HOT, PARCHED, EXHAUSTED. That’s a three-word portrait of me and the garden both most Augusts, and it was last year, though 2023 (like 2021) is closer to sodden in my region, unlike much of the rest of the nation, with pounding multi-inch rainfalls at least weekly lately.
We must push back where we can, so it helps to think of the August chores almost like a form of spot cleaning. We can’t fix everything, turning brown leaves green again, or sewing up holes, but we can make some headway.
It’s all just a headstart on fall cleanup, really, one floppy, yellowing or crispy piece of plant at a time. I’m teasing out the uglies (or the besieged, if we’re talking troubled tomatoes or sickly squash), and planning for fall-planting opportunities (including in the vegetable garden) as I go.
I’m not giving up, and not just for aesthetic reasons. Yes, I can trick the eye to make a fresher-looking garden with targeted trimming, deadheading, edging, and mulching, but doing so also reduces opportunities for pests and diseases; it’s win-win. Nothing a slug or a fungus likes more than a declining, overgrown mess. Out, out now with not just weeds, but anything that has seen better days, too.
IN THE NORTHEAST, where I garden, mid-August through mid-September is also prime lawn-repair time. After that, many favorite spring bulbs go into the ground in autumn, too—meaning I’d better get my orders in now, hoping they still have stock. I’m eyeing big, old clumps of certain perennials and thinking about where divisions might go next month, if regular rain and hospitable temperatures invite transplanting, or adding new things.
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.
pests, and more pests
ONE YEAR I was knee-deep in rabbits; the next year it was voles. In 2020, I had eight woodchucks (in 2018 I had a personal best of 10). I’ve only seen two this year, but bunnies galore. Need a 101 on “nuisance wildlife” control? Ohio State’s Marne Titchenell shared her expert advice. (If deer is your issue, Marne and I talked about that in this interview, and I recommend a version of fencing to match your situation.)
JAPANESE BEETLES? The adults by now are subsiding, or at least focusing their energies on activities other than chewing leaves. If beetles are still in evidence, handpick each morning and again late day, drowning them. We can’t eliminate them; we have to manage them. Consider a biological (non-toxic) control to reduce overwintering grub population with nematodes or another approach covered in this government bulletin for homeowners (pdf). I did a “New York Times” garden column on the beetles in 2021 with the latest information, too. Don’t waste money on traps, which only attract more from nearby yards. Well-watered lawns in July are prime breeding grounds for egg-laying females, so think about that next year and back off on the water and let the turf go semi-dormant. Smart practice environmentally, too, in our increasingly dry world.
WITH OTHER OBVIOUS pests like tomato (or tobacco) hornworms, or squash bugs, Colorado potato beetles or imported cabbage worms, I do the same: handpick early each morning. I’ll do a very serious fall cleanup with those crops, removing all debris to a distance to limit overwintering possibilities. I compost it away from the vegetable garden. It’s all a headstart on a scrupulous fall pest-control regimen.
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 you just want more butterflies, for instance? Or to sustain more species of bees, for pollination, or learn what supports our many native bumblebee species.
SPEAKING OF BUTTERFLIES, how good are your butterfly ID skills? Get help from the master, Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg.
ARE SLUGS AND SNAILS your issue? Some tactics.
weeding and watering
GARDENS IN MY ZONE need regular water from you or the heavens, and the last year or two never seem to get the natural form on a regular schedule. Always some extreme. Check your rain gauge. Soak beds deeply in the root zone; don’t spritz with a sprayer like you’re washing the car. Containers, especially smallish ones in sun, need daily attention, but don’t waste precious resources on the lawn, which will bounce back when cooler, moister days return. Young and old woody plants need it more, for instance, and anything recently transplanted, of course.
MAKE A PASS through each garden bed each week. 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: Identify your opponents, and the tactics and timing for best control. Some of my top stories to help:
- How to ID your weeds—links to online guides
- The weed encyclopedia of all weed encyclopedias
- A 101 approach to weed control
- Smothering weeds with cardboard and newspaper
- Will you use chemicals, or home remedies? (Do the latter really work?)
