The month of August is named for Caesar Augustus, the same Roman Emperor whose census begins the Christmas story.
Augustus decided he needed to add an extra day to his month since he was so, well, august. That does not score many points in Carolina gardens, where August brings us 31 long summer days of heat and humidity.
In spite of the heat, there’s plenty to keep gardeners busy. We can fill our harvest baskets daily with summer crops – squash, tomatoes, okra and more. Plus, getting your fall food garden going in mid-August is the key to a bountiful autumn.
This leads to a dilemma. Do you plant last round of summer crops, such as bush beans, cukes, and squash; or go full on for such fall faves as beets, carrots, collards and kale?
To expand available space, you can integrate edibles into your landscape. Share space in flower beds, or bite the bullet and shrink your lawn to make room for a veggie and herb garden.
One star in edible landscaping is the pepper plant, very attractive with its glossy green leaves and colorful fruits. If you already have peppers, this month is a good time to stake them so they don’t flop over during August storms. Both peppers and their eggplants cousins also benefit from an August side-dressing of a good organic fertilizer, such as Espoma Plant-Tone (5-3-3), following instructions on the bag.
Before planting for fall, you need prepare your soil. Clay soils are very sensitive to moisture, and when soaked can turn into adobe brick-like clods if worked with a tiller or even hand tools.
Wait until your soil is dry enough to crumble in your hand, to at least a shovel-depth, before working it. This means being patient but checking daily. Even though more rain falls here in August than any other month, the hot weather dries things out fast.
You may need to sacrifice some vegetable plants that are still producing but obviously past their prime. Unless badly diseased, they are fine to put them in your summer compost pile.
Many experienced gardeners simply “stockpile” August’s spent vegetables and weeds in a big heap, then add them to new leaf compost piles in the fall. You can also incorporate fresh material whenever you turn an existing compost pile.
Weeding is a constant August chore. To be more effective and have more time for fun, weed smart. Where weeds do not interfere directly with landscape plants or crops, mow them and allow them to serve as living soil protective ground covers.
Within beds, eliminate weeds when they are as small as possible. For bigger weeds, tackle them after a rain, when the ground is still moist. This makes pulling them out by the root much easier.
While caring for your garden in August, be equally careful to care for yourself. The best and safest time of day to work is early morning before things heat up. That’s especially true in areas in full sun, such as the food garden and the lawn.
Late afternoon is another possibility, though lingering afternoon heat and the risk of storms with potential for lightning makes that your second choice. North Carolina is second in the nation, after Florida, in deaths from lightning strikes, so the risk is very real, if relatively small.
A final thought for school gardeners. This month, students head back to classes, and there is a praiseworthy effort to encourage gardens in local schools, the Green Teacher Network (http://gtncharlotte.org).
For fall crops in the school garden, you need to plant the garden just as soon as school begins. That’s a hard job for teachers, who already have a million responsibilities. This is the perfect time for gardening parents and other volunteers to step forward to assist. You do not need a huge space – start small, and help give our children a place to grow.