Margaret's garden clogs and trowelEACH JULY DAY is a stern little conversation or two (or 10): with myself, to push onward; with certain weeds to please stop being so pushy; with the sky (if things get hot and dry) to please, please, please consider the regular concept of proper, soaking rain.

Often, as July begins–especially if it does so with a heatwave–I want to throw in the trowel; mow the whole place down or turn it under (think: bulldozer).

Years ago, I wrote an essay, confessing that July always starts out as Throw In the Trowel Month for me, as in: “I give up!” If you’re feeling stuck, like the garden just isn’t “working,” it might help to read it.

Thankfully, though, there is payoff—new potatoes, a tomato finally, perhaps, and then garlic harvest as the month winds on. There are also problems to be managed (hello, Japanese beetles, and squash bugs), plus more plans to be put into place, to get from here to fall without getting engulfed, and overwhelmed. That’s July in the garden here: busy, but with benefits.

Raise the mower deck; man the sprinklers; get out the vegetable seeds for succession sowings. Pull weeds, and handpick pests. Diligence on all fronts will be rewarded, but I know it’s daunting—and that the view out the window right now can be paralyzing–though I do love the avian ruckus in all my twig dogwoods, whose fruit is attracting birds galore right now, and will soon be disappeared, every last bit. Oh, and clean out the freezer to make room for incoming.

If I push through, summer usually shapes up, and the tall annuals and perennials, ornamental grasses, the fresh white blooms of hydrangeas, and those heat-loving vegetables we’ve waited all year to taste again, have their day. I’m always glad I summoned the energy to plow forward through the July chores.

garden elsewhere? regional links

THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To adjust timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). But read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.

weeding and watering

MAKE A PASS through each garden bed each week, since weeds are not just unsightly but steal moisture, nutrients and light. Top up mulch where needed (or maybe you need a layer or cardboard or newsprint first?). First: Learn to identify your opponents, and the tactics and timing for best control. You cannot outsmart a plant whose life cycle you do not understand.

Some of my hit parade to help in that effort:

OBSERVE WHILE WEEDING: Make notes, to plan for fall reworking of problem spots–areas that seem to invite weeds to sow with abandon, like the driveway, or other gravel surfaces, or cracks between pavers. Again, decision time: To solarize (lay down plastic sheeting, and use summer heat and sun to cook the weeds to death)? Or to spray? I say no to chemical herbicides, so there are sheets of plastic here and there, and the scuffle hoe (a push-pull long-handled tool sometimes called a Dutch hoe) is getting a workout, too, especially in the driveway gravel.

GARDENS NEED CONSISTENT WATER. Especially intensive, high-demand areas like vegetables, annuals and containers. Check your rain gauge to see if the heavens provided it. Soak beds deeply in the root zone, but don’t spritz with a sprayer now and again like you’re washing the car. Pots, especially smallish ones in sun, need daily attention, and periodic feeding. Be alert!


IF YOU ARE IN JAPANESE BEETLE territory, handpick each morning and again late day. Knock them off foliage and drown in a container of soapy water. We can’t eliminate them; we have to manage them once they resume activity, around July 4 in my zone. Consider a biological (non-toxic) control to further help reduce overwintering grub population with nematodes, or one of the other biologicals covered in this government bulletin for homeowners (pdf). Ken Druse and I chatted about various tactical approaches we’ve taken to them in this story and podcast.

WITH OTHER OBVIOUS pests like tomato hornworms, squash bugs, Colorado potato beetles or imported cabbage worms, I do the same: handpick early each morning, and destroy.  And then I will do a very serious fall cleanup, removing all debris to a distance (I compost it at my office, where there is no vegetable garden). As with weeds, learning what your bugs are by name is a good thing.

GETTING TO KNOW your garden insects–good, bad, ugly–can help you be a better gardener. Here is how (and an encyclopedia of them I recommend).

MAKING MORE HABITAT for “natural enemies” (the so-called “good bugs”) is key to the bigger picture of a healthy, manageable garden. Here is how.

OR MAYBE SLUGS AND SNAILS are proliferating? Some tactics on dealing with them.

ASIAN JUMPING WORMS are lately one of the most-feared recent invaders of all, degrading soil in not just gardens but also in our natural forests. What we know about them.

vegetable, fruit and herbs

EVEN UP NORTH, there is so much vegetable- and herb-harvest potential ahead. Plan a prolific fall garden by starting with this how-to, which includes tips for dealing with hot, dry soil and making a succession-sowing calendar.

POSSIBILITIES ARE MANY, including carrots, beets, radishes, lettuce, dill, basil, brassicas including cabbage, broccoli, and broccoli cousins such as spigarello, and kales, plus fall peas. More bush beans and another mound of bush cukes and zucchini are going in here right this very minute (your timing may vary; I am Zone 5B).  More about planning the fall vegetable garden.

GARLIC may start to fade and topple, as harvest time nears. When several lower leaves yellow, but about five topmost ones are still green—some experts say four or five, some say five or six–carefully lift a head or two to judge readiness. If good, lift all to cure during a warm, dry spell in an airy, sheltered place. How to judge the right harvest moment. Or read all about growing garlic, and even storing your harvest–and don’t forget, order bulbs now for October-ish planting.

