Neighborly Garden News
Another hot and dry summer!
As I begin writing western MA is in the throes of a drought. The heavy rain we’ve experienced tends to wash over the ground and not soak in, like the plants need. We have only received less than half the normal amount of rain last month. This, combined with a very dry winter last year, has forced many communities to mandate water restrictions.
What can you do when your garden is parched for water, and your town has limited when and how much you may water? Now is the time to brainstorm strategies for watering wisely, and taking steps to make your yard and gardens more drought tolerant.
Try to water more efficiently; don’t try to water all areas at once, such as with a sprinkler, plan to section off individual areas to concentrate watering by hand for maximum benefit. Saturate the root zone of your plants to the depth of 4-6”, and then allow to dry between watering, but not to the point of wilting. I’ve always recommended utilizing a 5 gallon sized bucket with a few ¼” holes drilled into the bottom for quantifying how much water we give our newly planted trees and shrubs. If, let’s say, the tree requires 15 gallons twice a week, you can simply fill and allow the bucket to empty 3 times.
Thinking ahead, you may want to consider installing a programmable drip irrigation system. Purchasing an automatic timer for your hose that will go on and off exactly when you program it to, can help you conserve water. This device hooked up to a ‘soaker’ type hose, that will gently ooze water onto your beds, may be able to save you water, time and energy.
Prevent water loss by laying down a mulch barrier. You can use many different materials for mulch; ground bark, wood chips, grass clippings, straw, newspaper or cardboard, just be sure to apply a layer 2-4” thick, and keep the mulch away from the stems and crowns of your plants. Weeds are water thieves; they will out-compete your garden plants for limited water, and rob them of nutrients, so pull them out!
During prolonged drought conditions, (2-4 weeks) some species of turf grass will go dormant. The grass will cease to grow, and shoots and roots will die and turn straw colored. Yet there will be viable nodes in the crown that will be capable of regenerating after significant rainfall. During normal summer dormancy, 100% recovery can be expecting in about 2-3 weeks, after it rains. But if it has been an extended period of dormancy, 45-60 days of little to no rain, your lawn may not fully recover without some help.
Perhaps you may consider converting some of your lawn into a pollinator mini-meadow. Planting an area with native grasses, flowers and shrubs will help our local fauna and promote a friendly habitat for pollinating insects. These types of plants will naturally make do with whatever nature sends their way. Choose plants that are drought tolerant, and native to our area. Native plants have evolved to be perfectly suited to our growing area, and have inbred tolerances for the extremes of our New England climate.
University of Massachusetts extension services webpage have concise and informative publications on this and many other topics of interest to Massachusetts gardeners. https://ag.umass.edu/landscape
August’s ‘to-do’ list
I don’t think our gardens would have survived without supplemental watering these past months; our state is still experiencing a moderate drought. We are 25-50% below average rainfall for the season so far. There are many communities in western MA that have enacted watering limitations, or outright bans on outdoor watering. Still it’s easier to produce veggies during a dry season, than an overly wet growing season. Our Apero cherry tomatoes had ripe tomatoes before July 4th weekend, and have been ripening gradually since then. So much better to be able to harvest smaller quantities daily, than when they all become ripe at once. The Basil experiment; using the Basil downy mildew resistant variety ‘Rutgers’ Devotion’ is keeping clear of the disease, so far. Maybe the drier conditions have helped as well.
Adequate moisture is vital for certain shrubs this time of year; as they prepare for next year’s show. Flowering evergreens like rhododendrons and azaleas are forming buds for next spring now. On hot days, you might notice your plants wilting despite having adequate soil moisture. This is because leaves are losing water faster than their roots can absorb it. They should snap back in the evening, once the sun is off them. Water them deeply, to help perk them up.
