Thankful as most of us are for the drenching rain this weekend and thunderstorms this week, it remains a hot summer with wasps and Johnson grass around every corner.
Spring gardeners are leaving their hard-core cousins outdoors as they beat a hasty retreat to air conditioned sunrooms, prosecco glasses in hand. Any further gardening will be conducted with two thumbs from this point onwards. It is enough perhaps to Like the thought of what might be, rather than work the reality of what is.
(It seems it is not only the wasps that shoot venom in July.)
Meanwhile, for those of us who insist on a two-shower-a-day-routine – and I know you’re out there – there is much that needs doing.
Still time to plant vegetables
Top of that list: fall crops. You may have seedlings of broccoli, Brussel sprouts and cauliflower a few weeks in, but if you do not, there is plenty of time to direct sow crops such as spinach, lettuce, mustard greens, carrots, beets, chard, radishes, kale and even a last crop of late summer squash, free from the dreaded borer.
Please remember however, you do not need to sow everything just to prove you can. Let your list reflect your likes and dislikes, your time now and what you think your time will be at harvest. If it’s a tough year (travel, work, school, new brewery opening up a mile away), picking and choosing well will give you the most bang for your buck come October.
For instance, I will be travelling a great deal later this summer and into the early fall. Given a choice between an autumn basket full of homegrown produce and a chance to see the likes of Great Dixter, Wildside, and Monet’s garden at Giverny, I chose – shallow thrill seeker that I am – the latter. That doesn’t mean I can’t have anything in that basket come autumn, but I must make decisions.
The Force is not strong with my daughter and husband (chief waterers in my absence) and they are unlikely to wander the garden instinctively looking for struggling seedlings and dry pots. I’ll have to spell it out. That means pots grouped in refugee stations near the water barrels and choosing the hardiest fall vegetables I can to populate only two of my numerous raised beds.
Chard, not spinach. Kale, not lettuce. Squash, not peas.
By combining these vegetables with existing plants of tomatoes, peppers and beans, I may yet enjoy a colorful meal in October.
I’ll have to make it myself, but I’ll enjoy it.
If you are going to be in your garden for the rest of the summer, I urge you to try your hand at something a little more adventurous – at the very least it makes a nice break from summer weeding. Our official first frost date is October 7th, and the most adventurous of us will push that another ten days.
And, you don’t need to sow just the ‘official’ fall crops either. Chard is not freeze-proof, but it can be remarkably quick to maturity. Beans will not survive a freeze either, but at 55 days to maturity, there’s still time to sneak in a last crop. Some of my best summer squash is sown at this time of year to avoid the borer. Checking seed packets for “Time to Harvest” numbers allows you to count backwards and see if there is time.
Now about that weeding…
Meanwhile, in other areas of the garden – in fact, in ALL other areas of the garden – there are weeds. If one has the presence of mind to step back and observe the vigor of these unwanted and unloved pioneers, their sheer lust for life is humbling.
The tricks that each has developed (for I’m sure they must have) to circumvent the gardener’s hand or mower’s blade are quite astounding. And I find that when I think of it this way the weeding is made easier as it becomes more of a game to outwit them.
Some seem to match their foliage to surrounding plants, such as lady’s thumb growing stalk-like and invisible in the midst of weigela. Some grow flat to the ground (dandelion, plantain, goosegrass) until seed heads are formed in the hours between the resident gardener’s evening exit and his return the next morning. Some find purchase for their roots against the roots of another precious plant that does not want its roots disturbed – a fiendish tactic, but commendable.
Still, our job is to keep some measure of control over the areas that we have deemed cultivated, and that means removing the plants we have deemed uncivilized. This will be different for all gardeners. Certainly, many plants are commonly held in contempt (crabgrass, spotted spurge), but others may not be quite so obvious.
Call me odd, but I routinely allow the likes of common mullein to add a bit of drama to my beds, and I welcome mat-forming chickweed in areas of the fall and winter garden as it is highly edible. (Anytime the garden wants to take the bother out of raising omelet greens, I’m happy to jump on board.)
But in other areas, I am determined to slow the seed bank’s compounding interest strategy by getting Japanese stilt weed, crab grass, Johnson grass, plantain, mile-a-minute, Bermuda grass and bindweed out before they fulfill their life’s ambition.
This means not just pulling them, but immediately following up with cardboard and a thick layer of shredded hardwood or sterile compost, depending on the bed. I also encourage wanted plants and shrubs to increase their footprint – which tends to curtail weed seed germination.
These are my preferred methods of weed control, but as I am pretty much on my own on the job (glowering teenagers don’t count), and facing a large, ten acre property in the first years of garden-creation, I will occasionally use glyphosate on pathways, some open areas, and on stubborn, re-sprouting tree stumps like ailanthus or white mulberry.
Now, half of you just sighed with relief, and the other half just unfollowed my Instagram account, but I will make no apologies here. I once sat across a breakfast table from a well-known garden writer ranting bloody murder against anyone who would use any chemical control in their gardens. I let her rant (impossible not to really) and then dug a little deeper with a few well-chosen, but seemingly innocuous, questions. Come to find out she has two gardeners on staff five days a week – one of them armed with a skidloader.
Right. So just like your average gardener then.
I prefer to be selective, and not quite so ideologically zealous. It saves answering awkward questions over brioche and a mimosa.
Ultimately, my aim is to slowly gain ground against these weeds, so the job becomes one of light maintenance, not all-out war.
Reprinted with kind permission from The Frederick News Post.