Stepping Stones to Gardening Success Throughout July and August
We’ve reached the dog days of summer. July and August are months of mainly maintenance. We are faced with the reality of eight weeks more of searing sun, oppressive heat, and damaging winds. Cool season plants appear to be in a holding pattern; growth in parts of your landscape should visibly slow because of the higher temperatures. The plant’s energy is focused on maintaining. After the summer solstice, daylength slowly begins to shorten and the garden year begins to tilt towards better times.
But just like January and February, preparation begins for the second season in the vegetable garden. Now is the time to prepare some beds for fall and winter vegetable growing. The first two weeks of July is the last time to plant beans, squash, potatoes, etc and have a realistic expectation of a harvest before short days and cold weather begins. From July 15th on, seeding of cool season vegetables can begin in a greenhouse, or outside if the weather turns moderate, as it does some years. Seeding of ornamental cabbage and kale and any other cool season annuals should begin, as well.
Previously, July and August are traditionally the troublesome months for flower displays. Troublesome for gardeners who haven't realized the benefits of plants native to North and South America that require heat to shine. This is the time of the year when drought tolerant and/or heat requiring plants take their rightful place at the head of the class. Many have bloomed from April and May through and into August. Providing continuity, a good many native spring blooming perennials continue flowering right through summer into fall, when given monthly irrigation: calylophus, Missouri evening primrose, prairie zinnia, gaillardias, and prairie verbena, along with Blackfoot daisy, and chocolate flower, too, are several long blooming natives. Cold hardy Salvia greggii and S. microphylla varieties and hybrids begin to flower in the spring and carry on into November. It is in summer’s inter-season of mid-July through September when the hottest weather bakes the earth that many native plants reach flowering maturity.
Salvia, the sage genus, provides many plants whose bloom requires sufficient heat, becomes one of the mainstays of the mid-summer garden. Some Salvia species are cold hardy and xeric, other Salvia species that originate in sub-tropical (Zone 8) or warmer areas are able to flower quickly and are used as annuals. Monardas, gaura, and trumpet creepers are among the first of mid-summer, cold hardy natives to begin their bloom. Closely following are the hummingbird mint agastaches, mistflowers, ironweed, and obedient plant. Boltonia and goldenrods are succeeded by asters, flame acanthus, California fuchsias, rock rose, gayfeather and a few native shrubs that begin their bloom in August and September. Mixed with native grasses, daisies, upright sedums, lantana, sunflowers, zinnias sown from seed; garlic chives, rain lilies, every corner of the garden blends into a vision of harmonic naturalness in color, texture, size and shape. By September, bed to border has been stuffed with a plant in bloom. Read about the stellar plants that thrive in the heat in the GardenNotes: Mid Summer -- That Troublesome Period in the Garden. Dahlias and cannas join tropicals and subtropicals that are at their peak. The summer blooming bulbs of Mexican Shell flower, Tigridia pavonia, and the naked lady, Amaryllis belladona (photo at left), bloom during July. Even Zephrantes, the rain lily, can bloom as early as July. The ornamental Alliumn 'Millenium' begins it's long bloom.
Stepping Stones to gardening success is arranged in most cases on a week to week basis within the months with gardening tasks described by order of the Seven Principles of Gardening, as needed, namely:
1. Plan and Design
2. Analyze and Improve the Soil
3. Create Practical Turf Areas
4, Choose Appropriate Plants
5. Efficient Use of Water
6. Use Organic or Inorganic Mulch
7. Practice Appropriate Maintenance
Following the weeks' tasks, I've included suggestions under the headings "Keep it Up", "Extras", "Be a Plant Explorer" and "Oops! and/or Don't" -- extra tips I practice and have found to be important or interesting. If you've been gardening for several years, there will be fewer tasks each week for each principle. Included in the sidebar at the right are QuickSteps -- a summary or outline of tasks to do each month. Feel free to copy and print out to refer to during the month.
Don't worry if you can't get to the task in the first week suggested. These times are when I've noticed the earliest most likely success achievable. Naturally, each and every year will be different. Some years will be warmer, some cooler. Adjust and stay tuned to the weather.
During July and August
Amend the Soil
Refresh the garden with organic foliar spray if desired and/or needed. Add organic soil amendments to high water-use vegetable and flower beds (don’t forget the rose bed!). Insure that any organic amendments have not been contaminated with persistent synthetic chemicals (see Maintenance, Composting, Killer Compost).