Limit fertilization of woody plants at this time of year. Now is the time woody plants will begin to harden off foliage in preparation for winter. Applying fertilizer now could stimulate succulent new growth that would be damaged by an early frost. This is especially important for Roses too; so any new growth has time to harden off before the frost. This step can help reduce winter injury on your Rose plants; less to prune out next spring.
As you empty your veggie beds, re-seed with arugula, lettuce, chard, beets, and spinach. These fast growing crops all love the cooler weather of late summer/fall. Stagger sowing your seeds every 10 days so they won’t all be ready at once. Lettuce, arugula, spinach, radish, and even garden peas can be successfully grown as a fall crop. A fresh crop of young basil would be excellent to pair with the bounty of summer tomatoes available this month. These fresh plants will adapt better to indoor life, should you want to bring them in as potted herbs, than older, woody basil plants.
Late summer into fall is the correct time for dividing Peonies. They are very long-lived garden plants and can develop very extensive and woody root systems. You may find you have to prune away some extra roots in order to replant them. Be sure you don’t plant them too deeply; their ‘eyes’, or dormant flower buds, should be only one to two inches below the soil surface. Additionally, they may take one or two growing seasons before they will bloom again.
Despite our dry weather,the lack of water has had no effect on weed development. They seem to not notice the heat and humidity. By mid-to-late-summer weeds will be setting their seeds; it’s important to keep up with weeding chores. For each mature weed you pull now, saves you from weeding hundreds of seedling weeds later. Weeds steal food, water, space, from your favorite plants, so keep pulling them out! Preventing mature weeds from going to seed will save you hours of pulling next year.
Begin to make your houseplants ready for reintroduction to indoor life. Transplant into larger pots as needed, scout for insects and wash them off, before the plants come back indoors. An effective method is to apply a granular systemic insecticide directly to the soil. This way only the bad bugs will be killed, and the pesticide stays within the plant tissues.
Make spring 2021 a bit more beautiful, by planning to add to or start a bulb garden. Bulbs are easy to plant, and bulb planting is a fun, kid-centered project too! Stick with the ones that most animals won’t eat; daffodils, narcissus, alliums (ornamental onions) and snowdrops. Choose varieties that will bloom during early, mid, and late spring for an extended bloom season. Most bulb vendors will list the average time of bloom for each type, to help with your planning.
Have the weeds taken over or do you need help with your late summer chores? We can help; give our office a call or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Garlic lovers: grow your own!
Garlic once grew wild from China to Egypt and the Ukraine. It was a very easily portable crop that wandering folk could carry with them from place to place. Garlic ‘seed’ isn’t actually a seed at all. We use the separate cloves held within each whole bulb, to grow new garlic each year. I save the biggest, most robust bulbs to propagate my garlic stock each fall.
Yes, homegrown garlic is a bit of a time investment, but there is a big payoff when you can harvest your own organic garlic. In the northeast, garlic is planted in the early fall; Late September through October. This gives the newly planted cloves a period of time to set out their new roots before the ground freezes.
I grow the hardneck variety of garlic, which has an added bonus of producing garlic scapes in early summer. The scapes are immature flower stalks that are really delicious as a stir-fry vegetable, or made into a savory pesto. Scapes should be snipped off to promote bulb development over flower development.
Garlic scapes ready to be snipped off
Plan to plant out your garlic ‘seed’ in rows 6 inches apart, with each clove planted about 4 inches apart within each row; to a depth of 2 inches. Water the cloves after planting, and apply a 2-3 inch deep layer of mulch; such as chopped leaves or straw to complete the job. Out of sight your garlic will continue to grow until winter prevails, and the garlic will go dormant until springtime. About late April, you will see the tiny shoots of garlic push their way out of the layer of mulch. Once they are all growing you can side dress the rows with a good garden fertilizer, and be sure to provide 1 inch of water per week, if rain is scarce, and keep the beds weed free.
