8/4/17: In the garden this week

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Two Hibiscus plants blooming side by side. Each flower blooms for one day; you can see buds and spent flowers on both plants. Both are varieties of H. moscheutos, rose mallow, a short-lived native perennial that’s incredibly easy to grow. The birds will enjoy the large black seeds in a month or so.

A hot, humid, mostly dry week, despite frequent predictions of rain: my rain gauge registered just under one inch of rain on Thursday morning after Wednesday’s prolonged showers. I watered my new trees last Sunday and will do so again this week unless we get significant rainfall tomorrow.

But this weather is pretty much ideal for tomatoes, which are the most finicky of plants. They love heat, but if it gets too hot they stop forming new fruits. They need moisture, but if they get too much, the fruit cracks as it ripens. And too little of course causes blossom end rot. The trick is to water consistently and deeply.

The summer hiatus is upon us—it’s too late to plant and to early to clean up. But it’s never too early to plan next year’s garden, so take careful notes on what did well and what didn’t, what could go more smoothly, and how things could be changed in future years. I’m thinking of eliminating more lawn in front and perhaps plant a couple of large trees that would eventually turn a sunny border into a shady on.

Here are a few more immediate chores you could do this week:

water new plantings: unless we get a decent amount of rain this weekend (and forecasts do predict rain), go ahead and water newly planted grasses, shrubs, and woody plants. Remember that perennials and woody plants that you planted this spring or last fall need supplemental water during dry periods throughout this growing season. The rule of thumb is at least an inch of water per week for newly installed plants. In dry weeks throughout the growing season (weeks with less than an inch of rainfall), you need to water all plants installed this spring or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? You can make a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old plastic container or tin can placed among the plants. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

— if you intend to plant a second crop of cool-weather vegetables, you should be buying seed. Water deeply during dry periods, particularly when the weather is hot, and watch carefully for pests and diseases. Removed diseased plants promptly to prevent spread. Continue to remove the flowers from basil plants as they form; you should already have cut down the plants once to make pesto.

— be sure to properly tie, stake, and prune your tomato plants. Most tomato cages are much too small: the plants outgrow them before they start to bear fruit. And unless tomato plants are properly pruned, by pinching out the suckers, they will be so bushy that they’ll be especially susceptible to fungus infections like verticillium wilt. You’ll find general guidelines for growing tomatoes here and specific watering instructions here.

—  It’s too late to plant. Wait until the weather turns cool in fall. During hot weather, plants put their energy into top growth and blooming rather than growing new roots. If you do continue to plant, water very thoroughly and keep an eye on those new plants. They will need extra water during dry periods, as explained above.

it’s a bad time to fertilize your lawn or to reseed bare patches, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Lawn grasses are adapted to much cooler summers than we experience. All they want to do during this time of year is go dormant, so they really can’t use any extra nutrients. Here’s a suggestion: don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Or wait until around Labor Day and use one application of a slow-release organic fertilizer. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And garden chemicals are not so great for kids or pets either; common herbicides, in addition to killing butterfly host plants like violets, are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

Most people keep their lawns growing all summer by applying excessive amounts of water. I never water my lawn. Most summers it turns brown–it goes dormant. This summer, with normal rainfall amounts, it’s still green. So here’s another suggestion: stop watering and see what happens. The lawn will not die, and the earth will be grateful.

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Two lawns in my neighborhood at the end of a recent dry summer. The lawn on the left is not routinely watered, but it will green up as soon as the weather cools down or some rain arrives.

— it’s almost time to prune woody plants. You want to prune when the plant is relatively quiescent—when it’s not using a great deal of energy growing, flowering, and fruiting that it has little to spare to healing a wound. This will happen between now and leaf drop in fall. Basically, when you see that the plant has finished fruiting and that it has formed next year’s buds, but the leaf color is not fading yet, you have a window of time for pruning. Of course, you should prune diseased or injured plants at any time as well as remove any safety hazards, such as overeager shrub that block sidewalks or diseased trees that might fall down.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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The purple glow in this photo is the gazillion tiny flowers of purple lovegrass, Ergostratis spectabilis. This short (12-18″) native grass is impervious to heat and drought, demands poor soil, and displays a cloud of purple flowers and then seeds from August to October. Hard to find, but very easy to grow.

