Your Garden in Mid-Summer
If you’re like many, even most, gardeners, you’re brimming with energy in early summer, ready to tackle whatever weeds and pests dare to make their way to your garden. You water regularly, pull the wild carrot and dandelions and other weeds, and in general give your garden the time it requires.
As the dampness and last chill of June depart and the hot sun of July appears, gardening may start to seem a bit more like work then it did at first. However, you’re resolute, and doggedly return to the garden several times each week to water, weed, and pluck.
Your tomato plants have beautiful flowers, even tiny tomatoes, forecasting a good late-summer crop. Your chard and kale are thriving and the squash are starting to make their way across the yard. But, what’s that horrible bug on your zucchini plant? A squash bug? And why are there so many of them?
With our selective memories that allow women to go through childbirth more than once, every spring we blissfully underestimate what it takes to successfully garden in Maine. It’s easy at first when the plants are tiny and don’t need much water, when there’s regular rain, and when the beach isn’t beckoning.
Experienced gardeners suffer from this but know deep down that July and August will test the mettle of even the greenest of thumbs. If your plan is to produce enough food beyond summer salads and for winter storage, you must have a plan for the hot days of summer.
Schedule time in your garden each week—literally, set a reminder in your calendar. When it gets hot, it’s easy to skip a day or two, then three or more, which allows the weeds to take over. When the weeds get larger than the lettuce, many a gardener will walk away muttering, “Next year.”
It’s critical to plan for the coming gardening fatigue. One strategy is to discourage weeds by laying several sheets of wet newspaper or a piece of cardboard or landscaping cloth in the paths between your garden rows. As summer wears on and you get into a regular lawn mowing schedule, you can collect the mown grass to cover the newspaper, creating an ongoing weed barrier. The less weeding you have to do, the more likely that you’ll make it through the tough, hot days of summer.
Share your garden and cut down on tending time. Invite a neighbor to garden with you in exchange for part of the harvest. This lightens the load and creates a wonderful sense of community. You can choose to garden together or at different times; the results will be the same either way. You might even—take a deep breath—trade off a week to get away for a vacation.
Throw a garden party! Invite friends and neighbors for a picnic or cookout and ask for 30 minutes of weeding to start the party. Many hands do in fact make for light work. One variation of this, when you invite singles looking for partners, is called “weed dating.”
Watch the weather forecast and plan to spend time watering. Soaker hoses are an excellent way to get the water where it needs to go. Lay them down when you start the garden, cover them with some soil, and make the most of your watering efforts. With soaker hoses strategically placed, you can turn on the faucet and let it go for an hour or two. Just remember to turn it off.
You WILL have to weed your garden. However, planning and mulching will cut down your weeding time dramatically. Be sure to put your plants where they will thrive, which will allow them to out-compete many weeds. Lettuce, for example, likes some shade in the hot summer sun, so plant it on the north side of your kale. Both will be happy. As well, weed after a prolonged rain, which loosens the soil.
As your veggies get established, keep an eye on the number of blossoms on each plant. When you’re imagining the taste of that first Sun Gold cherry tomato, keep in mind that each one of those blossoms represents a tomato that requires energy to grow. As August wears on, you’ll do well to pinch about a quarter of those blossoms off to encourage optimal yield.
Battling Bugs and Blight
Expect to deal with common pests such as the Japanese Beetle, squash bug, slugs, even ants. A horticulture professor once said that the most effective strategy for dealing with Japanese Beetles is to give every neighbor a “Bag-A-Bug.” When squash bugs get established, it’s like a horror movie, so deal with them early. Mix 2 tablespoons of food-grade Neem oil (available at most garden centers), 1 tablespoon of dish soap, and 8 ounces of water in a spray bottle and apply to both sides of squash plant leaves every few days when the plant is young, for a highly effective deterrent.
Row cover—the light, white, woven fabric that allows rain and sun to penetrate but keeps everything else out—is an easy and valuable tool in the fight against pests. Some vegetables and fruits, including cabbage, kale, potatoes, and raspberries, invariably attract pests each year. If those critters can’t get at the plant, they can’t do any harm (and sometimes won’t be able to reproduce).
Have you dealt with blight on your tomatoes? It’s a scary disease that comes in on the wind and can decimate a tomato crop in about a week. Look for information from your local chapter of the UMaine Cooperative Extension Service and sign up for any alerts. Gardeners and farmers around the state share information about instances of blight, so you can be prepared. Growing your tomatoes in a hoop house or covering them with plastic when blight is on the wind can save them during a blight year. Another general rule is to avoid planting the same kind of crop in the same place each year.
You’ve harvested your lettuce and spinach. Now what? Try succession planting, which means following one crop with another. Here’s an example: Plant four rows of lettuce—two in mid-May, two in late May. They will mature at different times and when you harvest for the first two rows, you pull the entire plant and immediately plant more lettuce. Do this all summer and you have lettuce all the time. This works for many kinds of vegetables, including carrots, turnips, radishes, and spinach.
Maximize your garden space by planting a vegetable that matures in late summer in the spot where you harvest an early summer plant, such as snap peas or radishes.
At the End of the Day
We all garden for different reasons—exercise and fresh air, fresh food, Yankee thrift. Gardening is a labor of love, so find the spot in your yard and in your heart for your garden, do your best, and forgive yourself often.
Debbie Atwood gardens in Brunswick, Maine, and graduated with the Cumberland County Master Gardener Class of 2004.