Drought. That was the big story in our garden this past growing season. From early April until near the end of August, we had no major rainfalls. When the rain finally came, it was too late to be of much benefit.

Still, with respect to drought, my wife Nancy and I are more fortunate than many other Maine gardeners. We have four rain barrels, which, though they went dry a few times over the summer, were nonetheless a big help. Also, we are healthy enough to carry buckets of water from those rain barrels to the plants that need a drink.

Plus we are on public water, and Sebago Lake isn’t going to run out of water in my lifetime. Irrigating the entire yard – hauling hose from early May until the rains finally began – can get expensive. About 20 years ago, we reduced that cost when we installed a sub-meter on one outside faucet, which means that we don’t have to pay sewage fees on water we use from that faucet.

Enough about water. Let’s get to the plants.

Despite the drought, the flowers in our gardens have been wonderful this year, beginning with super-early bloodroot and the rhododendrons and azaleas, all of which bloomed for longer than normal. Week after week, Nancy brought lots of blossoms inside to arrange in vases.

A Limelight hydrangea in Atwell’s garden. Photo by Tom Atwell

Our hydrangeas have looked gorgeous since late June. When people complain their hydrangeas won’t bloom, they are usually talking about the macrophylla varieties, which became the rage when the “Endless Summer” series hit the market two decades ago. Maine’s climate can be difficult for them.

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Two other hydrangea families – paniculata and arborescens – are much more reliable and even, I think, more beautiful. But even our Macrophyllas did pretty well this year.

Pee Gee hydrangea blossoms in Atwell’s garden. The blossoms darken throughout the season. Photo by Tom Atwell

The first hydrangea we planted on our property in the late 1970s is the classic arborescens, “Annabelle,” which produces large, white double flowers in late June.  As I look out the window while typing this column in late October, they are still gorgeous. Because it has double flowers – which means no pollen or nectar – “Annabelle” is useless for pollinators, which we did not realize back then. We won’t get rid of it, but we’ve planted lace-cap hydrangeas nearby to compensate.

The paniculata hydrangeas – which include the Pee Gee that your grandparents grew – are even better because the blossoms change color as the season progresses. They start white, pink and other colors, but as temperatures cool, they deepen and progress to bronze, red or other darker colors. The blossoms stay on the branches throughout the winter. Our “Limelight” paniculata was mostly white with a tinge of pink the day I typed this.

This has also been the Year of the Zinnia. I thought it was just Nancy and me, but at a Cape Elizabeth Garden Club meeting I attended, everyone raved about how their zinnias blossomed this summer.

A friend made a minor (or maybe major?) zinnia mistake this summer. She thought she had ordered six six-packs of zinnias, but instead ordered six trays – about 300 plants. But her garden was has been gorgeous, with zinnias mingling with her perennials and shrubs everywhere, from June until at least late October. No frost yet in our neighborhood.

Tom Atwell and his wife (and fellow gardener), Nancy, planted zinnias in their vegetable garden this year. They flourished. Photo by Tom Atwell

We planted zinnia seeds directly into the vegetable garden, and didn’t get blossoms until late July or early August. But they have been prolific, brightening up the yard and, when we cut them, our house, too.

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Our vegetable gardens started out with a bang. I wrote about our bountiful tomato plants in August, which have given us tomatoes almost every day from late July until now. The cucumbers and summer squash started out well, too. But just as we were starting to enjoy eating them, critters attacked. I am guessing raccoons, but it could have been groundhogs. To add insult to injury, the animals not only took the food, but they dug up the plants. Some of the plants recovered, but after the attack, production definitely lagged.

We have added a lot of shrubs and perennials to our yard this year – rhododendrons, Baptisia, Rodgersia and others – as we slowly reduce the size of our lawn. (Lawns hurt pollinators; require weed killers, fertilizers and lots of water; and mowing causes pollution).

Now I have the whole winter to consider changes for next year. As always, I’ll seek the two most important things we get from our garden: entertainment and a bit of outdoor exercise.

For those goals, it’s been a successful year.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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