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.
TREES & SHRUBS
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!
VEGETABLE, FRUIT & HERBS
MY FALL VEGETABLE GARDEN PLANS are covered in this archive story and podcast.
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.
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).
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 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.