With temperatures rising and both vegetable gardens and landscaped areas hitting their stride, there's a lot to be done in the garden and it's easy to fall behind. Not only are there the usual tasks like weeding and deadheading, but some plants are outgrowing their spaces, the daily vegetable harvest is picking up speed, and, while our impulse is to take a break from planning and planting the garden at this time of year, a bit of time spent thinking ahead will ensure a bountiful and attractive autumn and winter. Here's what to do in July.
Keep plants in place with a quick trim. Many shrubs and perennials crowd each other at this time of year because they are all blooming and growing. While it's tempting to attack overgrown shrubs with hedging shears, please, for the love of all that is good, pick up your hand pruners and take the time to make subtle individual cuts all over the plant for a more natural look. Gently clip plants off the house, out of walkways and off of neighboring shrubs if they are getting a little too up close and personal. Many plants benefit from "skirting," which is when you remove any branches that are within 6 inches of the ground. This allows better airflow to prevent diseases and gives rhododendrons and others a more open appearance.
Check for bare spots. Plants are at their largest right now, so it's a good time to identify bare spots in the garden where you might tuck in more plants. If you enjoy the serendipity of an ever-changing garden, consider re-seeding flowering plants such as the gothy, dark-bloomed Black Barlow columbine (Aquilegia 'Black Barlow'), peach, apricot and gold-colored Flashback calendula (Calendula officinalis 'Flashback'), or good old California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), in the usual vibrant orange or in deep red, cream, pink, or fluffy, double-petaled versions. Adding fast-growing herbs such as parsley and dill in bare spots is a tasty way to temporarily fill up empty spaces. By planting now, you can enjoy flowers this summer, then let them go to seed in fall to enjoy a return on your investment next spring.
Control rose pests and diseases organically. Aphids, black spot and powdery mildew are rearing their ugly heads in the rose garden right now, and if your plants are suffering, there are some organic techniques that can help. For aphids, a simple spray of horticultural soap is effective at smothering just the insects that are coating the flower buds. For fungal issues, you can either pick off and destroy the damaged leaves, use a commercial sulfur spray, or use a mixture of one part milk and two parts water sprayed once a week to help prevent new damage.
Of course, the most effective cure is prevention. Save yourself some work by keeping rose litter picked up so pests and disease can't hide in it, and encourage aphid-eating beneficial insects to visit by planting lavender, ornamental and culinary sage, daisies and yarrow nearby to attract them. If you are going this route, it is a good idea to avoid spraying neem, pyrethrum and other broad-spectrum insecticides because they don't discriminate in which bugs they kill.
Plant vegetables for fall harvest. Though your harvest of brassicas, greens, herbs and peas may be starting to overwhelm, don't let today's bounty cloud your view of the months to come. Continue starting seeds or transplants of beans, peas, cilantro, basil, lettuce, carrots, parsnips and beets so your harvest doesn't run dry. Winter-hardy vegetables can also be started now. Broccoli, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbage will keep your fridge stocked with delicious ingredients for cole slaws, green smoothies and stir fries as the temperatures cool.
Prevent blight on tomatoes. Here on the North Coast, if the lack of heat doesn't make for a disappointing tomato experience, tomato blight could break your heart. Tomato blights are caused by a number of diseases which damage both the fruit and plants. The best way to prevent blight is to water plants at the base rather than overhead. Another remedy sounds odd but has numerous enthusiastic proponents among the original DIYers, the over-70 crowd: Use soured milk or cream, diluted 50-50 with water and poured directly over the foliage and into the soil around tomatoes. This helps keep calcium in the soil and prevents diseases from taking hold. A preventative spray with organic copper fungicide each week can also keep blight at bay, though you'll want to wash your fruit before eating.
Keep it cool with blue and purple flowers. If you don't want the expense and fuss of a water feature, consider planting some cool-hued flowers to bring the visual temperature down this summer. Azure Rush hardy cranesbill (Geranium 'Azure Rush') has a dwarf habit which fits into the foreground of the landscape better than the larger and more common Rozanne hardy cranesbill. Phenomenal lavender (Lavandula x intermedia 'Phenomenal') brings the bees buzzing and releases its fragrance when planted next to a patio or path, while Cat's Meow catmint (Nepeta x faassennii 'Cat's Meow') is a non-flopping, compact version of catmint which requires less primping to look good. All can tolerate limited water in the landscape if given a thick layer of mulch.
Shop for switchgrass and fountain grass at the nursery. These two ornamental grasses emerge later from dormancy than most grasses. Yet, even with a shorter growing season, both grasses have a great deal to offer. Switchgrass (Panicum) has a columnar form and airy flower heads that wave gracefully in the air on our windy summer days. Meanwhile, fountain grass (Pennisetum) has adorable, fluffy poofs and a longer bloom season than most grasses. That said, choose your fountain grass carefully. Varieties with green foliage tend to tolerate our climate like champs and can be planted in the ground. However, purple-leaved and variegated varieties often end up being annuals in our climate, so they should be purchased in large pots and appreciated intensely while they last.
Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. Visit her on the web at www.GenevieveSchmidtDesign.com.