the august garden chores: 2013

shoes-trowel 3REMEMBER THE LATE-1980s AD for a medical-alert device, where a woman says: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”? I feel a bit like that when it comes to the garden right now—like I wouldn’t mind if a rescue crew showed up to offer a helping hand. Sound familiar? Plantings may be looking weary, too—yellowing, floppy, holey–as if to match the gardener’s state of mind. We can’t start all over in August, at least not here in the Northeast, but we can edit out many botanical signs of fatigue with the month’s key garden chores, like this: 

I’ve said in the past that I think of the August chores list as a form of spot cleaning—a headstart on fall cleanup, one blemish at a time. Thinking of it that way makes it more palatable, frankly: a leg up on work I’d have to do later, anyhow? OK; I can handle that.

I can’t fix everything, turning brown leaves green again, or sewing up holes in the Astilboides or brassicas. But I can (and must!) try to trick the eye with some targeted trimming, mulching and edging—and lots of deadheading, of course.

(I say “must,” because Garden Conservancy Open Day visitors are coming August 17—do join us!)

Besides the visual relief, editing out the worst bits reduces hiding places for pests and disease, so again, it’s worth it.  Let’s go:

weeding and watering

WEED! Make a pass through each bed each week; weeds steal moisture, nutrients and light from desired plants. It helps to know your weeds. Again: Top up mulch to help (and no, not big bark chips but good stuff). While you’re weeding, observe what’s done well (or not); note what spots need reworking. Identify where weeds sow in madly—like the driveway, gravel surfaces, or cracks between pavers—places that probably require hours of finger-numbing work or are being left unweeded. If so…

IF SO, IT’S DECISION TIME: To solarize (lay down plastic sheeting, and use summer heat and sun to cook 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 in action. I also smother weeds with cardboard and mulch, like this—good for making new garden beds, too.

GARDENS NEED AN INCH OF WATER weekly from you or the heavens. Check your rain gauge. Soak beds deeply in the root zone; don’t spritz with a sprayer like you’re washing the car. Containers, especially smallish ones in sun, need daily attention, but don’t waste precious resources on the lawn, which will bounce back when cooler, moister days return.


JAPANESE BEETLES? Handpick each morning and again later, drowning bugs. We can’t eliminate them; we have to manage them. Consider a biological (non-toxic) control to 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.   I’ll do a very serious fall cleanup, removing all debris to a distance. I compost it at my office, where there is no vegetable garden.

ARE SLUGS AND SNAILS your issue? Some tactics.

trees & shrubs

NO MORE FERTILIZER! Promoting soft growth isn’t good after July, when it’s time for woody plants to start moving toward the hardening-off phase of their cycle. No more feeding until late winter or earliest spring.

TREES ARE ESPECIALLY vulnerable to drought, particularly the oldest and the youngest (those planted in the last few years). Water deeply.

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

vegetables, fruit & herbs

SEND IN SOIL SAMPLES for testing if you’re seeing poor results in some beds. Contact your local cooperative extension on how to sample.

CONTINUE SOWING carrots, beets, radishes, lettuce, dill. I re-sow some broccoli cousins such as spigarello, and kales, plus fall peas. If soil is baking hot, I cultivate lightly, moisten well and shade it under hoops with Reemay clothes-pinned on to cool it down first. Direct-sow another short row of bush beans at once (your timing may vary; I am Zone 5B).  Planning the fall vegetable garden, and how to get an extended harvest in every region.

KEEP ASPARAGUS well weeded and watered, too. Let asparagus ferns grow till hard frost, when they are fully browned—or even leave them up till spring cleanup.

GARLIC should be curing in an airy, sheltered place. Read all about growing garlic, and storing your harvest–and order bulbs now for October-ish planting.

HAVING TOMATO, CUKE OR SQUASH TROUBLES? There is a range of possible problems 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?

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. Don’t sow in areas reserved for fall-planted garlic.

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

flower garden

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. Their “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 Song Sparrow or Peony’s Envy (see Resource Links list).

ORDER FLOWER BULBS for fall planting. What I like to grow to discourage bulb-hungry animals. More tips about flower bulbs are here.


IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED repotting, do it now, while they’re still outside (less messy than in the house).


MID-AUGUST TO MID-SEPTEMBER is prime lawn-renovation, planting and re-seeding time in the North. (Always overseed bare spots at once when they occur, to limit weedy opportunists.)  SafeLawns offers organic tips.

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

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. Begin sifting finished material to top up beds after fall cleanup.

(On using these chores: I garden in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) region, where frost stays till May sometime and returns in early October (or sooner some years!). Adjust accordingly to your zone.)

  1. Tricia says:

    These lists are sooo helpful for getting myself psyched up to the overwhelming tasks — I always feel great intentions… oh dear, oh well. The groundhogs have depressed me too much this year.
    Today at the bookstore where I work, a woman was looking for your first book because she was uprooting and moving – life change – etc. I felt I was – sending her on her way with your good encouragement – the perfect book — not just for gardeners. Lovely.

  2. Lara says:

    Hi Margaret,

    Thank you for this blog! I look forward to reading it every time your newsletter hits the inbox. I’m in NW CT and have a question about butternut squash. I’m a fairly new gardener and this is my first time growing it. The butternut squash are huge now – do I harvest them as soon as they’re big (i.e. now)? Or wait until next month?


    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lara — good question. Answer: NO! You want to wait till the skin changes color (to a uniform tan color, not pale or with any faint green striping) and the stem (where it attaches to the vine) is brown and woody. Be sure to cut them at the time without damaging the stem end — they keep better if the stem is intact, so don’t cut close.

  3. Olivia says:

    Count me in … Cannot believe that I am far away and still checking this site …in must be a gardener … Totally addicted. Peace

  4. Lou says:

    I asked about my Alaskan weeping cedar a few days ago. How do I view older posts/conversations? I am concerned that it is turning a rust color from the top down mostly inside out and I’ve noticed sack like things w/green slimy things inside, .

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lou. Sorry to be behind in my replies. Search for Alaska cedar (search box is top right) and you will find the old story. Top down browning is not good; it’s normal for them to shed inner leaves gradually as the tips grow our and the trees grows up and the inside foliage gets shaded and dies off, and drops. I can’t tell from your description if it’s more top down (like the entire leader or leaders is/are dying back) or inside out (where the inner needles are brown yet there are green ones near the branch tips).

      Do a Google image search for bagworm to see some image of that creature, which will feed on conifers (or click this link). Is that the kind of sack you are seeing? Normally these are pretty pest-proof trees but unusual things can happen, of course.

  5. Karen Budnick says:

    Hi Margaret – I always listen to your podcast. I especially enjoyed the one where you talked about dragonflies. Well, I had an up-close-and personal with one in my garden. He staked out his territory while I weeded and he swooped around catching small bugs and eating them while I took pictures! Check out my website – http://www.quarteracreweedfarm.blogspot.com! These little guys have more going for them than their looks!

  6. Mike Burch says:

    I have been having a horrible time with daylily rust here in Ocala,Florida..so much so that I have just about given up on them…how is rust effecting your daylilies??I have planted 75 jumbo caladium bulbs several months ago..around a loquat tree and a crape myrtle..they are white,red,and pink….wow..have they filled in beautifully..DID you know that we have dragon flies large enough here in Florida to chase hummingbirds..

  7. Joyce J says:

    About those daylilies – At Longwood Gardens in August a few summers ago, I noted that many daylilies had just been cut down to their crowns. So I have been doing that to rusty and yellow daylily leaves, and have found that they grow back within 2 -3 weeks, and look good til frost!

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