DO THE MATH – It’s now about four months till our average first frost date. I know it’s hard to imagine ever being cold again…but if you are thinking of planting more warm-season stuff in the vegetable garden, use this as your timeline. That’s about 120 days. Read seed packets for days maturity. This means no excuses—you can still plant just about any summer crop except maybe sweet potatoes, which generally take that 120 days.
PICK SOME BLUEBERRIES – There’s nothing like fresh fruit in the garden to teach you all about the habits of your local birds. Last year, bound and determined to actually get some before the ***** flying rats, I covered the bushes with bird netting. Well, it kept out the starlings and catbirds,( which dive-bomb from above,) keeping them from devouring everything. But the robins, (which pop up from below) were able to circumnavigate the barriers and get in, but not out. So while patiently waiting for me to come home and release them, they managed to eat every single fruit, uninterrupted by the starlings.
KEEP AHEAD OF MOSQUITOES – It seems to take about three days of water standing before you can see those larvae, wriggling in anticipation of crawling out of the primordial ooze and enjoying a blood meal. Be diligent about dumping any standing water– no matter how small an amount– and treating the rest with mosquito dunks or sprinkles. I generally keep mine under control by introducing cheap goldfish into the mix in larger reservoirs (bigger than 30 gallons) but not where they sit in direct sunlight (gets too hot,) where rainwater drops directly on them (they get splashed out,) or where it’s easy for cats to get to them. Marauding herons are rarely a problem in the city, but have been seen stealing the larger coy, so just use the cheap fish.
CLEAN UP THE GRAPEVINES – Although it’s too late to use a fungicide or horticultural oil, you can still help keep black rot from turning all your grapes into little mummies. Guignardia bidwellii fungus is spread by rainsplash on affected areas. Remove any leaves that have wrinkles and bumps, and any fruit that shows spots, and send them to landfill. (DO NOT COMPOST.) Then pray that everything ripens up before you run out of fruit to pick off.
PRUNING – Do a little corrective pruning on shrub roses. If you’re growing Knock Out roses, they are, to use a horticultural understatement, “blooming aggressively.” If the shrubs have reached their full size of 3 ft wide and 4 or more ft tall, it’s ok to prune them back to fit into their allotted space. Cut back spikes and irregular branches; you can even use a hedge-trimmer to cut things back a foot. New growth should be more smoothly shaped late in the season, and will put out lots of fall bloom.
CLEAN OUT THE WORM BIN – I dumped the whole thing on a tarp in the sun, and watched them dig their way south, clustering into the middle of the bottom of the pile. Keep removing the rich black soil from the surface and edges of the pile, driving the worms deeper to escape the bright light. When the pile is more worms than soil, put the writhing mass back in the bin with new bedding,( newspaper, dried leaves, etc) and fresh garbage so they can start the process again. Take done soil and sprinkle it into houseplant pots or spread around vegetables. Mix with water to make worm poop tea, and water plants for a nice gentle dose of nutrients, trace minerals and tasty biologicals.
DEADHEAD FOR A LONGER BLOOM – This is best done while wearing tie dyes. Remove flowers after they have bloomed. This prevents pollinated flowers from making fruit or setting seeds, which causes the plant to “senesce” or get old and stop making new flowers. And while you’re in the remove mood, pinch back the tops of coleus, and of fall-blooming perennials like chrysanthemums, asters and helianthus (I’m trying this on my Jerusalem artichoke sunflowers this year) to promote branching and make more flowers happen later in the season.
SIDE DRESS WITH FERTILIZER & COMPOST – Stuff that has been growing since early spring can benefit now from a “side dressing” of a line of dry fertilizer, like 5-10-5 or 3-4-4 scratched lightly into the soil alongside rows or individual plants. Keep the lines several inches away from stems. Water well afterward. Avoid using dry fertilizers on hot dry days unless you water well before AND after applying, since many are salty and can burn. Organic fertilizers derived from compost, manures or seaweed are usually more gentle to plants and release more slowly; gentlest and most effective is fresh worm compost, since it slowly inoculates with beneficials as it breaks down and releases nutrients.
Vegetables especially are bursting out of the ground, seeming to double in size overnight. They’re getting all that energy from somewhere, and it’s not in unlimited supply. Time to charge their batteries with added fertilizer and especially with some well-seasoned compost, spread an inch thick around plants on the surface of the soil. Unless you see signs of color change in leaves of shrubs and trees, these rarely need to be fertilized; they do, however, always benefit from a top dressing of compost.
BEWARE OF TICKS – This is turning out to be a very productive year for ticks, so if you find yourself in a high-traffic area for them (especially the woods and almost-woods,) keep a lint-roller near the door. The kind that had sticky tape on it. Roll it over your pant legs to pick up unwanted visitors and travelling seeds. Peel off tape and dispose carefully (I bag mine.) NOTE: Handpicking is still recommended for your hair.
CLEAN UP – With typical Philadelphia capriciosity, hot dry, baked-skin weather gives way to hot, wet tropical monsoons, and our gardens are responding by both thriving and taking a beating. Don’t be afraid to do some manicuring: foliage from tulip & daffodil bulbs is too ugly to bear; a few more hosta leaves burn out every time it tops 90 degrees; dead azalea blossoms are still clinging to the bushes. You have my permission to get rid of anything you don’t like the looks of. But use the proper tools: handpicking for fine work, pruners for anything up to ½” in diameter, loppers up to an inch, and a saw for anything bigger than that. And don’t be afraid to bring out the big guns if needed for those vines on the fenceline. Remember, though, that proper machete etiquette calls for a sharp tool, elbow-length gauntlets, and plenty of warning to neighbors and their cats.
DO SOME TOOL MAINTENANCE – Clean, sharp pruners do less damage to plants, allowing cuts to heal faster. Clean the gunk off the blades with soap and water and some steel wool. Diamond files are best for sharpening, and you should have a set of three (course, medium, and fine grit.) Sharpen the blades the same as you would a knife, only on a curve; if you need pictorial instructions, consult your local interwebs. Afterward, add a little oil to all the moving parts to lubricate and prevent rust. Use much the same process for your machete; the major difference is that YOU are the moving parts, so a different form of lubrication might be needed.
Sally McCabe is Assoc. Director of Community Education at PHS, and grows stuff at two community gardens and in her backyard. She has been a faithful Primex customer since all the way back when Pops (David’s grandfather) was still around.