The Spiritual Gardener: Put Out More Flags!

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This is the time of year when the burgeoning garden becomes just a bit overwhelming. Also a bit overwhelming are the weeds that come right along with it, of course. Probably you have noticed this? You feel you need a machete and scythe in your rounds of the garden, more than a simple trowel and garden shears. And too, there is the problem of those very-difficult-to-get-out weeds in awkward places like pavers in the patio and cracks in sidewalks and driveways.

Most homeowners cheerfully resort to those herbicide sprays for this annoying job. We are firmly opposed to using any chemicals in the garden, for the damage they do to the holistic ecosystem, but also for the very sensible reason that most of them do not work and you would be much better advised to spend your money on a good bottle of wine instead.

We have Canadians and Americans in our family, so we celebrate both national days in the first week of July. It means twice the flags, twice the holidays and twice the barbecues! Tell the kids to put out more flags!

But you cannot say that about these herbicides; they work all too well, you have to give them that. Unfortunately, however, they are connected to greatly increased rates of lymphoma and other serious and deadly health disorders, and why you would want to subject your family members and pets – and of course yourself, as the principal applicator – to this appalling health risk is not immediately apparent to someone as simple-minded as myself.

May I suggest a better way? Just go to your local hardware store and buy one of those inexpensive sprayers, the kind you pressurize by pumping the handle. Then go to the grocery store and by a nice gallon of cheap white vinegar. Then spray the full strength vinegar on the weeds you would have killed with herbicide. Yes, you will likely need two applications instead of just one for most weeds, but admit it, this is not very hard duty.

And just think of all the money you will save that can be spent on wine! Plus, when you are done, you can take the sprayer into the house and spray it on your family’s dinner salad with a nice olive oil, something that would be most unwise with those toxic herbicides that are so depressingly common in weed season.

This hot month is a great time to indulge in bright hot colors; reds and yellows anchor traditional “hot” garden plantings, and some violet or blue adds a cool tone and some color depth.

It is lost in the mists of time why the celebration of Canada Day and Independence Day have evolved into an inexplicable North American love affair with the barbecue grill, but there you are. We certainly like all the good things that come with barbecued food: potato chips, gallons of cold beverages, and fresh cold salads especially. Often this last item is overlooked in a holiday meal where the cooked meat is the center of attention. But why not try something that will supplement all that grilled food with something a little different? We call it Firecracker Salad, but you can call it easy, fresh, and delicious.

Firecracker Salad

6 ears of corn, fresh and local if possible
Olive oil
8 pieces bacon
½ medium purple onion
½ cup water
1 medium jalapeño pepper, about 3 inches long
3 bell peppers, one each of red, yellow, and orange
2 ripe, but still slightly firm, mangoes

For dressing
2 Tbsp. sugar
4 oz. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 oz. rice vinegar (but any good vinegar will do in a      pinch)
2 tsp. smoked paprika
2 tsp. ancho chili pepper


  • Remove the husks and silk from the corn and cook it in a large pot of boiling water for about 5 minutes, until it is tender. Brush the corn with olive oil and grill it until is it a little charred, about 2-3 minutes. Allow to cool, then strip the kernels from the cob using a sharp knife.
  • Combine all the ingredients in a medium-sized salad bowl, as follows:
  • Fry the bacon, drain, and chop in small pieces.
  • Cook the onion in the bacon grease.
  • Add the ½ cup water to the pan and use a spatula to stir up all the cooked bits from the previous ingredients; use this for the next ingredients.
  • Wearing rubber gloves, clean the seed out of the jalapeño and dice it fine; add it to the pan.
  • Clean the peppers of seeds and their white ribs, chop them into half-inch bits and add them to the pan. Cook all the peppers, tossing regularly until they are just tender. It is important not to overcook them.
  • Peel and slice the mangoes, then chop the slices and add them (uncooked) to the salad bowl.
  • Make the dressing by adding the last seven ingredients to a small mixing bottle and shake until emulsified. Pour over the previous ingredients, cover, and refrigerate.

This salad is much better if you leave it to percolate for a full day. And a word about the mangoes, please. If you have ever eaten mangoes or papayas in tropical countries, you probably know that the versions of these sublime fruits that we have in the U.S. are nothing like the real things. It’s sad, but there you are. A mango or papaya picked fresh and fully ripe in the tropical country where it grew is a fantastic thing to taste, as different from our poor store-bought things as tree-ripened peaches are from the pathetic creatures we get here. Or as different as vine-ripened tomatoes you picked in your back yard are from the tasteless red blobs the grocery industry calls tomatoes.

The cool blues and violets of hydrangeas visually cool down the over-heated garden of mid-summer; they bloom for weeks and weeks unless you allow them to really dry out.

In the west of India every May, there ripen the sublimest of all mangoes, the fabled Alphonso mangoes, and to taste this mango fresh and ripe in May is truly an amazing thing. I do not say that you should go all the way to India in May just to taste the Alphonso mangoes, but there are worse ways to spend your money. So please try to find some decent mangoes for this recipe. Go for ones that are as ripe as possible while still having a little bit of firmness, so they stand up in this salad. Ideally, try one first and make sure it has the qualities you want. It is the mango that makes this salad work, after all; its citrus sugars are the perfect foil for the acid of the vinegar and the heat of the peppers, and it is worth the extra effort.

But coming down from mango heaven to the garden in the heat of midsummer, I find that everything was wilted and panting when we returned from the beach this week, after ten days of hot sun and only one brief rain shower. Saturday, I weeded the herbaceous border and tore out all the dead mauve volunteers, taking care to sprinkle their seed everywhere for next year’s soft purple haze, and dead-headed everything else. The pink phlox have started and they look well with the blue hydrangeas. The lysimachia is going well in the back yard, in the oval bed, and in the serpentine bed. The grass itself is badly sunburned and is basically estivating for the most part, in self-defense. There are just enough red and white impatiens and blue petunias to complete the patriotic look I intended for the middle of the patio for Independence Day. And I watered everything again, as it is blazing hot. Well, it’s July after all, what do you expect, an early frost?

“There are just enough red and white impatiens and blue petunias to complete the patriotic look I intended for the middle of the patio for Independence Day.”

More record July heat is on the way, and we have settled into some very serious warm weather. Our large old white dogwood on the patio has finally expired and been taken out and replaced with a small pink one, and we carefully re-wove the fragile clematis into the replacement tree so it can resume its climbing with its new mate. The redtwig dogwoods have made a thick curtain by the patio. Also, cannas are popping up in the porch bed and the crescent bed, adding their big, fat, tropical leaves to the lush and lavish summer landscape.

Canna lilies are one tropical that is definitely worth the extra work to grow in areas with cold winters. Their broad, lush leaves and intense natural drama add a bold tropical flair to any garden, even as a single large plant, as shown here.

I have never cared much for lots of tropicals in the summer garden, but know there are gardeners who are mad for them. They do require so much work and fussy care to get them through the winter that I do not think it is worth it, in general, but I must confess that I am a sucker for these lush cannas and happily dig them up every fall and replant them every spring, with never a complaint. They repay the extra effort handsomely. I only wish I had some yellow ones too, in my greed.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.