With the advent of summer, it’s time to buckle up and do some chores in the garden. In the vegetable garden, it’s time to thin out excess plants that crowd each other. In addition to carrots and turnips, others such as swedes, kohlrabi, and parsnips that are grown by seed in the soil also need to be thinned out.
Carrot seeds are tiny, so we don’t often plant them individually. Instead, we tend to sprinkle them, and – through chewing gum – most of them grow. I claim that the carrot thinning needs to be done by July 4th, so get to work. If they are very close together, you can use scissors to cut off the excess at the bottom line to avoid ripping out carrots you want to save.
I like to be efficient in everything I do and that includes maintaining a relatively weed free garden. Many weeds quickly mature, flower, and produce seeds. Your job is to stop them from producing seeds or crowding out your plants.
One way to control weeds is to keep them from getting the sunlight they need to grow. You can achieve this by mulching. I spread newspapers on the ground and cover them with straw, hay or leaves. Four to six sheets of newspaper keep light out and discourage weeds. Three or four inches of straw will hold the papers in place. Earthworms eat the paper in the summer, and newsprint is made with soy-based inks, so you don’t add heavy metals to your soil (which you did years ago).
This method works well on sidewalks and around large plants in the vegetable garden, but is more problematic for onions and carrots that are small and closer together. I use grass clippings or chopped leaves without newspaper around small plants.
Mulching in the flower garden is also good. It keeps weeds down and retains moisture. But beware: too much mulch can prevent rain from reaching the roots of your perennials. An inch or two of ground bark helps a lot, but 3 or 4 inches will prevent quick showers from bringing water to your plants.
Some gardeners use landscape fabric under bark mulch, but I generally don’t. I find that noxious weeds will eventually send roots through the woven fabric and this makes weeding very difficult. Landscape fabric can also constrict perennials as they stretch over time, suffocating them.
What about plain old black plastic? I do not use it. Sunshine breaks it down over time and makes a mess. It also prevents air and water from entering the soil, which must affect soil microorganisms. In addition, the plastic ends up in the waste stream, which I want to avoid.
This is the time to prune lilacs, forsythia, and other spring and early summer flowering trees and shrubs. They set their buds in summer for the next spring, so if you wait until fall to prune, you’ll reduce the number of blooms. But don’t grab a hedge trimmer and just buzz a foot or two. Make every cut thoughtful.
I start by determining the perfect height and shape for the shrub. I recently reduced the height of some lilacs from 12 feet or more to a manageable 8 feet or so. I cut each stem back to where two branches meet. If you cut a branch in a random spot, the branch may not heal well. It heals best where two branches meet. Try to hide your cuts by cutting larger branches in places where foliage from other branches will hide your operation.
You can also prune large, fall-blooming perennial flowers back by a third to delay blooming and create shorter plants. This is best done in mid-May, but it’s not too late. Sometimes I’ll cut back the outer stems of a large clump and leave the middle stems full length. This gives me a longer flowering time and the lower stems support the taller stems.
Be warned: not all perennials will bloom if you prune them back. I wouldn’t do it for peonies or irises, for example, but anything like an aster will respond well. Experiment with just a few plants at first. Better yet, read Tracy DiSabato Aust’s book, The Well Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques. It contains detailed advice for most common garden plants.
If we have a dry summer you may need to water. Established perennials shouldn’t need supplemental water, but your vegetable garden might. I don’t prefer ceiling sprinklers because they water everything: plants, sidewalks, and weeds. I prefer a watering wand, a device that I attach to my hose. It’s a 30 inch aluminum wand with a sprinkler head and valve. I can direct the water exactly where I want it. I like a brand called Dramm because the sprinkler head allows for quick and gentle watering.
Watering cans are good too. They allow you to see how much water you are applying. This is important for new trees, which need about 5 gallons per week. A sprinkler may look like it puts out a lot of water, but it might not.
A watering clock provides water while you are on vacation. They attach to your faucet and allow you to use an overhead sprinkler or drip hose. So don’t let your garden dictate your holiday plans. With mulch and an irrigation system, nothing worse comes home from vacation than a lawn that needs mowing!