Written by Cinthia Milner of B.B. Barns (July 2017)
Yes, it’s July, and yes, it’s miserably hot to be working in the garden. But don’t quit now—the payoff is coming.
July is the month I wish I were a plant whisperer. As I gaze upon my over-planted, over-grown, jungle of a garden, I want to say to the irises, now popped up everywhere, “For Pete’s sake, divide and consolidate yourselves, please.” That crape myrtle, crammed three feet from the house, would politely follow my direction to lumber, Lord of the Rings style, to the western side of the house where space is plenty, and its arching branches could arch away.
The climbing roses that missed their pruning in early June would untangle, cane by cane from each other, and present themselves to my Felcos. Such lovely thoughts, but they aren’t getting the work done.
As the garden coach, I’m nudging you back outside. Yes, it’s July. Yes, it is miserably hot. But don’t give up—the payoff is coming. Grab pruners, trowel, sunscreen, and beverage, and head outdoors.
July Task #1: Review the Garden
The garden is in full swing now, making it a perfect time to evaluate what needs transplanting, consolidated, pruned, rejevenuated, or completely removed. Plants, unlike furniture, aren’t one and done. Landscapes evolve. Typically, the longer you live in your home, the shadier your landscape becomes. Trees grow, new homes are constructed next door, and neighbors plant trees on the lot lines, changing garden exposure from full sun to shade. Of course, the opposite can happen, as well. A shady spot becomes a sunny one when unexpected storms blow through.
Tour the garden with a fresh set of eyes and a notepad. Develop a critieria to determine what needs to go, what can stay, and if there’s room for transplanting. Ask yourself: Are the roses leggy because they’re reaching for sunlight? Did the coneflowers and black eyed Susans quit blooming because the dogwood grew? Make a note, or better yet, flag what plants need moving where, come fall or spring.
(Rule of thumb: Spring and early summer perennials, transplant in fall; late summer and fall perennials, transplant in spring. Move decidious shrubs during their dormant season and evergreen shrubs in early spring.)
Study the shrubs. Those foundation shrubs you planted ten years ago: Are they eating the house? Are the gold mop threadleaf cypress that started out so cute, now devouring your weeping Japanese maple? Does the garden have the polka-dot look? One of everything, but nothing makes a statement?
The garden is not the place for sentiment. Be ruthless. Make the cut. (Unless that peony belonged to grandma, then out it goes.) The plants you leave behind will be healthier and that Japanese maple will finally be the focal point you want it to be. You’ll be surprised how much lighter the landscape, and you, will feel. Too many plants crowded together is bad for the plants, and this also gives your landscape a heavy, cluttered, and outdated look.
When you begin to add back (judiciously), do so with the concept of unifying the garden. Repetition, planting in threes and fives, and designing with sweeps of color help create a more designed look than one of everything.
Pruning is a late spring, early winter chore, but it can be done now to get plants under control, remembering not to cut more than 1/3 of the plant at a time. Rejuvenation pruning, which is cutting the plant back to the ground (18”) to encourage new, vigorous growth (in essence, it’s like getting a new shrub), is done in late fall or early spring. Shrubs that respond well to this are rhododendrons, azaleas, spirea, abelia, lilac, forsythia, and weigela.
Lastly, consider calling a certified arborist for a report on your trees. Is the one leaning toward the house a real hazard, or can it stay a few more years? As difficult as it is to watch an old tree come down, the dangers of not doing so are far worse.
July Task #2: Weeding and Watering
While you’re reviewing the garden, don’t forget that weeding and watering are essential to the health of your plants. Weeds compete for water and nutrients, so they have to go. Staying ahead of weeds in July is a daunting task, but the good thing is, they’re identifiable. In early spring we don’t always know if it’s a weed or a plant we planted. Weed identification is as helpful in your garden as plant identification. Knowing your enemy, and all that.
There are several online sites that provide information and thumbnail pictures. Start with Rutger’s New Jersey Weed Gallery. If you’re escpecially ambitious, try the book Weeds of North America, by France Royer and Richard Dickinson.
Be sure to remove weeds before seed heads form, to keep them from sowing seed for next season’s crop. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. (Sorry, the clichés are just flowing.)
Gardens require an inch of water a week. A good rain gauge is helpful, especially in the drier months of summer when afternoon rain showers can be deceiving. It’s good to know exactly how much rain the garden is getting.
New plantings should still be watered faithfully, at least twice a week, deeply, so roots will stretch downward. During drought days, three times a week is best, and for smaller annuals and perennials, every other day is good. Don’t forget to water established plants, too. Once a week is good. If you’re planning a new garden bed, consider drought tolerant plants.
The biggest tip I can give you is to learn to live with a bit of imperfection in the garden. Obviously, if a shrub or tree is completely defoliating, measures need to be taken, but a few yellowing leaves or bug eaten buds are not reason enough for the chemicals.
July Task #3: Start Your Fall Vegetable Garden
Summer solstice is our cue to start planning the fall vegetable garden. That may seem early for fall plantings, but many seeds need to go in the ground mid-July to early August, since our average first frost date is October 23, and most seeds have a 60-80 day maturity rate.
Planting a fall vegetable garden is similar to the spring garden. Plant vegetables like spinach, radishes, peas, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, lettuces, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbages. The good thing about a fall garden is that the weather doesn’t heat up quickly like it does in spring, and lettuces don’t bolt, giving you a longer harvest (assuming we don’t have an early frost). Contact the North Carolina Extension Service for an annual fruit, vegetable, and herb planting guide. It lists dates and maturity times for each plant. It may seem too hot to plant anything in July, but in November when you’re picking Brussels sprouts for the Thanksgiving table, you’ll be glad you did.
July Task #4: Scout for Pests
Start scouting for pests and disease. Since it’s July, that’s an easy task. The pests are likely in full view munching on your plants. Try simple methods first for getting rid of them. Japanese beetles? Pick them off and drop them in a bucket of soapy water. Squeamish? Get your kids or the neighbor’s kids to do it. Pay them a penny (or a nickel, if you’re a big spender) for every one they get. Aphids? Wipe leaves down with water and a few drops of dishwashing solution. Save the chemicals for big infestations that would wipe out an investment.
Most plant diseases are fungal like powdery mildew (other diseases are bacterial or viral, but home gardeners deal primarily with fungal issues), which is easy enough to remove simply by pruning, but a little thought before planting can be the biggest help. Plants need air circulation, so make sure to space them with enough room to grow and not crowd each other. Proper placement of plants is critical, too. If the plant is a full sun plant, planting it in part shade stresses it, making it susceptible to pathogens.
Avoid crowding plants against the foundation of the house. You should be able to walk behind the plants to prune and, again, allow for sunlight and air circulation. If you have irrigation, then making sure the plants are not under the soffits isn’t too crucial; but if you don’t, then it can be crucial if you want to benefit from rainfall.
The biggest tip I can give you is to learn to live with a bit of imperfection in the garden. Obviously, if a shrub or tree is completely defoliating, measures need to be taken, but a few yellowing leaves or bug eaten buds are not reason enough for the chemicals. Your garden and the environment will be better off for it.
July Task #5: Go for the Win
Yes, we’ve hit the doldrums of summer, and to quote Katharine White (fiction editor and writer at The New Yorker magazine, and wife to E.B. White, of Charlotte’s Web fame), “There is war in the borders”—but the payoffs are coming. Think juicy red tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and fresh cucumbers in August, anemones and asters in September, and carrots and cabbage in October. The payoff awaits, dear people. Don’t quit now.
is a garden coach at B.B. Barns Garden Center & Landscaping Services in Arden, NC.
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