Toronto Star column – published August 3, 2013
It is the first Saturday of August which is quite likely the most important weekend on the gardening calendar. Today marks the peak performance of your garden. From this day forward, through the fading days of autumn, your garden will be in decline.
While there are some fabulous early spring flowering plants that you have enjoyed and other plants that bloom best in October that are ahead of you, many vegetable and fruit crops are yet to reach the crescendo of their ripeness. The best of their season lies before us. We are standing on the Continental Divide of the gardening season: on your right is the past 4 months where planting is history. On your left is the next 4 months. Your job is to manage the flow of the season in your favour.
Where sowing seeds, planting, and weed control dominated your thoughts and actions previously, things are now about to change dramatically. Fact is, the real productivity in your garden lies ahead of you.
Beware: pests and disease
Pests and disease will make a visible mark on all things green as we wade into the muddy waters of late summer. Your Norway maple will no doubt begin to show signs of the dreaded ‘maple blotch’ which, thankfully, is a cosmetic ‘problem’ and not a health issue for your tree. More importantly, the Emerald Ash Borer can be treated until the end of August and then the door of opportunity to treat them effectively shuts for another year. Take my advice and call a professional to save your ash tree before it is too late. Details at www.yourleaf.org
Tomatoes that have been sprayed with the environmentally responsible ‘Bordo Copper’ mixture will be much more resistant to public enemy #1 of these crops: early and late blight. If you have not done this yet you could give them a shot but better do it soon. The spores of blight have been active for several weeks.
Sex and Food
If you are in the habit of sleeping with your window open and happen to have a bedroom that opens onto your garden, you may have noticed that there is quite a racket out there these nights. Crickets are cricking, moths are bouncing into night lights, toads are croaking, and if you look carefully against a clear sky you may notice that bats are flying up and down the open spaces between mature trees, foraging the insect corridors of your neighbourhood. Do not be afraid of them: they are our friends.
All of this is to say that there is a lot of activity going on in your yard that relates to the culinary interests of myriad insects and vermin. There is, in fact, a lot more activity of the sexual variety. A plant flowers, I remind you, in an effort to attract pollinators. Night and day pollinators do their work in an effort to sustain the hive or their own stomachs, but flowers are only interested in procreation: the development of seeds and their scatter is all that a plant really wants to do. As for the insects themselves, one makes love with a full tummy and a sip or two of fresh water. An abundant buffet is a prerequisite to having kids. What is the point of bringing progeny into a world of famine? Insects deserve more credit for figuring out such things.
What gardeners busied themselves with from April through July is now done. If you didn’t plant, sow, or weed before this, there is not much point in getting at it now, unless you are starting a new landscape altogether. I am talking about the established garden that should be flowering to beat the band and the vegetable garden that is on the threshold of producing the best crop of food ever. While my rhubarb, asparagus, strawberry, raspberry, and cherry days are behind me for this year, I still have my tomatoes and apples to look forward to. Not to mention peppers, potatoes, Swiss Chard and all of the cucurbits like squash and cucumbers, and list goes on.
The shortening days of August and September slow the growth of weeds in the garden.
Heavy morning dew and cooler evening temperatures help the germination of grass seed. That is the reason why most golf courses and sod growers sow grass seed between mid August and late September.
The changing of the season, as imperceptible as it is to the layman in early August, places new demands on the gardener. Our attention is turned from mulching and weekly weeding to hand watering in hot weather. From sowing to harvest. Better to pull your radishes as they become ripe than to leave them in the ground to flower and for the roots to go woody. This is true for all of the ‘fruit’-bearing crops in your garden, regardless of whether they are fruits or vegetables. A pepper plant that is harvested regularly produces more peppers. This is true also for beans, peas, tomatoes and, well, you get the idea.
If you have not put out a hummingbird feeder, now is the perfect time. As they fly south from their summer vacation in the Canadian Boreal forest, they stop here in the GTA for a longer period than they did in the early spring while on their way north. Now, they are foraging trumpet-shaped flowers for nectar that will build up their fat content. They can spend several weeks here, getting ready for the long trip to Costa Rica or wherever.
This is also the time of year when you should dig up your garlic, lay the exposed bulbs in the sun for a few days to ‘cure’ and develop a tough outside shell. Then hang them in a well-ventilated room but out of direct sunlight until you are ready to use them. If you did not plant garlic and wish that you had, it is instructive to note that the whole process is counter-intuitive. Plant garlic cloves in October; harvest the pig-tailed scapes in July and the bulbs now. There is no other food plant in the garden that subscribes to this cycle. A good reason to pay attention while attending your local horticulture club meetings.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity of all this time of year is to record your garden at its peak while you have the chance. The magic of digital photography allows us to shoot flowers in bloom, insects on the prowl, and even hummingbirds on the feeder with abandon. What you do with all of the ‘extra’ photos that you will never use is your business, but the keepers are worth saving, if for no other reason than to use as wallpaper on your computer screen. Come mid winter you will be grateful that you did. With the snow piled high around your compost bin and the sound of mating insects a distant and silent memory, you will remember these days fondly and with longing.
Breath deep, absorb, take in the scent and sounds of a very active garden: we have turned the corner. Welcome to the other side.
Question of the Week
Q/ I have grown impatiens in my gardens for years. For the last 3 years, my plants start to die back at the end of July. They look great one day and terrible the next. Can you tell me what I’m doing wrong?
A/ Impatiens are suffering from downy mildew. For details and photos check out my blog post: http://www.markcullen.com/resources/blog/July24_2013.htm