- Piling on the mulch for weed suppression and control
- Poison ivy 101
- Stiltgrass control
- Clearweed, or Pilea pumila
- Hedge bindweed and spotted spurge
- Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata
- Galinsoga and Commelina
- Mat-forming driveway or crack-and-crevice weeds: liverwort and pearlwort
- A weed I accidentally planted, Houttuynia or chameleon plant
- All my weed stories
SOME WEEDS are actually best targeted late summer and fall, including bindweed, the dreaded Japanese knotweed, ragweed, Ailanthus, curly dock and more. Here’s how to fight them now.
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. (Including pearlwort and liverwort, and spotted spurge.) Again, decision time: To solarize (lay down clear 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 (or Dutch hoe) is getting a workout, too.
trees & shrubs
NO MORE FERTILIZER! Promoting soft growth isn’t good after July, when it’s time for woody plants to start moving toward the hardening-off phase of their cycle. No more feeding until late winter or earliest spring.
TREES ARE ESPECIALLY vulnerable to drought, particularly the oldest and the youngest (those planted in the last few years). Water deeply—again, using precious water for these important plants, not the lawn.
ALWAYS be on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood and prune them out as discovered. Ditto with suckers and water sprouts, but August isn’t a month for rejuvenation or other cosmetic pruning. The pruning FAQ page may help.
vegetables, fruit & herbs
SEND IN SOIL SAMPLES for testing if you’re seeing poor results in some beds. Contact your local cooperative extension on how to sample, or read this how-to with Joe Lamp’l.
CONTINUE SOWING carrots, beets, radishes, lettuce, arugula, dill, spinach, turnips, if like me you are up North (I am in Zone 5B). I re-sow kale, too, for eating young in fall. If soil is baking hot, I cultivate lightly, moisten well and shade it under hoops with Reemay of shade fabric clothes-pinned on to cool it down first. Even peas can still go in—though not for full-grown pods, but to cut and eat a few inches tall, as pea shoot salad. More on how to get an extended harvest in every region….
…OR GO FOR 365-DAY vegetables, even up North, with this year-round approach from Niki Jabbour, who grows 30 crops to harvest November through March in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our latest conversation outlined her top tips.
KEEP ASPARAGUS well weeded and watered, too. Let asparagus ferns grow till hard frost, when they are fully browned—or even leave them up till spring cleanup.
GARLIC should be curing in an airy, sheltered place. Read all about growing garlic, and storing your harvest–and order bulbs now for October-ish planting.
HAVING TOMATO, CUKE OR SQUASH TROUBLES? There is a range of possible problems with tomatoes, but who could garden without them? It’s not all “blight,” this plant pathologist explains. If your issue is cucumbers or summer squash, start here. Peppers can be tricky in some seasons; pepper tips and recipes and storage tips.
AS AREAS COME EMPTY from harvest, build vegetable-garden soil by sowing cover crops. These “green manures” will be turned under to improve soil tilth and fertility. Don’t sow in areas reserved for fall-planted garlic, or where you plan to grow crops for November-through-March harvest, like this.
DAYLILIES can be dug and divided as they complete their bloom cycle, right into fall, if needed.
PEONIES are best divided and transplanted in late August through September, if they need it. Their “eyes” must not be buried more than an inch or two beneath the soil surface. Want more peonies? Now’s the time to order from specialists like Cricket Hill or Peony’s Envy (see Resource Links list).
IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED repotting, do it now, while they’re still outside (less messy than in the house).
MID-AUGUST TO MID-SEPTEMBER is prime lawn-renovation, planting and re-seeding time in the North. (Always overseed bare spots at once when they occur, to limit weedy opportunists.) Years ago, expert Paul Tukey offered me expert advice on crabgrass control, reversing lawn compaction and more that I still utilize.
IS IT TIME to plan to transition some lawns areas into ground-covering alternatives? Another possibility would be a meadow.
DON’T BAG OR RAKE clippings of the lawn you do still mow; let them lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil. Mow higher (longer grass) if it’s hot and dry, or don’t mow at all if things have slowed way down.
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. Begin sifting finished material to top up beds after fall cleanup. Cary Oshins, formerly of the US Composting Council, has some great tips. My friend Lee Reich is another master of composting, and here’s his method.
need help in other regions?
AGAIN: I’m in the Northeast, in Zone 5B, though the how-to in this story will work most anywhere (if timed slightly differently). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.