Garden Notes: Moving into August

Absence of ants; presence of phlox.

Garden phlox sport both vivid and soft colors. —Abigail Higgins

The heat and lack of rain, compared with elsewhere on the mainland, are almost minor details. We should know what to be grateful for.

In the vegetable garden after work, cicadas gently sawing away in the treetops, I note what has grown astonishingly since the morning. Who knows what goes on deep down in the dark heart of the zucchini forest? It is a simple wonder that plants want to grow.

That they do what they do to the accompaniment of an orthopteric treetop orchestra is, well, a fanciful leap, but we are very little on our own. It is the connections and interactions with others that build the world.

Recent ‘Wild Side’ article

Matt Pelikan’s recent article about tree crickets (“Wild Side,” July 12) contains abundant information. The stridulating insects in the Orthoptera that give us meadowsong, the sounds of summer, include tree crickets, other cricket races, cicadas, katydids, and grasshoppers, which are members of this orchestra. They also constitute foundational insect protein.

Absence of ants

Speaking of foundational insect protein, most years, as warm weather returns, many Island homes experience the annoyance of ant incursions. These can be the large brown and black carpenter ants seeming to seek water, or teeny-tiny ones that seek sugars, fats, and oils. There are myriad other ant species and clans, the word itself, myriad, coming from classical Greek mythology, roughly meaning hordes.

This year, at my house at least, there has been a welcome absence of ants: I speculate that this has something to do with the two crazy, frigid weather events stitched improbably into the fabric of an otherwise mild winter. Were ants entering a critical reproductive phase just as extreme cold occurred?

Ants’ ecological niche is so great that “niche” is probably the wrong term. Digestors, cultivators, dispersers of seeds, fungal and bacterial partners, keystone food units: just few of the ant roles in Earth’s ecology. Ant metaphors and analogies abound in many languages. Humans have admired the structure and industry of ant colonies since we started noticing these things.

While no one rationally welcomes swarms of insects into the house, we generally acknowledge ants’ importance in the greater scheme of the natural world, and wish them no harm. — if they remain outside, and leave our houses alone.

Phlox time

With so many garden pleasures to consider, ranking them is impossible. However, phlox time is tops, the apex of the summer flower garden. Phlox paniculata is a butterfly and hummingbird magnet, and an undemanding, fragrant, colorful (understatement), beautiful cutting flower.

Plant phlox in sunshine, moderately good soil, and divide when clumps become congested or over-large. In fertile garden soils, some phlox cultivars may top out at 48 inches, leading to the development of compact shorties, such as the Younique series. Phlox’s moisture needs are modest, mainly what nature supplies. If “Chelsea-chopped” in late May or early June, clumps of phlox may become stocky enough to need little or no staking.

Still, phlox can be a heartbreaker. Plants are easygoing, until they are not. Essentially a meadow plant that has been bred to become the garden plant we love, phlox are subject to foliar diseases when conditions get out of whack.

Seasonal change coincides with phlox time, with radiational cooling and heavy nighttime dewfall simultaneously occurring with heat and drought, just as plants usually begin to their star turn. Fungal and bacterial spores, such as powdery mildew and leaf spot, are always present. Dew-wet foliage, combined with a touch of heat or drought stress, is often enough to ignite greyish-white powdery mildew spores to fruit. Leaf spot is another disfiguring phlox problem.

Try spraying horticultural oil on both sides of foliage, and maybe thin a few stems. Avoid overhead watering, and be sure to water only after the top inch of soil is dry. Water only the soil, not the plants.

This is good general advice — watering the soil, not the plant — for supplemental watering of all plants and containers during hot weather, when rots and mildews suddenly strike.

Ushered out: Daylilies

As phlox time arrives, many daylilies, the big July show, begin to usher themselves out. The tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) and its children, such as the late, double-flowered versions, bloom once. When finished, the flower stalks brown and pull easily. Then the leaves may be completely cut down; they will regrow short and fresh, and the bed looks tidy.

Many diploid, tetraploid, and other hybrid daylilies have reblooming traits. This plus accompanies a negative: continuous production of new foliage, where the old, outer leaves brown out. Without grooming, these plants can look really bad. 

In the garden

I thought perhaps the bed of ‘Cortland’ onions I seeded and planted in spring were ready to harvest, because the tops appeared to be going over. Now — not so sure: Possibly, it is little furry raccoon feet visiting instead. However, the sections visible are bulbing up nicely, and harvest will come soon.

In any case, look to harvest onions when the necks soften and the yellowing tops flop over. Then cure the onions in a cool, dark, and airy place until the tops shrivel and necks tighten. This improves storage.

Despite conventional advice that beets transplant poorly, I have had good results by sowing seeds in a soilless mix in a 10 by 20 tray. When the tray is full of seedlings with one true leaf, I prick them out into prepared ground, using the broadfork as a spacing jig. Backbreaking.

A set of young, mini butternut squash awaits planting as I write this column. These hybrid mini winter squashes are perfect for smaller households, and have superb eating qualities, similar to larger versions. I top-dressed a section of the garden soil with wood ash, ground eggshell, coffee grounds, and low-number organic fertilizer, and then broadforked it. Plants will pop in after a final raking.

Perform weekly Bt application of cole crops, tomatoes, peppers, and cucurbits — anything susceptible to lepidopteran (butterfly) caterpillars.