The year is half-gone. The summer solstice is past; the days are getting shorter already. It’s irritating the way time moves inexorably on, especially in a garden. I went on vacation for one lousy week and everything went to seed. It’s time to whack a path through the undergrowth, take stock of the situation, and make a few plans for the rest of the year. Here are some ideas for getting the most out of the warm, late summer months we have left:
Harvest. Those zucchinis aren’t going to pick themselves. Stay on top of the vegetable garden, take scissors out to the lettuce patch, and don’t let the berries rot on the vine. This time of year, a fruit can ripen while you have your back turned, but make the harvest a priority. If you can’t eat everything you’ve grown, drop your extras off at Food for People (food banks can always use extra produce—you’d be surprised how quickly a bag of lettuce will go out the door with someone who needs it), or freeze your surplus for later in the year.
Flowers need to be harvested, too. I can hardly walk through my garden because the Shasta daisies, yarrow, hollyhock, and catmint grew tall and flopped over. Get out there and cut those fresh flowers—it will encourage the plant to bloom again later in the year, and believe me, this winter you’ll be wishing you had enough flowers to fill every room in the house.
Water. Most people make the mistake of watering too often and not deeply enough. The water just penetrates the first few inches of soil, never really reaching the deep roots of mature plants. All that shallow watering does is encourage weeds. Instead, water deeply once or twice a week. Pick a few test plots and dig a hole after you’ve watered—if the ground’s not wet 6-12 inches down, keep watering.
Also, remember that getting the plants wet can help spread disease. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation are good solutions to that problem, but if you’re like me, you just dig the whole stand-outside-with-the-hose-and-a-cocktail vibe. It’s a nice way to end the day. But do try to get the water on the ground, not on the plants.
Stake. Speaking of floppy plants, this is a good time of year to put a few stakes in the ground. I’m a lazy staker; the best I can manage is a piece of twine wrapped around a perennial or looped through a fence to keep things upright. But staking a plant can give it better form, keep branches from breaking, and prevent leaves from coming into contact with the soil and picking up a disease. Sometimes all it takes is a single metal or wooden spike in the center of a shrub, or a length of chicken wire folded like a tent over a plant so that the stems grow through the spaces in the chicken wire and eventually conceal it altogether.
Feed. I visited a friend’s garden in Ukiah earlier this summer and she told me that the only thing she feeds her outrageously gorgeous garden, besides a top-dressing of compost, is kelp meal. Kelp meal is generally touted as being full of all kinds of trace minerals, amino acids, plant growth regulators, and other magical ingredients. It’s very affordable—you can buy it in bulk at Mad River Nursery, and most of the garden centers around town carry it by the box. I like it because it doesn’t include any animal products, and now that I’ve got chickens in my backyard, there’s something a little creepy about scattering bone and blood meal in the garden where they might be scratching around for food. You can work kelp meal in around existing plants or mix it with water and spray it everywhere.
Plant for fall. Brussels sprouts need to go in the ground this month if you want a winter crop, and root vegetables like beets and turnips can be planted, too. You can keep lettuce going all year long; just seed in a new row once a month or so, and switch between warm-weather and cool-weather greens as the seasons change. Kale, chard, spinach, and arugula are all good fall greens to start planting soon. The same is true of flowers—this time of year, you can still get sunflowers, calendula, and snapdragons in the ground and harvest them in the fall. It’s hard to think about Thanksgiving at a time like this, but if you start planting now, you’ll have bragging rights during the holidays. Call the family and tell them somebody else is going to have to bring the beer this year. Let this be the year that you pulled a salad right out of the ground in November—all because you started thinking about it in July.