my august 2012 garden chores

THINK OF IT AS SPOT CLEANING—you know, when you dab at the ketchup on your shirt rather than wash the whole thing right then and there. That’s what August is for in the garden: spot cleaning. I can’t fix everything, turning brown leaves back to green or sewing up hail holes in the Astilboides. But I can try to trick the eye (Open Day visitors are coming Aug. 18!) with some targeted trimming, mulching and edging. Whether you’re having tours or not, the August chores that follow will  make for greater personal visual enjoyment late summer and fall, reduce hiding places for pests and disease—and after all, it’s really just a headstart on fall cleanup, one spot at a time.

Prefer the Podcast?

THE AUGUST GARDEN CHORES were among the topics on this week’s edition of the A Way to Garden podcast, recorded live each week with the smallest NPR station in the nation: WHDD in Sharon, Connecticut (a.k.a. Robin Hood Radio). You can stream it right now, or subscribe free on iTunes or the Stitcher app so you never miss another episode.

Like the journalist I was trained to be, I’m always editing the garden, and good thing, since by August in a dry year like this one has been, it needs another round. Gaps in the perennial beds (preferable with a little fresh mulch applied) will look better than a hosta that’s had it, or an anemic-looking bleeding heart.

Focal points: weeds and water. Every weed pulled now is a hundred (a million?) you don’t have to deal with later. Don’t let them go to seed. Make a pass through each bed each week, since weeds are not just unsightly but steal moisture, nutrients and light from desired plants. Too many to handle in a particular area? Smother them with cardboard and mulch, like this.

If your garden is dry, don’t waste water on lawns, which will bounce back from brown when cooler, moister days return—or on washing down paths and patios. Sweep instead! Target water offerings to the most precious subjects, particularly recently planted things and the vegetable garden.


DON’T FEED WOODY PLANTS another bite (better, even, to stop in July here in the northern part of the country, really, where frost can some sometime in September or October). Promoting soft growth in high summer isn’t good; time for them to start moving toward the hardening-off phase of their cycle. No more fertilizer till earliest spring.

TREES ARE ESPECIALLY vulnerable to drought, 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 the kids!

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. Ditto with suckers and water sprouts. The pruning FAQ page may help.


MY FALL VEGETABLE GARDEN PLANS are ambitious, and yours can be, too. How you can plan for an extended harvest in every region.

ANOTHER SOWING of chard, radishes, carrots, arugula, kale, spinach, turnips, beets and lettuce means succulent fall crops. With salad greens, sow small amounts now and again in 10 days, and so on. Direct-sow one more row of bush beans if you don’t have later-producing pole beans to rely on for harvest now through fall, but do it fast.

SOW ANOTHER CROP OF PEAS right now for fall harvest (and perhaps freezing for offseason use). Shelled peas from the freezer really make risotto in January taste like summer.

HAVING TOMATO TROUBLES? There is a range of possible problems to be sure. It’s always something 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.

LOOKING FOR RECIPE IDEAS for all that produce, including these for cucumbers and zucchinis galore? All my recipes are here.

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. Remember not to sow in areas reserved for fall-planted crops like garlic!

STRAWBERRY BEDS may appreciate renovation, if you didn’t get it done last month.

KEEP ASPARAGUS well weeded. Let asparagus ferns grow till frost to feed the underlying crowns.

DID YOU HARVEST GARLIC? Save the best heads for replanting this fall, the ones with the biggest cloves (or order more for fall delivery). Not sure when to harvest garlic?

DID YOU START MORE BASIL from seed? Young, fresh plants sown immediately will be better than woody old ones for combining with fall tomatoes. Is there enough fresh dill coming for late pickles? For peak flavor, basil, sage, marjoram and oreganos, mint and tarragon are best harvested just before bloom. Harvest lavender, rosemary and chamomile as they flower, blossoms and all.

