This is the best time of the summer, as far as I am concerned. The heavy lifting of spring transplanting is a distant memory, and the mania of end of summer harvesting and preserving is not quite here yet. Best of all, at our house every dinner is planned around what is available or interesting in the garden. However, that does not mean there are not chores to be done.
As Julie Riley pointed out in her column last Sunday, there is still time to plant and get respectable harvests of leaf lettuce, arugula, mizuna, mustard, cilantro, tatsoi and kale. To that list, I would add scallions. For the past several years I have had extraordinarily good luck with Damast Bunching Onion Seed Tape, which I ordered from parkseed.com. They are fast to mature, and if time allows will grow to amazing heights and thicknesses. We grow hundreds of them, chopping up and freezing the excess for use all winter long.
A chore which many of us are tempted to let slide when things are growing well is weeding. Starting in late July, I have been known to leave the likes of chickweed and dandelion alone, instead depending on winter to kill them off. It is true that weeds will no longer overrun defenseless seedlings, forcing them to compete for food and water. However, weeds need to be killed off now because they are trying to go to seed. If you don’t keep at the task of lopping off their heads, they and many more offspring will return next spring to plague you. While you are out there getting lettuce for supper, take 10 minutes to pull a few weeds.
Deadheading annuals is another chore that is tempting to avoid. There are two problems with that: Your garden will look terrible with all those shriveled and bent flowers atop the stems, and you will get fewer blooms because the plant will be moving into the stage of life that involves seed formation and not showing off colored blossoms to attract bees (and humans). Even the so-called self-shedding (as in “no deadheading required”) varieties leave unsightly corpses behind, so really you should be doing this maintenance chore.
Another thing deadheading does for some single stemmed plants, like many sunflower varieties, is to force the development of blossom-bearing side stems. In fact, the earlier in the season that you do this, the better for the formation of bushier, rather than single stemmed, growth habits.
A task that is much like deadheading for some varieties of vegetables is timely harvesting. If you don’t regularly cut off those cucumbers, zucchini, and patty pan squash, among others, the plants will stop producing as many. To say nothing of the fact that elderly vegetables are often fibrous and tasteless or bitter, so often end up being thrown away.
Yet another chore many of us tend to forget is rotating containers so that sun exposure is even for all sides of the plant. Just this morning I noticed that my baskets of tuberous begonias are unbalanced, with much more lush greenery and blooms on the side facing the street, while the sides toward the garage are bare by comparison. Normally I rotate all baskets and planters every two weeks, but obviously I have been falling down on the job.
My raspberry bushes have been outstandingly productive this year, yielding quart after quart of huge berries. Judging from pictures I see on Facebook of grinning parents, and children with berry juice running down their sun-reddened chins, seated in the middle of heavily laden berry bushes, there are entire families that swoon over the process of berry picking. To me, that is like skate boarding — I admire those who do it, but I would rather not. I don’t need to pack a lunch, keep my favorite location a secret, and spend hours or even the entire day harvesting berries. I walk literally 15 paces from my back door to fill my buckets, repeating every other day or so in order to keep up with the waves of ripening berries. The hardest part is to stop shoving berries into my mouth or the mouth of my begging dog. And all I have to do for this bounty is water the bushes about once every two weeks and, this time of year, cut off the stems that produced berries this summer while leaving behind the newly formed stems that will be giving me berries next summer. If you have raspberries, about now your bushes should be ready for you to perform a similar chore.
Usually this time of year I advise people that during the first week or so of August, it is time to top off indeterminate tomato plants and pumpkin/hard squash vines. The tiny fruits that are on the stems will not ripen and taking off the top foot of tomato and winter squash vines will force the plant into ripening the viable fruits left behind. I also recommend clearing out the central bunched up leaves that tend to form in the middle of tomato plants, which will improve air circulation and allow more sun to reach green tomatoes.
However, as our climate is changing, the end date for our season seems to keep moving back, extending our season. When I stared gardening, back when dinosaurs still roamed, Aug. 24 was the average date for the first frost, but that is no longer the case. I still will be trimming out excess leaves, but I won’t be topping off my tomatoes just yet because the smaller green tomatoes I used to thin, figuring they would not grow enough to ripen, may have a fighting chance this year.
Alas, I will not have to cut back my pumpkin vines because there will be no hard squash harvest this September. My beloved Irish wolfhounds left us this spring and when I stopped refusing to admit they were really gone, we downsized to an animal shelter golden retriever. Angus (the husband refused to call him Poindexter, Percival or Cuthbert, my preferred names) weighs a third of what the wolfhounds did and is much shorter, so I assumed he could not reach into my 3-foot-high raised beds as they used to do. Well, it turns out that by standing on his hind legs, Angus can munch on anything that suits him, and recently it was pumpkins. Not to eat, to play with.
Two days after we got him, I went out to find the backyard littered with chewed off baby pumpkins. At first, I thought it was some demon-possessed teenage vandal, but the tooth marks gave Angus away. So did the half pumpkin hanging out of his mouth when I went out there. If I were Julie Riley, I would yank out those now useless vines and replant kale but, as with my wolfhounds, it will take me some time to admit this year’s pumpkins are really gone.
(Just as an aside, in case you are looking, I have not adopted from a shelter before and was surprised at the great dogs that end up behind bars. Pumpkin slaughter notwithstanding, Angus is a pretty perfect companion.)
Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.