Despite the heat, we’re perched on the summer/fall cusp. It’s too late to plant summer stuff like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, sweet potatoes, winter squash; almost too late for beans and squash (60 days to maturity is the absolute outside limit.) Still plenty of time for herbs from seed, since you are not dependent on fruit. So take a break from all but the most limited planting, and do some shady maintenance.
Once we hit around August 10-15, we can start to think about seeding leafy greens and another round of root crops, and start planting cole crops from seedlings (like cabbage, cauliflower, collards and broccoli.) I’m starting to hear from some nurseries, though that these fall plants have been delayed because of the heat, and may not ever make it into the big box stores, so be extra nice to your garden center friends!!! You can also start some seeds of these now indoors where you can regulate the temperature, or in a shadier part of the garden, making sure to keep them well watered; for these, use a light-colored mulch to reflect some of the heat and keep the soil cooler.
INSPECT HOSING & FITTINGS – With watering so critical this time of year, it’s a good idea to check out your hoses and their connections. Prolonged heat and UV exposure can weaken hoses, especially dark – colored ones, causing leaks. More common, though, are leaky joints, where washers are faulty or missing; replace them and make sure you tighten the connections. Smaller leaks can be strategically located to drip on specific plants, but big gushers, or lots of small ones, for that matter, will waste water, cause mud, and run up your water bill. When replacing hoses, remember: heavier hoses may last longer , but they are HEAVY. So start out with the heavy stuff close to the spigot, leave that section in place, and cover it with mulch to keep out the sun. Then think about lighter weight or even the little collapsable ones to drag along behind you.
INVEST IN A POP-UP TARP – No gardener should be without one. They pop up easily and make you able to garden in all weathers. Move them as needed to keep the sun off your work, or to keep rain from drowning you while you plant. Practice putting it up and down a few times before you actually take it out into the yard, and be sure to weigh it down if you’re trying to work in heavy winds. Or actually stay the heck in the house if the winds are heavy because trees could fall on you.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR VEHICLES – Gardeners tend to not put a top priority on this and we really ought to start thinking about it. I’m to the point right now where I could plant potatoes under my front seat. Grass has sprouted in the back of my pickup truck, and the bag of seeds in the back seat has been subjected to enough heat treatments that they will probably never sprout anything ever again. Use the seed packets for art projects.
DRY HERBS ON YOUR DASHBOARD – Or your back seat. Since your car is already a mess, might as well take advantage of all that sunny real estate and spread your herbs out to dry. I lay down placemats under them, especially dark colored ones because white reflects too much off the glass when you’re driving. Make sure you only dry herbs that don’t look suspicious, to not tempt people to break your windows to remove them.
BUILD A RAIN GAUGE – It’s easy to tell people “water if there’s been less than an inch of rain in a week,” but how are you supposed to know how much rain fell in your yard? Most commercial rain gauges (usually a tube with gradations on the side) are small and really cute; but when the mouth of it is really small, and the wind is blowing the rain around, are you going to get an accurate reading? Better to take a straight-sided bucket and place it in the garden. Then go out with a ruler after it rains, and record how much fell. Do the math, and if it doesn’t add up to an inch in a week, water! Empty out the bucket and restart the count. Better yet, save that water and use it to rinse your hair; rainwater makes a great conditioner. Hint—only do this if the bucket is clean.
KEEP THOSE VEGGIES PICKED – Ripe fruit signals to the rest of the plant to start winding down; removing said fruit encourages the plant to start over, producing more flowers to make more fruit, and that makes us happy. Try to pick in early morning and when foliage is dry; this discourages fungus from spreading as you pick.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR HANGING BASKETS – Get them out of full sun. In this heat, they dry out really fast, so they need to be watered every day, sometimes twice a day. And when you water that often, it washes the nutrients out of the soil. Water with a soluble organic-based fertilizer like fish emulsion, seaweed, worm compost instead of the blue stuff, which is salty and will aggravate the dryness. Weekly I take a bucket of water, add compost or worm castings, stir them up, and sink the whole basket to water & feed plants at the same time. And not just the hanging baskets—any houseplant that can fit in the bucket will benefit from this treatment.