I FREEZE MANY HERBS, including parsley, rosemary and chives, or make them into pestos to freeze as well. Here’s how.


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. Remember with these fussy guys that “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 places like Klehm’s or Peony’s Envy (see Resource Links list).

MANY POPULAR ANNUALS can be overwintered as young plants if you take and root cuttings now rather than try to nurse along leggy older specimens. Geraniums, coleus, wax begonias, even impatiens (to name just a few common ones), if grown in good light indoors and kept pinched and bushy, will yield another generation of cuttings for next spring’s transplants. Probably best to expend this effort and space on things you really treasure—an unusual form of something, not the garden variety.

MANY PERENNIALS and biennials can still be started from seed if you hurry, then set out in the fall into nursery beds.

DEADHEAD FADED PERENNIALS and summer bulbs unless they have showy seedheads, or you want to collect seed later (non-hybrids only).

ORDER FLOWER BULBS for fall planting to get varieties you want, often at an early shopping discount. Here’s what I like to grow to (hopefully) defeat bulb-hungry animals in the garden. Remember our “early, middle, late” mantra when doing so. More tips about flower bulbs are here.

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.


IF YOU ARE IN JAPANESE BEETLE territory, handpick (as with other obvious pests like tomato hornworms) in early morning and drown in a can of water to reduce infestation. Plan to try to reduce grub population with nematodes. Beetle help is coming, by the way.

GARDENS NEED an inch of water a week from you or the heavens. Check your rain gauge to make sure they get it, and remember: Soak deeply in the root zone, don’t spritz things with a sprayer now and again like you’re washing the car. That’s a garden no-no. Pots need extra attention, especially smallish ones in sun, and they also need regular feeding. Be alert.


IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED repotting, do it now, while they’re still outside (less messy than in the house). Don’t step up more than an inch in diameter (on small pots) or a couple (on large ones). Most plants don’t like to swim in their containers.


MID-AUGUST TO MID-SEPTEMBER is prime lawn-renovation, planting and re-seeding time in the North. SafeLawns is my favorite reference site for organic tips.

DON’T BAG OR RAKE clippings; let them lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil. Mow higher if it’s hot and dry, or don’t mow at all if things have slowed way down. Freedom!


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.

  1. Jessica says:

    I’m pretty sure one of my tomato plants has Spotted Wilt Virus. I’m afraid it might spread to the other tomatoes (and the peppers and eggplants) if I don’t destroy it. Any tips on what I should do with the plant when I rip it out? I’m guessing that the compost heap would be a bad idea in this case.

    Thanks for the great gardening tips, wit and wisdom :)

  2. Jay says:

    As a brand new container gardener in Manhattan, I’m a huge fan of these garden chore lists. I feel like you’re talking right to me…as if you’ve been to my terrace and are offering me direct advice. Thanks again, and best of luck with the garden “open house.”

  3. Jason says:

    In my little vegetable/herb garden, I’ve got dill, cilantro, and cukes that have played out, but I just can’t make up my mind what to replace them with.

  4. Usha says:

    I am new at reading and communicating on blogs but love gardening. Thoroughly enjoy your newsletters. I have few questions but will ask only one :
    Have three Ninebarks (Diablo and Cppertina) planted in my garden having different amount of sunshine. To my disappointment, none have flowered after the first year when they already had blooms when I bought them. The leaves are gorgeous and shrubs look healthy.
    I have follwed advise about not removing old canes to fertilizing them with low nitrogen fertilizer but no success.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Usha. The reasons plants don’t flower usually involve light (if there’s too little to support flowering); nutrients (if the plants get too much Nitrogen — which promotes foliage at the expense of flowers); or improper pruning (cutting off flower buds accidentally). Since you say they are in different light conditions and all healthy I’m going to suggest soil testing to see what’s up, and also don’t feed them again. If they are in only a little light I would understand that they might fail to flower…or if you pruned them in early spring (or late fall or winter).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.