august garden chores
FOR MOST OF MY CAREER, I was an editor more than a writer, and good thing. Editing is the gardener’s assignment, especially in August—and particularly if company is coming. (My next Open Day is Saturday, August 15, when Ken Druse will be here, too, lecturing on shade and teaching garden photography; details.)
Out, out now with not just weeds—the obvious undesirable element—but also with chewed-on foliage of garden plants, or any that’s floppy, yellowing, crisp. Think of the August chores as editing—and as a headstart on fall cleanup, one blemish at a time.
THE JAPANESE BEETLES are subsiding, or at least focusing their energies to activities other than chewing leaves, but the rabbits? No such luck. Like last year, I’m tempted to list my top August chore as, “Trap rabbits,” but that would make for one very frustrating month. Instead, I’m teasing out the uglies, and planning for fall-planting opportunities as I go.
In the Northeast, where I garden, mid-August through mid-September is prime lawn-repair time, for instance. Then, many favorite spring bulbs go into the ground in autumn, too—meaning I’d better get my orders in. 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.
For example: Maybe it’s time to “grow” more good garden bugs by growing more helper-friendly plants? Like this.
NOW AS FOR THE UNTIDY BITS: August chores are like spot cleaning. I can’t fix everything, turning brown leaves green again, or sewing up holes. I can trick the eye with targeted trimming, deadheading, edging, mulching for my upcoming visitors, but doing so also reduces opportunities for pests and diseases. Nothing a slug or a fungus likes more than a declining, overgrown mess.
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. 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
- 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
- Clearweed, or Pilea pumila
- Hedge bindweed and spotted spurge
- Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata
- Galinsoga and Commelina
- A weed I accidentally planted, Houttuynia or chameleon plant
- All my weed stories
GARDENS NEED AN INCH OF WATER weekly from you or the heavens. 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.
JAPANESE BEETLES? If adults are still in evidence, handpick each morning and again late day, drowning bugs. 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 hornworms, 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. I compost it at my office, where there is no vegetable garden. It’s all a headstart on a scrupulous fall pest-control regimen.
ARE SLUGS AND SNAILS your issue? Some tactics.
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.
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 planning the fall vegetable garden, and how to get an extended harvest in every region.
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? 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.
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).
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.) 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 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.