SORT YOUR SEEDS – Now is a good time to sit in the air conditioning and go through your seed collection. Pull out the warm-season crops. Set aside the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, and look at the rest. . Read the days-to-harvest, and do the math: if we get our first frost around Halloween, that’s about 90 days from now. Know that those last weeks will be cooler and darker, so subtract 2 weeks. And we’d like to harvest for a few weeks before frost, so subtract another 14 days. Now we’re at just more than 60 days. If you can find any beans, squash, or cucumbers that need 60 days or less to mature, get them in the ground TODAY. Or rather, shade the soil, soak the seeds overnight, plant tomorrow, and say your prayers.
PICK A VIEW AND MAKE A VISIBLE IMPACT – With all this heat, gardeners are spending a lot more time indoors gazing longingly out the window toward the garden. I don’t know about you, but the view from where I sit typing this is totally blocked by low-hanging tree branches and helianthus. Behind it, somewhere, is a beautiful phlox and blue lobelia display. Take your limited time outdoors to clear up that particular space, and ignore the rest of the mess. Once it is done, you can sit in the air conditioning feeling righteous, looking out the window at a seemingly spotless landscape.
FREEZE BLUEBERRIES – In this season of plenty, buy up all the local blueberries you can find and give them some space in the freezer. Rinse first, then allow to air-dry before sealing them in a WELL-LABELED, DATED airtight container, and use them up before next year. A recent freezer mishap at our house revealed that we still had 4 quarts of 3-year-old (or older) thawed berries now needing to be dealt with. Jam, anyone?
MAKE JAM – Or pie. Or smoothies.
DEADHEAD – With all the heat & rain, flowers are busting out all over! But remember—most plants flower so they can set seeds and die, or at least retire to Florida. If you want them to keep blooming, you have to prevent the completion of the cycle by removing flowers as soon as they are done. Snip off dead flowers, and the sticking-out stems as well, to make it all tidy.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE BUGS – Adult Spotted Lanternflies have been reported in our area; they aren’t even flies—they’re actually leaf-hoppers—and their favorite host is one of my LEAST favorite trees. The Tree of Heaven, or Ailanthus altissima, is a terrible weed tree around here, and they are welcome to it. But when they start spreading to our native hardwoods, fruit trees and even grapes, we need to do something about it. Please learn to identify it before you take a hammer to every bug in creation. Should you suddenly encounter masses of them, take care not to move them with you as you travel. If, say, you’re camping in the middle of them, check your gear before leaving the area; it’s rumored that if you leave your gear for two days in your car in the sun, that will heat fumigate them. I will try this and report back.
BE VIGILANT – If you are very careful about using Japanese Beetle traps and locate them FAR AWAY from your garden, emptying them often (sometimes twice a day,) and disposing of the bags without crushing the beetles (attracts MORE beetles) they can be very effective. Leave them any longer, and you not only have more beetles, but you’ll attract flies as well.
GET RUTHLESS ABOUT STANDING WATER – Mosquitos are pretty rambunctious this time of year, and will breed practically overnight in any kind of standing water. This means buckets, rain barrels, birdbaths, the trays under your houseplants, even the sweat running down the middle of your back. Dump out everything you can, and treat whatever is left with mosquito dunks or sprinkles. I’ve heard interesting stories about home remedies to spray around your yard to repel the buggers, but haven’t tried any of them. Please let me know if you find anything that works.
GET UP EARLY – This amazing summer heat is dangerous for folks spending too much time outdoors, so take advantage of early morning hours and get it all done BEFORE you go to work. Water well in the morning, and allow yourself the luxury of a little spritzing of leaves, since most moisture will be quickly absorbed and the rest will burn off in the afternoon heat. If YOU must be out in the heat of the day, remember a hat & sunscreen, and drink plenty of water. Take frequent breaks in the shade, and think about places to plant shade trees for the future.
