The weather is about to turn hot: starting tomorrow, we’re due for almost a week of 90-degree days. By all indications, the relatively cool weather we’ve enjoyed for the past two years, with pleasant summers and cold, snowy winters, is ending. A strong El Nino in the Pacific means heavy rain for the western United States; for us, it means above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation over the next few months.
If you followed my advice and planted a fall vegetable garden, be sure to water carefully. Germinating seeds are particularly vulnerable to heat and lack of water. This is one circumstance in which is makes sense to water frequently and somewhat shallowly: while seeds are germinating, they need to stay moist.
I’ve started collecting seeds of summer perennials. Early bloomers like milkweeds, monarda, and coreopsis are ripening their seeds now. In addition to collecting seeds and admiring the continual floral display, here are a few other chores you might consider:
— water new plantings: newly installed plants and annuals, like vegetables, need watering. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this spring or last season. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall and this spring need supplemental watering during dry spells. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? An old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants makes a great rain gauge. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.
— practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers: Monitor for insect eggs and larvae and remove them before infestations become serious. Throw out badly infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material). Cucumber vines are showing signs of wilt: remove them immediately to prevent the spread of this fungal disease. Pick frequently: smaller vegetables taste better.
— As tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits. Keep removing suckers all summer long. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.
— Plant the fall vegetable garden: second crops of cool-season plants like peas, lettuce, and spinach can seeded directly in the garden in August. But be sure to keep them well watered, especially as they begin to germinate.
— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. In the fall, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn about a month ago and am scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen.
— this is a good time to prune woody plants. Once all growth, flowering, and fruiting are done, the plants are relatively, but not completely, dormant, giving you a window of time to prune before they get ready for their next critical task: leaf abscission (shutting down for the winter). I do most of my pruning in winter, but I also prune back shrubs as needed after they have ripened their fruit.
— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: if you feel you must fertilize your lawn, best practice is to give it no more than two applications of slow-release organic fertilizer each season, around Memorial Day and Labor Day. It’s too early now to reseed bare areas: wait until early fall. (Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials.) Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it infrequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. One inch of water once a week is much better than a few minutes each day (watering every day is likely to cause fungal diseases). But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow! If you follow my advice and hold off on watering entirely, your lawn is dormant now, but it will green up as soon as we get some rain.
Stay cool and enjoy the garden this week!