 

6/23/17: In the garden this week

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June is bustin’ out (couldn’t resist) in a perennial bed glorious with yellow sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and bergamot/beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), plus grasses and numerous species that have finished blooming or not yet bloomed. This border gets full sun and was originally planted over 20 years ago. The soil, which is very sandy, has never been amended in any way.

During the past few years of drought, I had forgotten what a gardening season with normal rainfall looks like. I had forgotten how the plants grow so exuberantly that I have to keep cutting them back along paths, in front of patio chairs, near the air conditioner, how quickly tomato plants grow (more on that below). And what it’s like not to have to exhort clients to keep newly-installed plants well watered until they’re established. It’s a pleasant change.

As I write this, the predicted rain has just started. Can I confess that given a choice between a dry weekend and a good soaking rain, I’d vote for the rain in most cases? But the thing about gardening is that we don’t get a choice.

Here are some things you might consider in your garden this week (after the rain stops, of course):

water new plantings: We received about 1 1/2 inches of rain in the past week, so no watering should be necessary this week. However, you should always water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground. In dry weeks (those with less than an inch of rainfall), you need to water all plants installed this spring or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? You can make a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old plastic container or tin can placed among the plants. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

— all vegetables, including tender crops like tomatoes and peppers and corn, should be planted out by now, and it will soon be time to remove early greens like lettuce and spinach. Water deeply during dry periods, particularly when the weather is hot, and watch carefully for pests and diseases. Removed diseased plants promptly to prevent spread.

— be sure to properly tie, stake and prune your tomato plants. Most tomato cages are pretty useless: the plants outgrow them before they start to bear fruit. And unless tomato plants are properly pruned, by pinching out the suckers, they will be so bushy that they’ll be especially susceptible to fungus infections like verticillium wilt. You’ll find general guidelines for growing tomatoes here and specific watering instructions here.

—  It’s a bit late to clean up the perennial garden or to divide and replant. Once the weather turns hot, plants put their energy into top growth and blooming. I would no longer move or divide plants, but if you continue to plant, water very thoroughly and keep an eye on those new plants. They will need extra water.

it’s too late to fertilize your lawn or to reseed bare patches, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Here’s a suggestion: don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Or wait until around Labor Day and use one application of a slow-release organic fertilizer. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And garden chemicals are not so great for kids or pets either; common herbicides, in addition to killing butterfly host plants like violets, are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

— it’s also a bad time to prune woody plants. The plants are using so much energy growing, flowering, and fruiting that they have little to spare to healing a wound. There will be short window of time later in the summer. Of course, continue to prune diseased or injured plants at any time and to remove any safety hazards, such as overeager shrub that block sidewalks.

And don’t forget to count the fireflies! The more you see, the healthier and more sustainable your garden is.

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We moved the patio chairs forward to get out of the way of the raspberries. The elderberries (white flowers in background) are especially tall and vigorous this year.

7/8/16: In the garden this week

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The white blossoms of Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) bloom for a relatively short time in mid-summer, but the pollinator interest they attract is amazing. This plant is considered a wetland species but will do well in any sunny spot.

I guess the weather had to turn brutally hot sometime, although I certainly prefer the moderate days and cool nights we enjoyed until very recently. I can only work outdoors very early in the morning and very late in the evening in this punishing heat and humidity, but luckily it’s too late in the season to plant!

The weather is supposed to break for at least a short time on Sunday. If you work up the energy to garden, here are some tasks you might consider:

water new plantings: we got an inch of rain this past week, so no watering is needed now, but keep watching. 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? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.

— you should be finished harvesting early crops such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, mesclun mix, peas, and radishes. Remove the plants and compost them (if they’re healthy) or discard (if they’re not). Plant something else instead. A row of beans, perhaps?

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.

— 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.

— 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. In the fall, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

collect seeds. This is a great low-energy task for hot weather. Columbine is almost finished ripening seed, and coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day. So does seed of daisy fleabane, a lovely native annual. It pops up in different parts of my garden each year.

— it will soon be a good time to prune woody plants. Once all growth, flowering, and fruiting are done, the plants are relatively 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 late 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. But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) is blooming vigorously in my garden now. This plant never grows more than 18″ tall and thrives in dry, sandy soil and full sun. It would work well in a rock garden.