Margaret's garden clogs and trowelHOT, PARCHED, EXHAUSTED. That’s a three-word portrait of me and the garden both most Augusts. We must fight back, so it helps to think of the August chores this way: It’s all just a headstart on fall cleanup, 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 as I go.

August chores are like spot cleaning. I can’t fix everything, turning brown leaves green again, or sewing up holes. But in “normal” years I have Open Days each year in August, and workshops in September some years, too, so I cannot just give up. (Tempting!) This year I confess to not being so fastidious, but it’s not all about aesthetics, anyhow.

I can trick the eye with targeted trimming, deadheading, edging, mulching if visitors were coming, 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. I’m eyeing big, old clumps of certain perennials and thinking about where divisions might go next month, as (hopefully) regular rain resumes and temperatures are more hospitable for 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 am looking for my 9th woodchuck (in 2018 I think I had 10)–and the season’s far from over. 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 to 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).

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, removing all debris to a distance to limit overwintering possibilities. I compost it at my office, where there is no 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. 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.

SOME WEEDS are actually best targeted late summer and fall, including bindweed, the dreaded Japanese knotweed, ragweed, Ailanthus, bindweed, curly dock and more. Here’s how to fight them now.

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:

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 rejuvenations 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 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 really 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.

I FREEZE MANY HERBS, including parsley, rosemary and chives, or make them into pestos to freeze as well. Here’s how. All my canning, freezing and otherwise preserving articles are at this link.

flower garden

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 Song Sparrow or Peony’s Envy (see Resource Links list).

ORDER FLOWER BULBS for fall planting. What bulbs I like to grow to discourage bulb-hungry animals. More tips about flower bulbs are here.

houseplants

IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED repotting, do it now, while they’re still outside (less messy than in the house).

lawns

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.) Expert Paul Tukey offers expert advice on crabgrass control, reversing lawn compaction and more.

I’M ADDICTED to my battery-powered mower, and haven’t pulled the cord on my gas-guzzler all season. Here’s why.

DON’T BAG OR RAKE clippings; 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.

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. Begin sifting finished material to top up beds after fall cleanup. My friend Lee Reich is the master of compost masters, 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.

  1. Jean Murray says:

    Thank you very much. I am horribly allergic and I learned some things that we can do about our huge crop of poison ivy.

  2. Jason says:

    Man oh man, we’re just trying to keep everything alive this month here in 6b. Rain seems like a distant thought!

  3. Victoria Long says:

    Do you compost the deceased plants that you remove from your garden. If so do you use the compost on your vegetables or elsewhere?

  4. Jody McGowan says:

    Hi Margaret,

    Somewhat off topic — but a treat for those who can make it and are in need of a reward after August gardening chores! –>

    My garden was not happy (and I came home to too many weeds!) but our family took a wonderful vacation at Candlewood Lake in Connecticut last week. One of the highlights of our trip was touring Crown Maple at Madava Farms, which is home to the largest sugar house in the world. My three kids loved the tastings. And all the maple syrup is organic! In case you haven’t heard of them, it’s a fantastic operation and well worth a visit if you are in Dutchess County (NY) or western CT.

    Love your blog and podcast – thanks for sharing so much fabulous information!

    Jody

    1. Teresa D says:

      Dear Margaret, I truly appreciate this handy list, my small garden benefits greatly from your recommendations. I was able to use a few of your suggestions and as a result this year the garden has provided me many hours of respite, calm, exercise and many compliments, thank you 😊

  5. Donna Dawson says:

    This to do list is very in depth and detailed. Certainly beats what I’ve been doing in my garden at this time of the year. Thanks for sharing this valuable information. I’m going to make sure and go through each one of these steps for my garden. You said no more fertilizer during August, when would be the best time to apply fertilizer again?

  6. Deb says:

    Really enjoyed today’s email. We have a farm in Kaleva, MI and we are well aware of the impact on the bumble bee population. Just added the bubble bee watch app !
    You do a great job and I truly appreciate the work and “natural” approach on everything.

    Best to you and your family,

    Deb

  7. Amanda says:

    Even though the article is from 2019, weeds don’t change so here is the app I use all the time, even at the greenhouse because it is so good. Picture This from app store. I’m only a very satisfied user happy too. I had no idea what any dock looked like let alone know there were multiple kinds. So if weeds are your problem get the app. I sound like a commercial. Sometimes it doesn’t show the correct plant but not very often.

  8. Carolyn Roof says:

    Opened up chores for the month as always.
    This time it stuck me that the brand new garden shoes and trowel are sending the wrong message, at least to me. I admit that I am a down in the dirt, crawling around on hands and knees (amazing the wonders discovered that way) and clean but well worn garden shoes, pruners, and a weathered but tung oiled trowel are my favorite and most used tools.

    Perhaps, a less pristine trowel and shoes to indicate chores for the month?

  9. Jay says:

    I really enjoy how you manage, grow and change your piece of the Earth. Thank you for this site. I hope that someday – maybe seasonally – you walk through your property with your phone and video all the corners of it so we may see it in total. Of course, with your voice.

    What could teach us more than nature and our guardianship of a small piece of it.

    Looking forward to your future posts.

    Jay

  10. Mindi Barnes says:

    I’ve recently returned to Upstate New York after gardening in Florida for many years. I’ve always kept up with your blog and it immediately came to mind when needing a brush up on what I should be doing this time of year. Reading your August Chores is really helping me get “grounded” here in Zonle 6b. – Many Thanks!

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