Story and photography by Verna Gates
Experienced gardeners know beneficial ladybugs abhor heavy metal music and plants love classical tunes. This and other tips will keep your garden healthy during the dog days of summer.
It’s the thirsty month of August when the Southern air feels like moving through a bowl of grits. Unless something rare happens, you can’t buy a drop of water from the merciless, deep blue skies. Gardening morphs from the carefree spring blooms coming up of their own accord into sunburnt blooms that typically grow taller, leaner and deeper in color as if foreshadowing fall. Now is the time for the darker blues, purples and golds of late summer.
The best garden tip for an easy-care August is to plant natives. Plants already acclimated to your soil and conditions will naturally rise up as survivors, no matter how hot. Seeds procured from local sources, or a pass-around plant increases your chances of success and spare time on Saturday. Good examples are Black-eyed Susans, virgin’s bower clematis, passionflower and Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana).
That said, all plants can benefit from deep watering. In August, plants are heavy with growth. The roots need to pump water to keep leaves, buds and flowers working to seed and store food for winter.
As my grandfather once said, “watering means more than passing by with a hose.” Soaker hoses are best for this time of year, as the hot air sucks up moisture like a vacuum. If you do have a sprinkler system, turn it down a notch to reduce water loss. The best time to water is early morning. The second-best time is early evening. During the mid-day heat, you are just misting the air.
Common wisdom dictates one inch per week with one, thorough watering – 35 seconds (one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two) generally results in an inch. Frequent, shallow waterings make for shallow, weak roots. Do it once a week, and do it right.
August is your final round with weeds. If you don’t wrangle these tough competitors out of the ground now, they will only gather steam for a full-throttle assault next spring. Many of these weeds are going to seed and will gaily spread future frustration for you throughout your flower beds. If you can’t pull the roots out, like with some tough vines, cut it as far down as possible and paint the stem cut with an herbicide.
While transplanting during the hot weather is the equivalent of plant homicide, it is a good time to spread your seeds. The best way to learn how to grow flowers is to watch what the plants do naturally. This time of year, coneflowers, Indian Paintbrush, coreopsis, and Black-eyed Susans are going to seed. The plant will drop the seeds on nearby soil, with leaves to follow soon after. To mimic the plants’ process, spread seeds onto loosened soils, them cover with a thin layer of soil, no more than one-inch thick. Then cover with a thin layer of mulch and, very soon, leaves from your trees. Keep the space moist, not wet, until the fall rains come to nourish the seeds.
Plants under stress can fall prey to disease and predators. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on chemical sprays to combat the varmints. First, try a teaspoon of dishwater to a half-gallon of water to spray on plants. If that doesn’t work, tobacco is an excellent pesticide. Get a can of snuff, put it in the blender with water, and spray your roses to your heart’s content.
In August, you may be tempted to play rock music as you grill in the backyard. Realize if you do this, your ladybugs will rebel and you will lose a vital garden ally. A study by Mississippi State University proved that both the ladybugs and the plants will go on strike if exposed to heavy metal music. The aphids, however, love it and are probably playing air guitar along with the beat. Play classical instead, for best results.
When your iris bed is finished, it’s time to separate the roots and get them ready for spring. Store them in a cool place to replant for spring. Take out that catalog and order the tulips and narcissus bulbs you look forward to seeing in three seasons.
A good haircut can also help your August garden. Deadheading freshens up the look of the plants, and also helps build strength. Your roses and shrubs can benefit from trimming stalks before they get a chance to bud out before fall. Late summer cuts give them time to shore up the stem in time for winter. Fertilize with plenty of water.
If you are growing vegetables, go ahead and pick them before they get too tough and make too many seeds. Squash and okra can turn bitter if they spend too much time lingering on the mother plant, much like adult children. Harvest and enjoy the tastes of summer.
While the sedums like live-forever sprout deep colors, dahlias come into their prime. One flashy bloomer includes the campfire favorite, the marshmallow. Passionflowers lose their purple fringes as they give way to Gulf fritillary butterflies – for two months of color. The pushed Obedient Plant flower (Physostegia virginiana) won’t move back. Blue sage and late phlox will bring sky colors to earth. Some daylilies will bloom late while asters bloom early, connecting summer to fall.