9/4/15: In the garden this week

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Boltonia (B. asteroides) is one of the few plants that looks as good this year as it does in a year with closer to average rainfall. Individual flowers are about 1″ across; the plants have thousands of flowers and are about 6′ tall.

It’s been so dry that, frankly, my garden doesn’t look all that great. True, late-season perennials (Rudbeckia, Boltonia, great blue lobelia, asters, goldenrod, various Eupatoriums) and grasses are blooming almost as enthusiastically as ever, even if some are rather late. But foliage generally looks tired, early-blooming perennials are setting seed early, and woody plants are showing many signs of drought stress, such as drooping leaves, heavy or early seed set, dropping lower leaves, and brown leaf margins. (Of course, if you go for a groomed look rather than a natural one, you would have watered regularly, and your garden would look lush and lovely now.) My husband, who takes almost all the photos I use here and for my talks, hasn’t felt inspired to go outside and document the garden. The photos above and below were taken last year.

I haven’t felt inspired to be outside either. I’ve pushed back the beginning of fall planting for clients by at least a week because of the hot, dry weather; it makes sense to hold off on many early fall garden chores that people usually do around Labor Day (see below). But here are some things you might think about 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. 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. At 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.

— Tend the fall vegetable garden: if you seeded second crops of cool-season plants like peas, lettuce, and spinach, keep them well watered, especially as they begin to germinate. It’s about 6 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″ layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. Next spring, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn during the summer and am scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen.

— 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. However, because the weather is so hot and dry, hold off for about a week, and don’t fertilize when the soil is dry.

— Similarly, hold off on reseeding bare areas until the weather cools off a bit. 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 and you probably haven’t mowed in weeks (yay!), but it will green up as soon as we get some rain.

Take heart: the heat is predicted to end in less than 10 days! And in the meantime, happy Labor Day.

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Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), in a photo also taken last year. I can’t say that it looked quite as good this year, but it certainly bloomed nicely and has now set seed.

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