8/21/15: In the garden this week


The first New England asters (Aster novae-angliae) opened about 10 days ago. Flowers are smaller and sparser than usual this year because of the dry weather (this garden is never watered). Compare this photo to the one at the bottom of the post.

Last night’s rain didn’t do much: my rain gauge registers not quite half an inch of precipitation. Several waves of storms moved through, so the amount of rain would vary greatly in different locations. I hope you got more than I did!

As you can see from the photo above, some fall flowers are later, smaller, and sparser than usual. The drought seems to be affecting the asters in particular; the Rudbeckias, Eupatoriums, Phlox, and, of course, the grasses, are all doing fine. And the early flowering perennials, like the milkweeds, are ripening their seeds right on schedule: this time of year I try to collect seeds every day. Fruit crops—dogwood shrubs, elderberries, viburnum berries, and plums–were all normal despite the drought. This week the native plums ripened. I got a few; the rest disappeared immediately. They’re tart and delicious.

We seem to be in for a week or so of more moderate temperatures than we’ve experienced recently, so it will be a good time to work in the vegetable garden. Here are some gardening tasks you might consider this week:

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, particularly when the weather is as hot as it was this past week. 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 pests 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. At this time of year particularly signs of various fungal diseases appear. 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 about 8 weeks until our average first frost date!

— 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.

And if you don’t feel like doing anything but planning for next year’s garden, take a look at my most recent column in the North Jersey newspapers.

Enjoy the garden this week!


The same aster two years ago, in a year with more normal rainfall.


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