TOMATO TROUBLES? If your plants are having issues, like spots on leaves or disfigured fruit, start here.

SEND IN SOIL SAMPLES for testing if you’re seeing poor results in some beds. Contact your local cooperative extension for details on how to sample and where to send it. Don’t just dump fertilizer or other amendments into beds without knowing what is going on. Here is why.

STRAWBERRY BEDS may appreciate rejuvenation now.

KEEP ASPARAGUS well weeded and water it, too. Let asparagus ferns grow till hard frost to nourish the underlying crowns.

FOR PEAK FLAVOR, basil, sage, marjoram and oregano, mint, tarragon are best harvested just before bloom. Start more basil from seed for combining with those September tomatoes, and dill for late pickles. Harvest lavender, rosemary and chamomile as they flower, blossoms and all.

trees & shrubs

STOP FEEDING woody plants, especially if you’re in a zone that has a cold winter. Promoting more soft growth in high summer and beyond isn’t good; time for them to start moving naturally toward the hardening-off phase of their cycle. No more fertilization till late winter or earliest spring.

TREES ARE vulnerable to drought, if you’re having a dry year, particularly the oldest and the youngest (those planted in the last few years). Water slowly and deeply, as with a Tree-Gator. Ugly…but better than not watering.

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune it out as discovered. Ditto with suckers and water sprouts.

SPRING-FLOWERING shrubs like lilacs reach the end of their pruning window after July 4th here, otherwise too-late pruning risks removal of emerging buds for next year’s blooms.

THROUGH MONTH’S END, softwood cuttings of buddleia, weigela, rose-of-sharon and roses, among other shrubs, can be taken to propagate more plants inexpensively.

flower garden

MORE CUTBACKS. In many spots I’m being downright brutal with more “edits” and cutbacks. (I know, I gave a lot of haircuts in June to things like perennial geraniums and euphorbias. But the barbershop is still open here apparently, with bleeding hearts, groundcover sedums that flowered recently, Phalaris or ribbon grass, and more getting hacked to the ground. Celandine poppy, or Stylophorum diphyllum, too—anything whose foliage looks insipid and is just an invitation for slugs as it yellows and flops.)

HAVE DESIGN ISSUES, with the yard just not hanging together visually? Landscape architect Thomas Rainer offered some valuable tips on reducing lawn areas and massing plants for visual impact, and designer and nursery owner Katherine Tracey told us how to critique our own yards. If you’re feeling stuck, I suggest both articles as a start.

PRUNE RAMBLER ROSES and once-blooming climbers now, after their flowering period.

ROSE ROSETTE DISEASE, caused by a virus transmitted by a mite, is affecting more roses in widening areas. Learn how to diagnose this scourge and what to do (including to remove affected plants, roots and all, at once; bag and dispose in trash).

MANY PERENNIALS and biennials can be started now from seed, then set out in the fall into nursery beds.

I MOW THE foliage of my ripened daffodil drifts around July 4th. Deadhead faded perennials unless they have showy seedheads (same with bulbs), or you want to collect seed later (non-hybrids only).

ARE ANNUAL VINES getting the continuing support they need, whether twine, wire, lattice? Perennial types like Clematis may need a bit of help, too.

ORDER BULBS to get varieties you want (see Resources for catalog suggestions). Remember our “early, middle, late” mantra when doing so, so that you choose varieties with staggered bloom times for a long display.

PREPARE NEW beds for fall planting by smothering grass or weeds with layers of recycled corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, then put mulch on top.

RE-EDGE BEDS to make a clean line and define them, and keep edges clean with regular fine-tuning with grass shears. A clean edge makes a big difference, and I often topdress with a little more mulch to prevent weed seeds from proliferating, too.

wildlife-garden ideas

WANT MORE WILDLIFE, including birds? Here’s how to create a habitat garden, and also a Q&A with wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware on creating backyard habitat.

HEARD ABOUT ‘NATIVARS’–cultivated varieties of native plants that may have showier foliage or flowers, or be otherwise extra appealing to gardeners? Research about how effective they are in supporting pollinators and other beneficials may surprise you.

ENCOURAGE POLLINATORS by getting to know more about them, with help from the Xerces Society in this interview, or in these other stories:

SPEAKING OF WILDLIFE MAGNETS: Will this be the year you add water, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this? Or best of all: oak trees.

SICK OF MOWING? Less lawn means space for more diverse plantings, and therefore support of more wildlife diversity from insects on up. Do you want to mow differently (as I did the last three years to good result)?

SICK OF DEER? Maybe it’s time to plan for upgrades in deer control. If by this point in winter you have tired of deer damage, perhaps this will be the year you fence the yard, or at least a key area, using one of these approaches. Also: deer-thwarting advice from Ohio State’s wildlife expert, applicable no matter where you garden.


DON’T BAG or rake clippings; let them lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil. Be careful not to mow too low in summer’s heat. Scalped areas are prime targets for crabgrass to emerge in.

compost heap

DON’T LET the heap dry out completely, or it will not “cook.” Turning it to aerate will also hasten decomposition, but things will rot eventually even if not turned. Composting 101 with expert Lee Reich.

need help in other regions?