Appropriate Plants Fall Vegetable Planting
Gardening is all about thinking ahead, months in advance. When planning ahead, I check the National Weather Serive's extended forecast (also here for other time periods) for temperature and precipitation as a tool in determining what to seed out and when. As hot as it is outside in July and August, this is the time to seed fall vegetables. Yes, the cool season vegetables and a few warm season veggies. July and August mirrors spring planting done in January and February. Prepare and amend the soil for planting your fall crops. Several cool season vegetables can be started from mid July to the end of August. Watch for a cool spell to drop the soil temperature enough for the seeds to germinate. Then provide a shade cover, or cover the seeds with a little extra layer of soil than you would in the spring, then cover with a board until the seedlings come to the surface. Remove the board.
Seeding of ornamental cabbage and kale and any other cool season annuals should done in mid July, and will be ready for transplanting by the second half of September. If a greenhouse where cooling is possible is available, that would be ideal. The lettuces are the most heat sensitive of the cool season vegetables. Hot weather may force you to wait until after Labor Day to plant. I've never had to wait longer than about September 10th for temperatures to drop enough to allow germination.
The average date of the first frost (ADFF) is around October 20th. To time fall vegetable plantings correctly, take out a calendar and count back the number of weeks for the vegetables you’d like to harvest. Mark on the calendar the date for planting that vegetable; then do it when the week rolls around. Most of these vegetables have a planting window of 2 –4 weeks for warm season vegetables.
- Fourteen to sixteen weeks before the average date of the first frost (ADFF -- around Oct. 20th) this is the last time to seed beans, cantaloupe, peppers, Irish potatoes, spinach, and watermelon.
- At 12 – 14 weeks before ADFF, plant Chinese cabbage, carrots, sweet corn, kolrhabi, swiss chard, eggplant, okra, pumpkin, squash and tomatoes plants.
- At 12 weeks ADFF, begin seed planting of English peas and turnip greens and roots.
- At 10 weeks before the ADFF, begin planting broccoli, Brussel sprouts, beans, beets, collards, cucumbers, lettuce, mustard, and onion seeds or sets.
- At one to eight weeks before ADFF, you can plant radish seeds.
- 6 weeks before ADFF, plant garlic.
- Plant spinach, English peas, and turnips 8 - 10 weeks ADFF.
If you dally beyond July 15th, it will be too late for many warm season selections to mature. Remember, even though the sun is unmercifully hot, the days are getting shorter and everything dramatically cools down after Labor Day. If you’ve missed the seed planting time, watch for vegetables already started in the nurseries to transplant.
Continue daily observation of the garden in early morning light and when the sun lowers on the horizon. Are any plants struggling or infested? Is your garden under stress? Has the soil been amended for organic content and drainage to reduce plant stress? Practice the principles of integrated pest management and apply the least harmful solution first. Be sure to note any problems in your garden journal. Take notes, take pictures. Try to discover the cause of the problem, and correct it. Sometimes if may not be evident what has caused the problems. Review the section on Creating Organic Landscapes to try to determine what's wrong.
Spring planted plants should be well on their way to establishing. Even though it is hotter and drier outside, be careful not to over-water. During evening tours of the landscape, note any wilting plants. If in the morning they are still wilted, by all means water them. In the home landscape, many plants die of over-watering. If you have a tendency to over-water, compensate for this by amending the soil for good drainage, however, it is best to just change your watering habits. Review some of the elements of Efficient Use of Water.
Harvest vegetables and herbs often. You’ve worked hard for them, enjoy them and share the bounty with others.
Reduce daytime work-stress by deadheading those higher maintenance flowers in the evening hours.
I’m not a rose specialist, but I’ve found it helpful to prune back the roses before Sept. 15th, especially if I haven’t noticed new rose buds forming. My trees have grown up and shaded the rose bed, so I don’t get many fall blooms, just foliage. One summer, I hadn’t taken the time to keep them trim, and September passed before I knew it. It was too late to trim back in October when I had time. But when our 8+ inches of snow came November 2nd, the wind and snow made a terrible tangled mess of both the grandifloras and climbers. Many canes were damaged and I was forced to severely prune them back in November after the melt. Keeping the roses trim and shaped accomplishes two things: avoiding snow damage in fall and winter, and avoiding early rose pruning in spring, when we are so tempted to do so.
Winter weeds could start to germinate as early at the end of August. To prevent this, apply corn gluten meal at that time, and again in 3 weeks for another crop of weeds. Corn gluten meal will not kill weeds that have already germinated and established, but it is a good organic amendment. Corn gluten meal does not kill plants that spread by rhizomes and stolons. Corn gluten meal does not kill bindweed. As in the spring, do not apply this to any area to be seeded or re-seeded for at least 3 weeks prior to seeding.