Knowing when to harvest the garlic will allow you to become an observer of the whole garlic plant. Each of the garlic leaves provides the ‘wrapper’, the papery skin surrounding the bulb. The leaves will begin to brown and die from the bottom up. When there is about 4-5 green leaves remaining on the top of the garlic plant, that is the time to harvest your garlic. If you aren’t sure, it is alright to carefully excavate some soil around the bulb and have a peek at what’s growing underground. There should be a clear definition from the bulb to the neck or stem; that is, the bulb should be fully rounded out. Carefully dig and loosen the soil with a spading fork, before gently lifted the whole plant out. It is probably better to lift them slightly too early, than leave them in the ground too long. Leaving them too long may cause the wrappers to deteriorate, the cloves to separate, both of which will hamper the curing process.
Garlic harvested at the peak time
Keep the entire garlic plant whole, and just shake off the soil. You will want to dry or cure the garlic in a dark place where it will get good air circulation. This could be by hanging in a garden shed or barn, or you can lay them out on some old window screens and boost airflow with an electric fan. With our hot summers in this area, curing will take 2-3 weeks. After curing you can cut the dried stalk, and remove the remnants of the roots. The optimal storage temperature is about 50 degrees, as low as 38 degrees. You are aiming for storage over the winter and beyond. My garlic can usually last as long as about April of the following year, when it will either start to sprout, or I’ve used it all up. Now you’re right back to where you began; with the new shoots poking forth from the warming spring soil.
Late summer is prime time for Hydrangeas. This versatile plant has been hybridized to allow for a variety of sizes and textures, to fit in almost any landscape. The Hydrangea flowers achieve their spectacular looks through a combination of sterile and non-sterile flowers. Hydrangea species fall into two categories; those that will bloom on new growth each season, and others that bloom on second year growth. These species sprout shoots that will develop during the growing season of year one; forming flower buds in late summer that will remain dormant over the winter, to bloom the following summer.
Hydrangea serrata or the Mountain Hydrangea is a native to Korea and Japan. It is very similar to the blue-flowered, big-leaved or macrophylla species of Hydrangeas, but much more cold hardy. Some reliable cultivars are: ‘Tuff Stuff’, ‘Blue Billows’ and ‘Tiny Tuff Stuff’. Mountain Hydrangea will grow to about 3-5 ft tall, with a sun or part sun exposure. Fun fact- this species of hydrangea will be affected by soil pH; acid soils will produce blue flowers, and alkaline soils will cause the flowers to bloom pink. What will your garden soil produce?
Hydrangea serrata ‘Blue Billow’
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Quick Fire’ blooms about 1 month earlier than any ‘Pee-Gee’ (paniculata ‘Grandiflora’) type hydrangea. The flowers open white, and then quickly turn deep pink. Grows 6-8 ft tall x 6-8 ft wide, prefers full to part sun. Rule of thumb for Hydrangea culture; the more direct sun, the greater their water needs will be.
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Quick Fire’
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Little Lime’ is a compact version of its big sister ‘Limelight’, growing only 3-5 ft tall. The blooms are an intriguing shade of bright greenish-white that turns ‘vintage pink’ as the nights become cooler. Little Lime is a good candidate for container growing, too.
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Little Lime’
Hydrangea arborescens or ‘Smooth Hydrangea’ is one of two species of hydrangea native to the US. ‘Incrediball’ Smooth Hydrangea grows to about 5 ft tall, and has very large flower heads up to 12 inches across. The blooms start out light green and then turn white, and back to green again as they age. This variety is known for its exceptionally strong stems, and is good for cut flowers.
Hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Vanilla Strawberry’ begins blooming in pure white, but rapidly turns the colors of a luscious ice cream treat. The flowers are unusual because they will have several shades of pink and white blooming simultaneously. Vanilla Strawberry panicled Hydrangea grows 6 ft tall x 6 ft wide. If you have space limitations, its cousin ‘Strawberry Sundae’ only grows 4 ft tall x 4 ft wide.
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Vanilla Strawberry’