AGAIN: I’m in the Northeast, in Zone 5B. For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.

  1. Joan Bernstein says:

    Thanks for the July pep talk. The garden seems overwhelming and I’m not in the physical shape I was 33 years ago, when we started this garden. But I picked a coupe of cucumbers today and I spied our first eggplant, so that “egged” me on.

  2. Ellen Kirby says:

    Consider this a random comment. It’s really a warning. Be careful when touching any euphorbia. I was deadheading one of mine and managed to get the oily substance all over my hands and arms. I quickly washed my hands but couldn’t get it all of. It’s sort of like resin from a pine tree. In the process I got some of the milky sap in my eyes. For the nest hour I had burning, itching eyes. I called Poison Control and they suggested I get in the shower and rinse as much water into my eyes as possible. Thankfully, it worked. I later learned that euphorbia is much stronger than any hot pepper and it can damage the cornea of your eye. Be careful out there!

  3. Scarlett says:

    My dream is to have my own garden. I want to escape the city so bad. I hate concrete. So to have the space to do something bigger would be a dream. I am reading you and find such a inspiration here. Thank you!

  4. Janet says:

    So this year I planted a No-Dig garden over my existing garden floor. I can’t tell you how much work I saved by not needing to turn over the soil. All my vegetables look the best they have ever and am already spotting at least five plum tomatoes on one plant. I love the straw topping which is keeping the weeds down and the soil moist.

  5. Wing Dunham says:

    Did I miss something on a “No-Dig” garden? Since arthritis is settling in for the long haul (hips, knees, back and on and on) no-dig sounds like a wonderful concept! Just as soon as I eradicate gout weed…hah!

  6. Jane Barnard says:

    Oh, I needed to read this sooooo much,it is hard to keep at it at this time of the growing season,but I will and am so glad to have your great site to keep me laughing and up to date……Thank you,thank you….you are an inspiration for us……

  7. Karen Summers says:

    Thanks Margaret for a laugh about your love/hate garden this time of year. I was just getting tired of filling in holes from plants killed in drought last year. It is great advice to notice the parts of the garden that are “working” instead of focusing on the problems. That seems our natural way but when I looked again there is so much beauty here!

  8. Tina says:

    A question no one seems able to answer. I use wood chip and straw mulch by the ton.
    When you say really clean up the garden in the Fall, what to do about the mulch? At what point does it stop being mulch and start being a winter home for bad bugs?
    Thank you.

  9. Stella says:

    I love to read the comments – last year, I tried using straw to mulch the vegetable seedlings. I went to our local Agway, and asked for straw – nothing with seeds – so they pointed me to a couple of bales. After the seedlings emerged, I gently mulched with this new straw. Well, it turned out to be hay – the entire garden turned into a hayfield! I was on my knees pulling the grasses out for the better part of the summer. So after the season was over, I laid down black plastic for the entire winter to solarize whatever seeds might still be present. That solved the hayseed issue. But my standard weeds have started to return – purslane being the most persistent. I’m trying to stay on top of this, but it’s a losing battle.

    1. Lyn Seley says:

      I went to a very fancy restaurant in Maine and they serve purslane as a garnish and it tasted quite good!

  10. Maryfran says:

    I love your tips. I am going to lay a cleaners bag on my brick paver walk tomorrow when the sun is in that area. I can only make an attempt to pull them after a massive rain and who knows when that will happen..

  11. Susan piatek says:

    Hi Margaret, what an informative and entertaining podcast! I’m growing a lot of winter squash. I have acorn, kabocha and butternut. Two of my kabocha vines have wilted and I know they’re diseased or something. I am picking bugs on a daily basis and I don’t see evidence of borers. I pulled the vines to be safe. My question is can I eat the very immature squash? I hate to throw it out. Thank you

    1. margaret says:

      Absolutely edible. Sometimes restaurants but tiny squash attached to the blossoms and cook both up together, such as in tempura batter — tasty!

  12. Betsy says:

    Question about Bleeding Heart, do I have to wait until they are completely yellow to prune back? So unsightly…but I do love them so!

  13. kate says:

    help!!! I checked your site to see if you have any tried and true methods of discouraging 3 male and 1 female mallard ducks (she likes her men!!). They love our in-ground pool and shat everywhere – yuck. We have tried everything you tube has suggested and no luck. They keep coming back. Got suggestions???

  14. Cathryn Kasper says:

    So I’m getting ready to make a second planting of leeks for the fall and some others that all the lists say to start in July, BUT the greenhouse is now too hot. Where to start these ones that seem to prefer a cool start??

  15. Chris says:

    I was new to Long Island 35 years ago, and subscribed to Newsday, my favorite column being the gardening column. I read your column way back then, and related to that “throw in the trowel” column, and saved it , and kept it ( to this day) in my copy of the original book ” A Way to Garden” that I got when you were signing copies at Hick’s Nursery in Westbury. Not many people in my neighborhood were into gardening like I was, but they did stop and compliment me while out and about in the neighborhood.

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