All good cultivators, including my mother, agree that first thing in the morning is the optimal summer watering window. Which is all very well and good if your “first thing” occurs at some point before lunch. Mrs Razer is done with her obedient plants before breakfast television’s first B-list celebrity interview. If, like your correspondent, you tend only to rise with the crack of the midday movie’s second act, wait with the hose until the most brutal sting of the sun has ceased. But do water while light remains, or you’ll have plant mildew to bear out the fact of your indolent soul.

I would not recommend, particularly to novice gardeners, the introduction of many vegetable seedlings at this time of year. Unless you are quite familiar with the habits and needs of a particular bed or pot, this could prove as dispiriting and unproductive as breakfast television. Your lettuce could burn. Your cucumber could suffer transplant shock. You will see little in your plot but hot despair and the threat of failure. Leave those menaces for work, where they properly belong, and surprise yourself by growing from seed.

I am led to believe by an ardent tomato cultivator that it is still possible to germinate Black Krim and expect to see results. This is a firm, late-fruiting Russian who tastes quite pleasantly of smoke. For best results, coax him into life indoors beneath plastic, perhaps in a biodegradable pot – the inside of a loo roll filled with seed-raising mix will do – so that you may simply plant it out with minimal disturbance to new roots. Miniature or “cherry” varieties are fast-growing, and you may be able to race the receding heat this year to find your fruit in temperate or subtropical zones.

Zucchini can still be planted from seed. Try throwing them into a bit of soil you can trust yourself to water at least twice daily while the plant is forming. These are as easy to grow as they soon become boring to eat. I always tell myself I am going to stuff a zucchini flower with something thrilling and Mediterranean. Then again, I always tell myself I am going to rise early, fertilise responsibly and write a touching long-form fictional account of an elegant midlife female gardener.

You can still grow corn. You must grow corn if you have children and a sunny spot. The malevolent silks whip high in the wind above the kids, and that these hell-scape plants produce such sweetness make them great garden fables for juniors: you can’t judge a snack by its horror. Give the small persons the chore of watering these thirsty plants, and apply the 16-16-8 ratio fertiliser several times throughout its hungry life.

Grow lettuce once more towards the end of January, by which time you may be besotted enough to think about germinating some brassicas for late-autumn harvest. Or moved enough by those inspirational summer flowers to think what can please you through winter.

This may include nerines, early daffodils or a long and serious conversation with the horticulturists at your community nursery for local native plants. Or, you could talk to Iris at number 10.

Iris, her foxgloves as tall as corn now bowing before bright pink coneflowers (echinacea), is propagating daphne from cuttings and applying some mystery solvent to her camellias, winter staples for cold and temperate zones. She lives two seasons into the future. For those of us stuck in the hard ground of the present, though, there remains a little hope. We just have to buy it in punnets.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 24, 2016 as "Over tilling and down dahlia".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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