Margaret's garden clogs and trowelTHERE IS PAYOFF—new potatoes, a tomato finally, and then garlic harvest as the month winds down. There are also problems to be managed (hello, Japanese beetles), 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; 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 right now, whose fruit is attracting birds galore.

Often, as July begins, I want to throw in the trowel; mow the whole place down or turn it under (think: bulldozer).

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.

But if I push through, 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 the July chores:

new feature for 2015: 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.

Some of my hit parade to help in that effort:

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. Check your rain gauge to see if the heavens provided it. 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 later in the day. Drown in a container of water. 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.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

flower garden

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).

ARE ANNUAL VINES getting the continuing support they need, whether twine, wire, lattice? Perennial types like Clematis may need a bit of help, too.

ORDER BULBS to get varieties you want (see Resources for catalog suggestions). Remember our “early, middle, late” mantra when doing so.

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. Be careful not to mow too low in summer’s heat. Scalped areas are prime targets for crabgrass to emerge.

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. 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.

  1. I have a large bed of snow peas that are still producing. When they wind down, can I plant bush beans in that same bed? I’ve heard conflicting information. I know I can plant more radishes, beets and kale there; just not sure about the beans.

    1. margaret says:

      I think it’s fine, yes, if that’s where the space is. Some disciplines, like biodynamics, call for rotations from different groups of plants — e.g., fruit or flower crops to follow root or leaf crops. Their calendar, for example. Other theories of rotation do it by botanical families, changing it up from planting to planting (and both beans and peas are legumes, so it wouldn’t be a big change). One reason close relatives aren’t planted one after another in the same space is that they may share common pests who may have built up in the spot. Others say a heavy feeder shouldn’t follow a heavy feeder and so on (which would deplete the soil)…but most of all: Where is the open space coming available for those beans? That’s the totally practical level, I think.

  2. Ellen Kirby says:


    At the food bank garden we plant 300 tomato plants. We have had a problem with blossom end rot over the years, usually with first tomatoes but then sporadically. We try to ignore it but this year we decided to take action. At the suggestion of our extension agent, we ran calcium chelate through our irrigation system and also to water very consistently (drip) and it has made a HUGE difference. It was suggested by the owner of the company where we got the calcium that the tomatoes go through a big surge of hormonal change when they are producing the first fruits. That, plus the regular calcium uptake problem create the conditions for blossom end rot.

    Second, we have a very large drift of swamp milkweed that is in flower with bees all over it. We spotted two red bees. Have you ever seen them?

  3. Margaret, thank you for your reply to my beans-following-peas question. I will be planting the bush beans there. We have plants from an earlier sowing, in another bed, but we love beans of all kinds so much we can never have enough. It should be fine, if it’s a question of pests and soil quality – our plants come up strong (bless them) because of the rich compost. I learned from you how to get the best, safest compost – ours is from an environmentally conscious local woman who has three horses. We fill our raised beds with that and it’s just amazing.

  4. Peggy says:

    Margaret, I hope to win the book because I have countless animals that come thru the woods behind me and I am not certain who they are. The book will be a tremendous help for me to identify them and know how to treat their arrival.
    Thank you for all the valuable info you share with us. It is so helpful.

  5. Chris says:

    I clipped that old article out of Newsday some twenty plus years ago, when I was new to Long Island and you were like a new gardening “friend”. I keep it in the back of your book ” A Way to Garden”. Oh, so long ago !! As I am a midwesterner, I appreciated that you were more of a “folksy” writer than most New York City writers ( although I did detect a little New York rush and stress-out in that article ) , until you got out the hammock and lemonade !! You’ve come a long way, baby, and so have I !!

  6. Rebecca davis says:

    Loved the info on the red fox. I am a beekeeper and I left a frame of drawn comb outside last night and when I realized it and went to retrieve it I discovered a baby skunk feasting on the wax and honey! It ate half the frame. My daughter asked me why I didn’t scare it away to rescue the frame.mmmmm don’t think it takes much to figure out why I let it have its fill and wander off before I ran over to get it

  7. Lauren says:

    Margaret – I just wanted to say I LOVE your blog… I can’t even remember how I discovered it but I’ve been hooked for the past few months now. I look forward to my e-mail on Sunday with your new posts.
    I learn a lot from you, thank you for that! :)

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