THE JULY DRILL, IN SHORTHAND: Raise the mower deck; man the sprinklers; get out the vegetable seeds—and pull out the weeds. Got it? Diligence on all fronts (plus a bucket of water by your side at all times to toss those damn Japanese beetles into, and a basket for any faded, floppy foliage) will be rewarded. The month’s garden chores:
I know, it seems daunting. 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.
Despite my stuck-ness, then summer usually shapes up, and the tall annuals and perennials, ornamental grasses, 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 push on through.
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. First: Learn to identify your opponents. Here’s help with weed ID. I am about to do battle with this prolific one—called clearweed. Look familiar? I have a whole archive of weed stories at this link, from prunella and mugwort, to bindweed and spotted spurge, to galinsoga and commelina, to garlic mustard and more.
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 is getting a workout, too.
GARDENS NEED AN INCH OF WATER a week from you or the heavens. Check your rain gauge. Soak beds deeply in the root zone, but don’t spritz things with a sprayer now and again like you’re washing the car. Containers, especially smallish ones in sun, need daily attention, and they also need periodic feeding. Be alert!
IF YOU ARE IN JAPANESE BEETLE territory, handpick each morning and again later in the day. Drown in a can of soapy water. Remember, we can’t eliminate them; we have to manage them. 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).
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 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.
OR MAYBE SLUGS AND SNAILS are proliferating? Some tactics on dealing with 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.
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.
STRAWBERRY BEDS may appreciate rejuvenation now.
KEEP ASPARAGUS well weeded and water it, too. Let asparagus ferns grow till hard frost to feed the underlying crowns.
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.
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 if you are, as I am, 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 toward the hardening-off phase of their cycle. No more eats 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 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 risking damage to 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.
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.)
POTS IN PARTICULAR need regular, thorough watering (sometimes more than once a day if they’re small and in full sun!) throughout the heat of high summer. Vigilance!
PRUNE RAMBLER ROSES and once-blooming climbers now, after their flowering period.
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).
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.
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.
Don’t bag or rake clippings; let them lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil.
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.
(On using this list in your garden: The monthly A Way to Garden chores are based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.)