University City has been wetter and cooler than usual so far this year, but the long days and high temperatures of summer are here now.
At last, we should be seeing lots of vine-ripe tomatoes, not from South Carolina or Florida, but from right here at home. Remember, some of the best-tasting ’maters are irregularly shaped heirlooms with a pink or purple tinge, such as Cherokee Purple. Access to heirlooms is another good reason to grow your own, at home, in your community garden or even in a big pot on the porch.
Unfortunately, there are signs that blights – the tomato diseases that wiped out U.S. commercial production a couple of years ago – have already shown up in Winston-Salem. N.C. State University plant pathologists are on the case, but once these fungal diseases get established, they cause devastating damage, as they did in 2009 – “the year without tomatoes.”
Blights are spread by pathogenic fungi spores that splash up from the soil. Water carefully to minimize splash (drip systems are ideal), and use mulch. Be careful to rotate crops, and to bury or hot-compost tomato and potato plants at the end of each growing season. Even then, controlling blight is a struggle.
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There is some good news, and legendary North Carolina tomato breeder Randy Gardner is playing a central role. Working with Gardner, Cornell University breeder Martha Mutschler-Chu has released a tomato able to resist all three of the main types of blight. Named Iron Lady, it is available (until it sells out) from High Mowing Seed, a company specializing in organic seeds.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of chores to keep gardeners busy.
It seems silly to say this with rain seeming to pour down daily, but keep a careful eye on watering this month. Whenever there’s a break in the rain longer than a couple of days, plants dry out fast in July’s hot weather, especially in containers and boxes. Wherever rain doesn’t reach – those pretty pots on your screened porch, for instance – be especially vigilant. Check containers daily, using your “human moisture meter” (also known as your index finger). I sometimes need to water daily.
Outdoors, rain counts toward watering. For veggies, landscape and lawn, generally speaking, about an inch per week is the target. “Deep watering” once a week is fine for lawns, but vegetables such as tomatoes prefer even moisture (mulch helps), and seeds and seedlings may need a daily, light watering.
Harvest herbs and veggies on a regular basis. Don’t let zucchini reach cetacean proportions; pick it before you need a harpoon to deal with Moby Zuke.
You can still set out a last round of warm-season crops this month to ripen in our long, mild fall, including tomatoes (now), green beans, and squash (I’d say cukes, too, but watch out for pickleworms hiding inside fall cukes).
Remember to leave space in your garden for fall crops, which go in next month.
July is also a good time to start biennials and perennials from seed, such as foxglove and hollyhock, for planting this fall. If you are feeling adventurous, try something new: Take semi-hardwood cuttings of your favorite roses, azaleas, camellias, hollies and other shrubs this month. Select new green-brown stems that “crack” when you snap them. If this is new for you, follow a good guide, such as Lewis Hill’s “Secrets of Plant Propagation.” Taking cuttings is empowering and fun, and it can save money and keep beloved plants in your landscape.
Meanwhile, natural plants are eagerly self-propagating, too. Don’t let summer weeds go to seed. Pull them up or dig them in, and prevent return by dogged persistence and mulching. Stay on top of vines such as wild grape and honeysuckle, which will smother shrubs given half a chance.
My final garden reminders for July may sound like curmudgeonly nagging, but they are important nonetheless. Drink lots of water when working outdoors in the heat, and wear a good hat, sunblock and mosquito repellent. Though the sign of a gardener is someone standing in the rain watering (there are good reasons for that), high-tail it out of the garden when you see lightning or hear thunder close by. It’s a great season for barbecue, but there’s no sense in barbecuing yourself.