my garden chores: july 2011

Margaret's garden clogs and trowel
HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW? That’s what I asked myself this last week, walking around with a pad and pen–and a critical eye. In the flurry of spring prep, planting and pruning, have I been working around some problems rather than tackling them properly? Oh, my, have I ever. This month’s chores include some true confessions on that score:

Where perennials or even worse, shrubs, are bulging out of the beds and drooping onto the lawn, it’s time for a decision. (And no, the decision cannot be “mow around them and deal with it later,” which is what I have done in a few spots this spring.) Time to either reduce the plants by division or pruning, or make the bed bigger, easing passage around its perimeter. I’m doing some of each.

Are some spots that seem to invite weeds to sow with wild abandon—like the driveway, or other gravel surfaces, or cracks between paving stones—requiring hours of finger-numbing work (or, more likely, just being left unweeded)? Again, decision time. To solarize (lay down black plastic sheeting, weighted with rocks, and use summer heat and sun to cook the weeds to death over a few weeks)? Or to spray (no, not chemical herbicide, but how about vinegar)? The things that sprout in my driveway are felled by it only when very young and tender; bittersweet or poison ivy and some other toughies, or well-established weeds, would require stronger a concentration of acetic acid, which is too strong to be safe for non-professional application, generally speaking.

And one more, before the official chores: I need to send some soil samples in for testing. I’m just not liking results I’m getting in some beds here, and what am I waiting for? Go take the samples, Margaret. Go. And now, the list:

Prefer the Podcast?

LISTEN TO THE JULY CHORES in my latest weekly podcast with Robin Hood Radio, WHDD in Sharon, Connecticut, if you prefer. Stream it here, or subscribe free on iTunes.

JULY STARTS OUT as Throw In the Trowel Month here, with June’s cutbacks still looking pretty rough, but then summer shapes up and the heat-lovers have their day. All is forgiven! Keeping up with watering and weeds tops the to-do list, with planting and other more macho tasks (other than mowing my steep hillside) at a minimum.

FIRST, THE HAIRCUTS: If you were squeamish about cutbacks as spring faded, you may be regretting it now, and facing floppy, exhausted plants in certain spots. Some things (like certain perennial Geraniums, for instance) do better if cut back hard. Go for it. Others need just deadheading of spent blooms. Annuals that grow leggy can often benefit from a chop job, too. Do some experiments. Sometimes a plant can’t look worse, and you probably won’t kill it. :)

MAKE A PASS through each bed each week, since weeds are not just unsightly but steal moisture, nutrients and light from desired plants. Top up mulch in all garden beds if washed or worn away to help in the plight.

LOOK WHILE WEEDING: Try to remember what’s done well (and not so well) so far in each bed. Make notes, to plan for fall reworking of problem spots, or a bed redesign.

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 or perhaps Milky Spore inoculation. This mole-eradication post is also related, as it’s grubs that moles are after.

OR MAYBE SLUGS AND SNAILS are proliferating. Some tactics on dealing with them.

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. Those plants living in pots need extra attention, especially smallish ones in sun, and they also need regular feeding. Be alert!


STOP FEEDING woody plants. Promoting more soft growth in high summer isn’t good; time for them to start moving toward the hardening-off phase of their cycle. No more eats till late winter or earliest spring.

TREES ARE especially vulnerable to drought, if you’re having a dry year, 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 these precious members of the garden and landscape.

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.

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. Last call!

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.


STRAWBERRY BEDS may appreciate rejuvenation now.

KEEP GARLIC AND ASPARAGUS well weeded. Garlic may start to fade and topple by later this month or next, as harvest time nears. When several lower leaves yellow, try carefully lifting a head or two to judge readiness, before lifting all to cure during a warm, dry spell in an airy, sheltered place. How to judge the right harvest moment. Let asparagus ferns grow till frost to feed the underlying crowns.

CONTINUE SOWING carrots, beets, radishes, lettuce, dill. With salad greens, select heat-resistant varieties, and sow small amounts every 10 days. I do it under a couple of hoops with a bit of Reemay clothes-pinned onto them to cast some shade. Direct-sow a short row of bush beans every two weeks through month’s end, and another mound of bush cukes and zucchini right now.

FOR PEAK FLAVOR, basil, sage, marjoram and oreganos, 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.


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!

SOW VIOLAS (and pansies in zones where they overwinter) in flats indoors for set-out in fall, where they’ll appreciate a protective mulch after the ground freezes. Fall-planted violas bloom earlier next spring.

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 may need a bit of help, too.

ORDER BULBS to get varieties you want (see Sources in bottom of left sidebar column). 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.


Houseplants, including amaryllis, can spend the summer outdoors, in a sheltered location with filtered bright light (not direct sun). Feed regularly.

Don’t bag or rake clippings; let them lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil.


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 and based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.

  1. Janeen says:

    People should also be aware that vinegar — NOT the variety you recommend here — but the more commercial-grade variety that is recommended on other websites as a weed killer is very concentrated, and can cause burns to skin. These high strength products — while organic — should be avoided.

    I am going to give this a try, however, and see how it works.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Janeen. Depends on what weed are growing — retail (culinary) kind works fine for my driveway varieties, but wouldn’t for tougher stuff like bittersweet and poison ivy etc. Thanks for your advice.

