Some people think that summer is the most relaxing time in the garden. Everything’s growing on its own: the tomatoes are ripening on the vine, squash plants are sending out long tendrils, sunflowers are reaching toward the sky, and the bees and ladybugs are busy from sunup to sundown, scarcely able to attend to all the newly-opened flowers. To the casual observer, it would appear that a gardener has little to do apart from picking berries for breakfast in the morning or stepping outside to water in the evening, the garden hose in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other.
But the fact is, a garden makes more demands on its caretaker in the summer than it does any other time of the year. Weeds get established and go to seed overnight. Aphids set up camp in the rose garden the minute you turn your back. Flowers demand to be deadheaded, vegetables need water and a dose of fertilizer, the compost pile has to be turned, and fences and trellises need repair while there’s a break from the wind and the rain. Just when everything’s under control, it’s time to think about seeding in some fall vegetables.
Still, most of us gardeners dream about stringing up a hammock that we’ll occupy on warm, drowsy summer afternoons, when there is nothing more to do than read a good book and watch the grass grow. But if you’re like me, you probably haven’t had a moment’s rest since summer began. As for that hammock—well, at least it’s a good place to store rakes and hoes while you’re running around chopping down weeds, staking and trellising the vegetables, and dead-heading the flowers.
Then, in the midst of all this activity, what happens? Summer vacation.
That’s right, your family actually expects you to put down your hoe, pull off your gardening gloves, and spend a week with them at the lake. What are they thinking? How could a week of sandals and shorts, fruit-filled rum drinks, and long naps under a beach umbrella possibly compare to muddy gardening clogs, fish emulsion, and late afternoons spent dropping striped cucumber beetles into a pail of dish soap?
I’ve never understood why summer vacation can’t be rescheduled for the middle of winter, when the garden can be left unattended. Still, here are a few tips to help you prepare for a week or two away:
First of all, stay out of the nursery in the weeks leading up to vacation. This is not the time to plant anything new. Young plants need regular water to get established, and you won’t be around to fuss over them.
Start watering a couple days before you leave. Give the garden a good soak every evening so that water will penetrate to the roots of larger, well-established plants.
Move container plants to the shade. If you’re going to ask someone to water them while you’re gone, try to put them all in one spot so none will get missed.
Set houseplants near the sink in a tub filled with a couple inches of water.
Don’t be intimidated by drip irrigation. I bought a few lines for my tomato and squash plants last summer and ran them haphazardly through the vegetable beds. I hooked the feeder hose up to the garden spigot, and asked a neighbor to turn it on for a half hour or so every few days. The plants survived just fine and it was easy to dismantle the whole thing at the end of the season.
Consider Aqua Cones, which you can get at Gardeners Supply Company (www.gardeners.com.) A plastic soda bottle attached to one of these cones is all you need to create a temporary self-watering system. It’s also easy for a neighbor to walk around the garden and refill the bottles for you while you’re gone.
There is nothing more depressing than coming home to zucchinis the size of baseball bats, spoiled tomatoes, and lettuce gone to seed. If you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labor, someone else should. Invite a friend over to harvest vegetables and fruit while you’re gone. Leave a good pair of sharp scissors around for cutting lettuce, herbs, and flowers.
Don’t let your family think they can get you away from the garden entirely. Wherever you’re vacationing this summer, there’s probably a public garden you can visit. Princeton Architectural Press has published a series of travel books for gardeners; ask your favorite bookstore to order one for you. Kathleen McCormick, former editor of Garden Design magazine, wrote The Garden Lover’s Guide to the West, which covers the west coast, along with Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, and everything in between. There are also guides for the rest of the United States, Canada, and Europe. Who knows, maybe the staff at one of these public gardens will let you hang around for the afternoon and pull weeds. Better pack your garden gloves just in case.
July Garden Checklist
Continue to plant sweet pea, zinnia, calendula, and cosmos. All will bloom straight through fall until frost.
Water lawns and flower beds deeply twice a week. Give trees and well-established perennials a good long soaking sometime this month.
Those mushy brown spots on your tomatoes are caused by blossom end rot. Never fear; this disease affects one fruit at a time and is not systemic to the entire plant. More mature fruit later in the season will resist it better. Try to prevent stress on the plant such as uneven watering and overfertilizing.
Watch citrus trees for signs of nutritional deficiency. Yellow leaves could indicate a need for iron. An organic, high-nitrogen fertilizer, watered in deeply, will benefit all citrus trees this time of year.
Allow iris and other summer-flowering bulbs to keep their green foliage. Interplant with catmint or alyssum; both do a good job of covering the bare spots when bulbs aren’t blooming.
Believe it or not, it’s time to start Brussels sprouts from seed. While you’re waiting for that first Brandywine tomato to ripen, go ahead and get some Diablos or Prince Marvels started. It might be hard to imagine it now, but on a chilly evening 150 days from now, you’ll be glad you did.
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