In the dog days of August, there’s no more harmonious refuge than the garden. The best times are early and late in the day.
In the morning, sunflowers gaze up at the sun like a choir ready to burst into song, with all eyes on the director. Though thunder rolls in the evening (if you see lightning, take a break), rainbows sometimes bridge blue sky and red clay.
There’s plenty to do in vegetable gardens and landscapes, and mornings and evenings are also happen to be the best times for working outdoors during August. Save your indoor work for midday.
Keep a careful eye on any shrubs, trees and containers you planted this past spring. They can easily dry out and die in this hot weather, particularly if there isn’t good contact between the root ball and the surrounding soil. Don’t simply flood and run; you need to keep the soil evenly moist, but not super-saturated.
If you lose a plant or two, consider fall planting. A fall start gives plants a chance to grow roots over the winter, so they are better prepared for the vicissitudes of summer.
If you see plant stress, don’t automatically reach for the fertilizer. Fertilizers are not wonder drugs, and if misapplied, they may cause more problems than they solve.
While we’re on the subject, wait to fertilize your fescue lawn until autumn. Fescue naturally slows down in hot weather, and fertilizing now simply wastes money and can hurt the environment.
If you have brown patch in your lawn, fertilizer won’t solve that problem, either. The N.C. Cooperative Extension is a great source of lawn care information. If you have problems, it’s the place to start looking for help: www.ces.ncsu.edu.
With stormy weather come winds that can flatten plants and flowers. Stake up tall varieties that might blow over during a storm, such as sunflowers. I now generally put stakes beside sweet peppers, too. Stakes also help keep peppers from bending to the ground under their own weight.
In the vegetable patch, August is the “swing month” between summer and fall crops. Food gardeners actually can plant cucumbers and broccoli at the same time.
Before mid-month, you can plant summer squash, bush beans and cucumbers. Just be sure to pick a variety that matures quickly, in about 60 days.
The only problem with filling up the garden with warm-season crops is that you won’t have room for all the cool-season favorites that go in the ground after the middle of August: the lettuce, broccoli, collards, beets and carrots that grow beautifully here in the fall.
Here’s where a little bit of garden planning – and ruthlessness – can serve you well.
To make space, be heartless and get rid of any existing plants that show signs of disease or that stop producing. Good candidates for the compost heap are browning tomatoes and deflated squash plants.
The squash is likely a victim of squash borer, a native moth with two hatches per year. Get rid of affected plants, so the pupae cannot hide out in the soil. The borers, like the monster in “Alien,” eat their hapless victims from the inside out.
Some enterprising gardeners like to dig the larvae out with an Exacto knife, then tape the plant back together with duct tape, I’m not making this up.
I find this kind of radical surgery has a very poor prognosis, so I stick to planting old-fashioned types that sprawl and put down extra roots, and growing such naturally resistant varieties as butternut.
Watch for wasp and yellow jacket nests, in trees and in the ground. If you see a vivid blue-and-red fuzzy “ant” wandering around your yard, give it a respectful berth and mind your pets and small kids. That “velvet ant” is a wingless wasp, and its sting packs a real wallop.
One option more gardeners are trying these days is saving their own seed. You can learn more about this topic at 9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 6, on “Charlotte Talks,” Mike Collins’ popular local talk show on public radio WFAE (90.7 FM). The show will focus on saving seed to safeguard traditional varieties around the world. A guest will be Janisse Ray, author of “Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.”
Good luck in the garden. Remember to stay cool and well hydrated as you tackle your August garden tasks.