Garden Notes: Suddenly it’s August!

Garden Notes: Suddenly it’s August!

— Susan Safford

A late July trip to the mountains of Colorado left me envious of the bright light and clear air and how those conditions enable irrigated flowering plants to hold up and persist in bloom, without succumbing to the mildews and bacteria of our sea-level, maritime humidity. In Vail, we saw overflowing pots of seemingly un-groomed, perfect petunias, full trusses of delphinium and flourishing pansies. For us here on the Vineyard those are difficult accomplishments indeed…although we do have great beaches and the sea.

The high point of Island summer, the annual Fair of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, is a few short weeks away, August 21-24. I hope you have been thinking of your entries and planning accordingly. Inform your well-meaning house guests and family members who want to pick which vegetables and fruits are intended as entries!

Due to unforeseen circumstances the 2014 Fair book will not be available online until August 10; apologies for the inconvenience. Fair books are available for pickup at Agricultural Hall and all local libraries.

After the Fair, an unwelcome thought: Labor Day comes, summer’s end nears, and soon the season changes. In gardens the emphasis shifts from summery flowers to berries, fruits, and deepening colors of foliage.

Will your summer-focused garden become a blank non-event? Perhaps there is still time to plant late-flowering perennials and fall-color shrubs, such as anemone, tricyrtis, lespedeza, and witch hazel, to add seasonal interest. Several small trees are known for their high autumn color: Japanese maples, parrotia, aronia, dogwoods, and amelanchier species and cultivars. Ornamental grasses come into their own, flowering, often dramatically, as well as changing from green to eye-catching tan, pink, or reddish hues.

Plan for next fall

Although this fall it is not possible to enjoy any last minute fall-blooming bulbs through planting, they may be planned for. Think colchicums, autumn croci, sternbergias, and more, for autumn 2015. The catalogues are arriving daily.

Speaking of gardens becoming a blank, will your garden be a blank, or a haven, for migratory birds preparing for their long journeys south? As members of Audubon Societies and Ducks Unlimited know well, yearly reports document the relentless reductions of numbers of migratory birds and waterfowl.

I often feel the frustration of powerlessness to change these grim outcomes, which are the result of multiple forces far beyond the control of most individuals. We can, however, think about our investments, consumption, and personal habits.

When I observe catbirds and sparrows hopping down the rows in my vegetable garden, I do not believe they are admiring my planting techniques. It is insect protein they are after. Gardeners need birds, and many deduce the connection instinctively: “What I can do individually is to make my place as hospitable to anything flying by as I can make it.”

We all can do something — permit some pokeweed or wild cherry grow in a back corner, maintain a clean birdbath and feeders, plant a crabapple — to attract and embrace migratory or year-round bird populations. Leave brushy and woodsy areas. Make your place attractive with food and shelter and — who knows — maybe some birds will stay around to work for you!

In the garden

Pretty cabbage whites are fluttering about. Although this European butterfly is a delightful creature, its larvae are the damaging green cabbage worms found on brassicas. Weekly applications of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt, “caterpillar killer”) sprays on kale, cabbage, broccoli, collards, and more, are a necessity in my garden. Bt is also useful against tomato hornworm, or any other lepidopteran caterpillar. It does not work on beetles, wasps, sawflies, or insects of orders other than Lepidoptera.

Weeds may surge in the hot weather of early August. Many would-be gardeners are really frightened of weeds and weediness, to the point of garden phobia. I used to suffer from anxiety about weeds, but overcame that some time ago. I have several good tools to assist in cultivation, but the weed problem in general diminished when I stopped asking my husband to turn the garden mechanically with the Troy-Bilt. When we stopped turning over the soil, we stopped bringing the stored seed bank to the surface where it could germinate.

The Troy-Bilt tiller, I hasten to add, is a wonderful machine, just perfect for tending two hundred foot long rows in a large truck patch. For a small home garden, 50 feet square, it is way more than needed.

Now, I mainly use the broadfork to aerate the soil, and surface cultivating tools, such as the push-pull stirrup hoe, to weed the rows. Getting enough organic matter into the soil to make it friable and workable is what results in easy-to-manage garden soil. (Sections of this garden are still less workable than others.) Anyone can do this. Just work whatever you have, composted or otherwise, into the soil in the course of the garden year. Once your soil becomes easy to work, weed anxiety will lessen.

Onion time?

Onions are ready to harvest when their tops go over. Pull and lay out in the sun to cure for a day or two, before bringing them under cover to dry and cure further. The necks want to be dry and thin; use promptly any that have noticeably thicker necks — these will probably not store well.

Be on the lookout for squash vine borer on all plants of squash and pumpkin. The lepidopteran insects are susceptible to Bt, but their habits make its use ineffective on them.

Due to August’s heat and sun wavelength, keep a sharp eye on recently planted material and containers. They dry out far more quickly now. Both can be mulched with layers of moisture-retaining material, but these will also harbor earwigs, centipedes, and other insect life you’d just as soon not encourage.