PICK SOME FLOWERS – Pick stuff in the early morning before the heat wilts everything. Take a bucket of cool water with you to the garden; cut flowers and foliage with pruners or a sharp knife, and plunge them into the water up to their necks to “harden them off.” This means letting them soak up water until their cells are chock full, since this will make them last longer in an arrangement. Let them soak for an hour or two; once they are nice and crisp, take them out, remove the bottom few inches of leaves from stems, since they will rot under water in a vase. Make a bouquet in your hands, wrap a rubber band around the bunch, and take it inside where you can enjoy it in the air conditioning.
START SOME SEEDS – If you haven’t already done this, start seeds of broccoli, cabbage, collards, brussel sprouts and Chinese cabbage. If you can find them as transplants, grab them! These love the cooler weather and will ripen up with much sweeter taste. However, since cabbage butterflies and harlequin bugs are rampant, they need to be covered up immediately with row cover or plant netting. Open the covers every few days to inspect plants, though. I had a few bug eggs get past my initial inspection, and the wrought havoc, totally protected from birds and wasps by the netting.
DON’T CUT THE LAWN – It’s too darn hot . You’ll just stress the grass and yourself out waaaay more than skipping a few weeks will. If you must, mow the day after a rainfall or after you water.
OVERSEED THE LAWN – Late August is the best time to do this, so grass seeds have time to germinate and get some growth before the cold weather. Think about sun, shade, amount of foot traffic, and consult your local garden center (NOT the box store) for which grasses or mixes work best in your specific situation. Best to do this just before a gentle rain; oh, wait, we don’t get those anymore.
HARVEST GARLIC – Harvest any garlic that might still be left in the garden. Once leaves are dried and brown, there’s no more growth happening this season. Same with onions. Make sure to get all the little cloves that might have separated from the mother cluster. Inspect every clove to make sure there are no little maggots from the allium Leaf Miner lurking there. They look like little white worms, or small apple seeds if they’ve gone to the next stage of development. Soak everything in Listerine (generic is fine, but the yellow, not the blue) for an hour to kill germs, let dry, and store in a dry place till it’s time to plant them in September or October.
GET TO KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS BETTER – Harvests reach record highs in the vegetable garden, just in time for us to go away and miss them. Strike a deal with the folks next door to pick your tomatoes in exchange for watering. Or better yet, do that AND make sure there’s a garden where you’re going, so you can continue your tomato/basil/mozzarella sandwiches without interruption.
ICE YOUR ORCHIDS – Orchids evolved to grow on trees in the rainforest. If you were hanging from a tree, you might notice that you are never actually sitting in water. My friend Holly duplicates this with her houseplants, especially orchids: she uses wood chips to mimic the trees, then double-pots the plants. The first pot has drainage, the second doesn’t have to, because she actually waters them very little. She allots them three ice cubes-worth of water once per week. The cold doesn’t seem to hurt the foliage, and waters trickle slowly over the plant as the ice cubes melt. If they’re in bloom and need a little extra attention, they get 4. She keeps them in direct sunlight right in the window, and turns them every few weeks to keep them balanced. Once the flowers drop, she removes the stem at the bottom, and sprinkles cinnamon powder (no sugar) in the wound to promote healing and prevent disease.
TAKE CARE OF STREET TREES – People tend to spend more time worrying over their trees in the spring, but now it’s good to do some maintenance on your tree pits. Pull weeds, loosen soil so water can get to roots, water well, and mulch.
CHECK YOUR ROSES – What—you dealt with the Japanese beetles, and now you’re off the hook? Reports of Sudden Death of Knock Out Roses are coming in. On closer observation, plants that seemed to be deformed from beetle damage actually have a bunch of different stuff going on; the worst of these is Rose Rosette Disease, which causes ends of stems to come in stretched and red and succulent and very attractive to the beetles. No known cures yet, so if a perfectly healthy rosebush suddenly becomes-dead from no apparent cause, cover it with a large trash bag, dig out the roots, and dispose of it to landfill. Come spring, cut back all the remaining shrub roses by 2/3, dispose of the cuttings, and spray the bushes with dormant oil to kill overwintering mites that cause the disease.
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.