Right about now – the first part of August – is a good time to give your garden a summer haircut. That's what I call the process of deep cleaning, both the ornamental beds and the vegetable and herb plantings. The results are not just aesthetically pleasing but can keep plant diseases and pests from ravaging the garden.
And the summer haircut can free up space to make a late season planting of some vegetables, which stretches the growing season and saves on grocery bills come fall.
So many uncontrollable factors ˗ rainfall, air temperature and soil temperature, soil moisture and moisture on leaves and fruit ˗ work in combination to nurture outbreaks of plant fungi, viruses, bacteria, and nematodes, but just keeping the garden clean and plants well groomed is an important way to improve the underlying conditions organically. (Note to beginning gardeners, no two years are ever alike, so don't worry if you seem never to learn "the secret" to a perfect garden.)
I got a reminder of this lesson the other day as I watched a gardener at a large public garden tending some of the thousands of roses there by hand. The gardener was Lucas Jack of Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, N.C. Rather than spraying the rose beds with loads of toxic chemicals to battle pests, he was squatting down to reach under each rose with a hand rake, removing the little bits and pieces of dead twigs and leaves that had collected around the main stems. By taking away the material where disease can thrive he was taking away the ability of disease to catch hold and cause harm. I went right home and spent an hour cleaning my garden. It was only a start, and I'll have to do a few more rounds in the next week or so to finish the job.
Done and to be done
Here's what I did in the first go-around, for a total of three bushel basket loads of junk for the compost pile:
- Weeded 20 feet of an ornamental and vegetable-herb mixed border next to the porch, removing dead material and aerating the wet clay soil, and freeing up enough space to plant some broccoli seeds,
- Sheared the spent flower stems of a huge lavender bush that were flopping over the sidewalk,
- Tore out the bug-ridden and unproductive broccoli raab plants, which had grown too big and were crowding other crops,
- Harvested my pet cabbage, a three-and-a-half pound dark purple beauty which began its journey to sauerkraut-dom that very evening,
- Found – once the beds were cleaned up – several little onions, one leek, and enough tender green beans for a nice lunch, and
- Planted those broccoli seeds, half a packet of leek seeds, and some wasabi arugula in the newly cleared spaces. Yum.
What's still left to do:
- Weed another 50 or 60 feet of mixed ornamental and vegetable beds, add a couple bags of Black Kow for conditioner and nutrition, and plant some more seeds for fall,
- Weed around the grape vines and trim off leaves that are yellowed or damaged,
- Clean up around all the rose bushes, shape, and feed,
- Split some irises that have grown too big and tough, and lightly ˗ very lightly ˗ prune fruit trees that may have too much dense grown inside the limb structure.
Getting right in close to the plants in your garden may reveal some surprises. I'm always shocked how many little trees are growing under the cover of innocent shrubs and flowers, trees like maples, locust, the dreaded invasive paulownia, oaks, more maples, walnuts, redbud, icky box elder, tulip poplar, and walnut. Any one of those trees can be magnificent as a specimen…but may be inappropriate in tight quarters.
Of course those "trees" are only six inches tall or so when I find them in the sweep, but at that point they are easy to remove; ignore them for more than a few years and you may have to pay to have them removed.
Similarly, some plants really crave good air circulation around the stems, particularly roses. If you keep every bit of stray vegetation away from the rose canes they stand a good chance of flourishing. Vines, weeds, creeping grass. All must go into the compost pile.
When I took a good look at my main vegetable bed, I had to admit that several of the crops had passed their peak. The broccoli rabe plants were attracting a lot of cucumber beetles to their big leaves, which looked awful, and the plants were just sucking up moisture and nutrients without producing any edible flower stems or heads. I ripped them all out and sent them to the compost pile too.
Speaking of compost, I wouldn't make a blanket statement that every gardener should be applying a thick layer of mulch at this time of year (I sometimes use a layer of composted soil as mulch). Conditions over much of North America are extreme: extreme drought and heat, high winds, and high rainfall have all affected various portions of the country.
My own yard has a huge component of clay soil, and since we have had a lot of rain from spring right through to midsummer, I have been working at keeping the soil broken up and aerated rather than blanketed with mulch that could trap moisture at root level and lead to more problems.
Elsewhere, in dry conditions, it may be better to apply mulch or to try and grow a green crop, like soybeans, that can be ploughed in later.
Good luck – and good eating!
Nan K. Chase gardens and writes in Asheville, North Carolina. She is the author of Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape and will have a book about vegetables published by Gibbs Smith in the spring of 2013. She speaks to garden groups around the country.