Wear polarized sunglasses.
In the height of summer when the garden is washed out and tired and dry and limp, polarized lenses make the colors pop and everything look rich. I like my garden so much better when I am wearing Raybans.
Water when it is very dry, but water when it is just a little dry too. My mistake in past years was to let things carry on by themselves with just a little help from the sprinklers. Everything looks better when very well watered with hose and watering can as well as sprinklers, and it takes more than you would think.
"Drought tolerant" doesn't mean what you think it does. It means a plant will typically not die when it gets very dry -- it will survive and come back when conditions are better. But it does not mean the plant will look good at all. It tolerates dry weather but does not perform well.
I also learned that a plant tolerating dry conditions is not producing enough nectar for pollinators. The plant is alive and there may be flowers, and it will come back when it gets more moisture, but there is not enough hydration to help the wildlife.
Fertilize a lot.
Same thing as with the watering. Pots and annuals need much more feeding than I had realized. Fertilize often.
Make summer easier.
I found the terra cotta fountain Hope gave me has to be near a water source even though it is self contained and solar powered. It can't be out in the gravel garden where I originally had it. It needs to be right near a hose where I can clean it out often and refill it easily. I moved it to the deck and I like listening to the bubbling while I am on the porch even though I find I am getting up to use the bathroom often.
I learned the hard way that containers out in the garden or along the front walk, and pots lining the gravel garden are hard to keep watered. Just put any pots on the deck near the hose and be done with it. Make summer easier.
I need to invest in lots of larger, sturdier stakes that can stand up to the tension of the small bungee cords which I found work well to bind up floppy perennials. The little bamboo skewers I have been using are far too rinkydink.
Morning glories. I discovered I do not like them. They climbed the arched gate to the gravel garden but were unattractively wild and splayed about and the thin twining stems turned brown and ratty looking. The flowers --- meh.
'Beach Party' sedum. Advertised as a compact sedum that doesn't flop like 'Autumn Joy', but I learned it was an odd brown colored thing with no shape or size. Maybe it just didn't like my garden. Meanwhile after I took out 'Autumn Joy' it reappeared in another part of the garden.
Vegetables in containers. My deck container farm was great, but I found I had too many peppers, way too much basil, wildly prolific parsley, less mint than mojitos required, and not enough lettuce. Carrots were paltry and tasteless. Farming in tight spaces is all about appropriate quantities, and I misjudged.
And What to Grow Again:
White flowering tobacco.
Nicotiana alata bloomed all summer and still looks fresh even as the iteas behind are fading. It's tall enough to be seen from a distance and it's a clear, delicate white. Grow more of that again.
They are simply flower machines all summer. I don't like the tall giants with blooms that look like frisbees. But there are many that are small bushy things like the dark red 'Black Beauty' that I have grown before, and the orange-pink-apricot pom poms that were new to me this year. I grew both from seed and I'd grow them again.
I learned that nasturtiums can be transplanted, but will look awful all season if you do that. Transplanting doesn't just set them back, it affects their habit the whole season. Put the seeds in the ground where they are going to stay. Don't start them indoors or move them. Wait. They'll look much better all summer if unmoved.
I learned I will have to net the blueberries. There was one year that I had unmolested access to the whole crop, without losing a single berry to bird thieves -- but that did not repeat this summer. They have found them and they leave me none.
I am going to have to build a hoop system to put netting over, something like this maybe.
You can't just drape netting over blueberry shrubs, it gets tangled. So I'll try to create a portable frame system to cage the bushes, just for the time they are producing and then I can remove it. I predict a failed science project next year and new "lessons learned" from that.
I learned a lot this summer. I'll learn even more next year and the year after that.