the july garden chores
EACH 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, as in 2018, and in 2019 with our first summery weather after a generally cold spring–I want to throw in the trowel; mow the whole place down or turn it under (think: bulldozer). In 2020, after a very dry June, some proper rain fell just before the start of this month, so we shall see…
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 (but first learn about proper watering); 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:
- What weed is it? How to ID your weeds—links to online guides
- Why weeds succeed
- A 101 approach to weed control
- Soil solarization, with clear or dark plastic, for weed control
- Smothering weeds with cardboard and newspaper
- Piling on the mulch for weed suppression and control
- Poison ivy 101
- Spotted spurge and hedge bindweed
- Clearweed, or Pilea pumila
- Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata
- Galinsoga and Commelina
- A weed I accidentally planted, Houttuynia or chameleon plant
- Liverwort and pearlwort, my crack-and-crevice and driveway weeds
- All my weed stories
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 a regular supply of moisture. Check your rain gauge to see if the heavens provided any–but most important, read this 101 on smart watering with Daryl Beyers, New York Botanical Garden instructor and author of “The New Gardener’s Handbook.” When you water, soak beds deeply in the root zone, but don’t spritz with a sprayer now and again like you’re washing the car. Containers, 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. Drown in a container of 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.
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).
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.
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:
- The bees in your backyard
- What I learned about pollinators in 2018
- Monarchs and milkweed
- Pollinators of native plants
- Bumblebee 101
- Getting to know wild honeybees
- Learn to ID butterflies
- Moth 101 (and why they matter)
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.
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.