my garden chores: august 2011

Margaret's garden clogs and trowel
IS IT MY JOURNALISM BACKGROUND that always has me editing the garden? Here comes another big round of just that. I’m always startled by just how much tattered, faded foliage can be cut off and hauled out of the perennial beds in August–and how much better it looks even if it means leaving some gaps, compared to having sad, messy stuff that’s barely hanging on—and that encourages mildew and slugs. Ready for some tuneups?

BY AUGUST, BOTH GARDEN AND GARDENER can be looking a little tired. If only I can muster the stamina, both of us can be in much better shape before long. The primary tactics: watering, of course, and weeding, but I’m also looking to freshen things up visually by re-edging beds whose lines have grown fuzzy, and topping up the mulch.  There’s nothing I can do to repair holes in leaves left behind by hailstorms, or other such woes—but I can trick the eye, at least, and make the overall picture a little cleaner and sharper.

Yes, I sometimes think that August, not April, is the cruelest month (though T.S. Eliot famously thought otherwise, and spelled it cruellest for good measure). It is typically hazy, hot and humid…but that’s no excuse for stopping: Every weed pulled now is a hundred (a thousand?) 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.

If you’re 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! Target water offerings to the most precious subjects, particularly recently planted things.


DON’T FEED WOODY PLANTS another bite (better, even, to stop in July here). 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 covered in this archive story and podcast.

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, start here.

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!

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.

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?

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. 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.

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 Sources 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 BULBS to get varieties you want (see Sources). 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.

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. Yvonne says:

    My August chores include another round of prunning the fuzz off the boxwoods so that they look well trimmed for the winter months that I’m sure will come all to quickly here in Chicago. And those pesty weeds, they grow when nothing else will in this heat!

  2. Kathy M says:

    I was out in the garden this morning with clippers in hand to start on the major job of deadheading and cutting back my Echinacheas, Ballonflowers and Phlox in the sun border. Looks alot better but sure has less color . I need some ideas for late summer
    bloomers. I do have Pentas and Lantanas that are still going strong but the Daylilies and Rudibeckias are done and even the annuals have taken a beating from our high temps this past month. It was 104 last week and yesterday we got 3+ inches of rain in less than 4 hrs. Almost looking forward to a frost!!

  3. Val @ Mental Chew says:

    I struggle with my garden in August. The sun is FINALLY out (in WA) and heading to the beach/ lake/ pool with my two little uns. Thank you for the list to give me a little focus when I am heading into our green space for something other zucchini + dinner.

  4. Kristina says:

    I’m wondering why we booked an 8 day trip to San Francisco in early August, right when the garden is going great guns! Note to self: book trips for late May, early June!

  5. Dee says:

    Thanks for the post, Margaret. Down here in zone 7A, we’ve got a month or more to get to your list, but I have one fallow bed that I’m allowing to recuperate from too many seasons of tomatoes and peppers, and the resulting soil-borne viruses and other nasties. A cover crop is a great idea; thanks for reminding me to order some organic seeds. Turnips might be nice — down here, we call the greens “turnip salad,” and cook ’em up like collards.

  6. Broken Barn Industries says:

    It really DOES look tired out there! This is the first year I’ve noticed, and right on August 1st. I’m not surprised. The “show” here in July was amazing, like waking up to a carnival every morning- daylilies, casablancas, bee balm, marigolds, stargazers- a real riot! The crickets also started that day as if they’re using a calendar. I still don’t feel like weeding even though I know better.

    The late bloomers are gearing up now- cardinal flower, helenium, hibiscus- and the annuals are still looking good.

  7. Carol says:

    Here in central TX, our 10-day forecast shows no high under 101 degrees, just as the past 10 days have been. Tomorrow it’s to reach 106. We haven’t had rain for weeks. DH is dragging me off on ‘vacation’ next week so I’m sure I’m going to lose most of what’s still hanging on. Even the natives are looking stressed. What I can’t decide is: should I replace all the dead things I’m going to find when I get home . . . or just give up gardening till I can retire and move somewhere where it rains once in a while?

  8. Carla says:

    I’ve come to realize that my garden view in August is butterflies on the Joe Pye Weed and gold finches and hummingbirds on their feeders. Other than that…blaah,

  9. Michelle says:

    I hate to even say it, but here in the Sierra Nevada foothills we are having the best garden EVER! We had a very wet Spring, and we are having a warm (not hot) Summer! Even the daylilies are still blooming! My vegetable garden is just starting to produce…

  10. Patricia Kulhavy says:

    All of the comment look familiar except for the one from Texas. I am praying for rain for them. I go out early and have been concentrating on one spot a morning. By 11 it is getting too hot, 90, being too hot. Some rain. We could use more. I have a yard waste bag every week now with tree trimmings and dead head things and weeds. But it looks pretty good considering. I am moving pots around for color. This is the best year I have had. Better next year. Very satisfying. You have helped me to keep focused. Thank you for your blog Margaret.

  11. Madeline says:

    I was perusing my boxwoods this week and noticed they have boxwood leaf miners. I went online to find a solution but the ones I am finding are all pretty toxic. I’m trying to avoid that in my garden – any suggestions for dealing with them that is a little more eco friendly?

    1. Margaret says:

      I’d start w/the Penn State Integrated Pest Management Fact Sheet on the topic.

      There are MANY links off that page down at the bottom, etc. to other research.

      However, it is more a method of picking resistant varieties and then pruning off the unhatched eggs before the adults emerge (which is what I do to control Viburnum leaf beetle without chemicals).

      All the pesticides listed look pretty scary.

      The timing of the emergence of the adults is said to coincide w/Weigela bloom in spring — so you’d have to do some serious pruning then to knock back the population. Anyhow, a start — again, follow the links for more detail.

  12. Margo says:

    Does anyone have suggestions for what to do about yellow jackets in the compost bin? (Besides waiting for winter.) I can’t get near it without getting stung.

    1. Margaret says:

      Margo, I have used one of the mint-oil-based sprays that shoot from a distance like the ones with chemicals, don’t have those in them. Best to use them early, early before activity begins with sunshine/heat of daytime. I have used the one from the brand called Victor, for instance, a number of times when the nest was in a bad place I could not work around. I think Safer has a version though I have not read the label in person to see what’s in it.

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