  2. cyndi says:

    hi–am enjoying your informative newsletters, but i have a question concerning rabbits. i know they are furry and cute, but they are consuming my coneflowers down to the ground and would like to creatively plant to save the remaining one i have. any suggestions? thanks

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Cyndi. I trap them (if my cat, who is VERY large, doesn’t “trap” them himself), using a Havahart live trap. HOWEVER, depending on where you live, you may not be able to move them to a new location legally. With some animals here, I have to pay a certified “nuisance wildlife handler” (usually employed by a pest-control service int he Yellow Pages) to do the relocation. So check your state/local regulations on nuisance wildlife control.

  3. Dana Cooley says:

    I have also used white vinegar for killing weeds. However, I have found that the regular store bought variety is not strong enough, nor fast enough for impatient me. Boiling the vinegar in a large pot until it’s in a reduced concentrated state seems to do the trick, although the acrid odor is not very inviting, but worth it. I have seen “commercial white vinegar” in gardening catalogs being sold for an absurd amount of money. Don’t waste your money, you can make this yourself!

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Dana, for a way to make it even stronger. The stuff that’s growing in my driveway is dead after a regular vinegar spritz, and then I pull up the withered bits…but some weeds are more tenacious, to be sure.

  4. Tkelly says:

    I threw in the towel the other day and resorted to Roundup, my back was killing me and I had not put a dent in the weeds. I wish I had that vinegar tip before, I felt sooo bad using the roundup. I will have vinegar on hand for any touch up that I have to do.

  5. I am always inspired by your monthly chore lists. It helps to keep me in check.

    We moved onto this property about seven years ago. It came with very traditional heirloom-type garden plants and bushes, such as mock-orange dogwood, peonies, rhubarb, catnip and lilacs. Due to simply being overwhelmed, I put off the lilac pruning all this while, and they were overgrown when we got the place. I am making a time-lapse video of the process, but it’s still a little painful to watch. Soon.

    Enjoy the fireworks, in whatever form! xo

  6. Linda says:

    I do apologize profusely for using Round up on the rather extensive poison ivy infestation in some old hosta beds at a house we just bought. Though I tried to be careful, it may even kill some of the generic hosta, but I CAN’T work with the dreaded poison ivy there!!
    Is there some other way to deal with the nasty stuff??????

  7. Joy says:

    For poison ivy: After a good rain put plastic bags (newspaper bags work particularly well) on both hands, pull slowly from the base of the plant to get the roots, peel the bag off your arm and hand holding the plant and put in the trash. With fresh bags do this for each plant. Of course this is for smaller plants. For large thicker stem plants I would cut the stem and carefully spray only the open wound of the cut with round up or try the vinegar. This should act systemically and go to the roots. You should spray the cut within 10mins of making it or it will start to seal itself. Also take all other precautions you would normally do for poison ivy; long pants and sleeves, wash your hands and tools with cool water and soap.

  8. Sharon says:

    Can vinegar damage the stone? Bluestone? It surely could damage limestone, bigtime. [My sister’s a stone conservator and my ‘consultant’ on all matters stone.]

  9. I love the beginning of the month and the new list of chores. Even more so if I am a bit ahead! (It makes me feel like I’m winning!) Thanks for the list. Can a person have too many beans – after reading this I think I’ll sow some more. And we have finally sorted out the allotment compost heap – and your tips were very helpful.
    Thanks Margaret. Happy July 4th to you and Jack.

  10. Jayne says:

    And there are the lily beetles to contend with – a whole new generation trying to take down my lilies! Miserable creatures!
    Thanks for the motivation – if you miss the chores now it isnt pretty by mid-July!
    Happy 4th!!

  11. Kerri says:

    I have used the vinegar trick, and it’s a winner. I’d like to share caution: if you’re using in a bed/garden area, make sure to draw any earthworms to the surface and relocate before applying. Otherwise they will surface and be killed by the acid.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Kerri, and welcome. I’m definitely using this on the cracks and crevices and driveway and such, but in the beds you are good to point out that like any “herbicide” other inhabitants won’t like it. Thank you. See you soon!

  12. Sharon says:

    I have had great success with a flame weeder for patio stones and stone driveway. The trick is to do it when the weeds are already stressed from drought and follow up with a 2nd shot several days later. Be careful to keep away from mulch, which is highly flammable!

  13. Tracy says:

    What to do with irises at this time? Snip the bloom end at an angle, just let the plant fade, or trim lower

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Tracy. Which kind of irises are you wanting to deadhead? Bearded or Siberian or ??? I deadhead the bearded (snap or cut off the spent blooms or better yet cut down the flowering stem when the last flower finishes, leaving the foliage assuming it’s healthy). With Siberian I let the seedheads ripen in place (I don’t deadhead — I kind of like the pods, but you could snap them off or cut down the flower stalk, too).

      With the bearded iris, you do cut the foliage down or off if it shows any signs of fungal disease (e.g., leaf spots). More info: the American Iris Society or Schreiner’s Iris catalog.

  14. LuLu says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I just love your site and your book. I live in V.A. and would like to plant more cool crops. When you mentioned you plant under a couple of hoops with a bit of Reemay clothes-pinned onto them to cast some shade. What kind of hoops are you talking about? I googled the Reemay Garden Blanket and bought some through Amazon today. Could you take a picture of what you are talking about? I think the visual would explain what you mean. I would really appreciate any help you can offer me.

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