With proper attention, the compost pile should have decomposed into compost, towards the bottom of the pile. Clean it out and use to replenish fall vegetable or other beds.
Collect Seeds. Check your plants regularly to see if seeds have matured and are ready for collection for your own use, or for trading with fellow gardeners in seed exchanges.
Plan and Design
Locate a quite corner of the garden and add a garden bench. Take some time and use it for reflection.
If contemplating a new bed for fall planting, begin preparing the soil now. The more I garden and learn about gardening, soil preparation for the type of plants you will plant is a huge factor in success and quick establishment. But start garden work early in the day and finish by eleven; it’ll probably be hot by then. Take plenty of water breaks – limiting water in the xeriscape refers only to the plants, not the gardeners.
If planning on starting a new bed in a Bermuda grass or very weedy area, now is the time to spray with Roundup, or other glyphosate. The Bermuda grass and weeds need to be actively growing for the best kill. If it’s been dry, consider watering the area several days before spraying. A second application is needed for Bermuda grass and other weedy areas as well.
Install warm season turf (Bermuda or buffalo, blue grama grass) before September for better root development. Warm season turf grasses need the warmer temperatures for growth. Review information about turf types, the warm season turf grasses.
Pollinators. Butterflies, moths, bees should be in abundance this time of year. It is fun to take time to observe flower beds and borders to see which plants are attracting what. Different pollinators will be visiting in the morning, afternoon and evening. For instance, the squash bee is a very early morning pollinator. Pollinators won't come to your garden unless there is something there for them. Read about what it takes to have a Pollinator Friendly Garden.
The bulb catalogs are beginning to stack up. Thinking six months+ ahead, it’s time to order spring blooming bulbs: daffodils, tulips, crocus, Dutch iris, hyacinth, alliums, galanthus (the snowdrops), muscari, ornithogalums, puschkinia, scilla, are typical for our area. Toss a few catalogs in the car for reading during a vacation. Circle the “must haves” and order them as soon as you get back into town. Order early; order often. Tip of the month: don’t wait until September, all the best ones will be taken.
For more information about bulbs, tubers, corms and rhizomes, there are many resources to turn to. My favorite book on the subject is Naturalizing Bulbs, by Rob Proctor. Rob gardens in Denver, Colorado and provides advice related to our soils and climate. His book contains the best information I’ve read on which tulip classifications do best as repeat performers (the Darwin Hybrids). In addition to bulb books, the bulb catalogs offer a wealth of information, particularly, White Flower Farm, The Bulb Book. My Fall, 2001 edition is becoming dog-eared from use, I’ll never throw it out, it’s so helpful. Beauty From Bulbs from John Scheepers, Inc. is a catalog and supplier I recently started ordering from. And you can’t beat Old House Gardens for antique or heirloom bulbs, and McClure & Zimmerman and Roots and Rhizomes for other hard to find varieties. For information on the History of the Tulip, I wrote about it in six parts, including which hybridized garden tulips are best for the Texas Panhandle. Also about which wild tulips do best in a xeric landscape.
Clean out an area of the garden that's been neglected in years past if a cooler front sweeps through,
Lazy summer days are made for reading, reading about gardening. Choose a topic you’d like to learn more about, whether it’s a technique such as propagation, a new plant group, design, the soil, etc, and visit the library or the internet. Continue with the internet gardening course, or start one.
Be a Plant Explorer
While on a family vacation in far off locations, take the time to drop by the local botanic garden, conservatory, state or national park and view the flora native or unique to that area.
Keep it Up
- Mow the lawn with a mulching mow as needed. Gardeners with buffalo grass turf may decide to skip mowing these two hot months (or not).
- Check drip irrigation lines for clogged emitters and adequate flow rate. Make changes as needed.
- Continue to irrigate and weed.
- Harvest, eat and preserve vegetables and herbs
- Record garden journal entries
- Your gardening angel project
Don’t and Oops!
- If you didn’t aerate the lawn in the spring time, do not aerate in the summer months. Wait until the temperatures cool, until around September 15th.
- Be circumspect in spraying the landscape to rid it of mosquitos. Mosquitos are a nuisance, and probably the worst insect for conveying disease throughout history. However, the indiscriminate use of pesticides affects the health and ecology of your landscape by decreasing diversity, thus destroying the balance of beneficial insects to predators. The first step in creating an organic landscape is to Eliminate the Eliminators. There are always unwanted consequences of spraying.
Revised, February, 2018