“House proud” is a nice old-fashioned phrase. It describes the feeling you have when everything is reasonably clean and in order. It reflects the fact that while we all may befoul our nests to some degree, we like visitors to feel comfortable and welcomed when they walk through our door, not assaulted by our mess.
Feeling “garden proud” is not much different. Those of us who put a lot of ourselves into the world just outside our doors feel worse about a slovenly garden than we do about the dust bunnies creeping out from under the bed, or jam fingerprints on the fridge. I cringe when I lead a friend out to show her the yard — glorious sight from the living room window — only to find that the storm which kept me indoors for a week has caused a weed insurrection, snapped the delphiniums in two and knocked the pea vines clean off their trellis. Often the weather’s not to blame, but other distractions. Spring’s obsession with the garden gives way to summer’s oblivion.
Nothing brings matters to a head like a summer party. It might be a birthday celebration, a wedding, or just a big barbecue for the neighbors. Relatives are arriving, or someone whose own gardening skills you admire. In any case, it’s an emergency. You’ve been worrying so much about having enough folding chairs that you’ve missed the zucchinis lurking like dark green Hindenburgs, the tomatoes that escaped from their wire cages while the zookeeper was off buying beer.
It would be cruel, at this point, to cite the wisdom of regular garden maintenance. You need the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change..” and so forth. This is where seasoned gardeners, wise in the ways of their own sloth, reach into a bag of tricks.
When there is no time to do the job right, and no fairy godmother (or hired gardener) to get you ready for the ball, the best thing to do is focus on the big picture. Assess what is structurally sound about your garden and emphasize it.
Mow the lawn, and where it abuts the flower beds make a good clean edge with a sharp spade. This makes a huge difference. Cut back plants that have flopped or gone gray with powdery mildew. No one will know they were ever there. If this leaves embarrassing gaps, just apply a tidy mulch such as finely shredded bark to these areas and to the front of each bed. It will tie the picture together and make it seem as if you cared, and were in control of your garden. Mulch is the horticultural equivalent of Lemon Pledge.
In the vegetable patch, where a “sweet disorder in the dress” rarely seems impressive, it is even more important to make the structure clear.
“Everybody back in your beds”, you must roar, like a crazed camp counselor. Then prune, stake and tie all unruly crops so that it is perfectly clear where their domains begin and end. If there’s no time to weed all the paths, weed the most visible ones. Pull the tallest, most obvious weeds and the ones at the edges of the beds. No one will see all those little ones hidden under the huge kale leaves. But if those leaves have turned yellow, cut them off. Most of this can be done quickly.
A few crops will reduce you to utter humiliation — the lettuce that has bolted as high as the Watts Towers, the huge pithy radishes shouldering their way out of the soil, the arugula waving its flowering branches over the smothered cress. Rip them out and put them on the compost pile. Their ship has sailed. Remove all debris from the beds they occupied, and rake the soil smooth.
You now have the chance to perform the best garden trick of all — summer replanting. Local nurseries still have some vegetable transplants, so buy a few flats. A bed of new broccoli in neat rows instantly gives the garden a clean, organized, productive look. If none can be found, sow some crops directly, such as carrots, beets, scallions, parsley, kale or chard. All these will be up in a week, then do their major growing as temperatures start to cool in fall — an ideal situation for them.
Haven’t time to buy the seeds? Just make the furrows and put a little wooden stake with the crop’s name at the end of each. “All set to go for fall!” you’ll announce confidently to your guests.
The day after the party the floor will be gritty with crumbs. Stray glasses and napkins will litter the house. But the garden will be resplendent as you stroll out to enjoy it, turning your back on the devastation within. “Why can’t it look this way all the time?” you’ll say. Human nature being what it is, there’s no sure way to prevent the midsummer garden slump. But there is a quick-fix cure. Just have a party.