By Scott Canning, Director of Horticulture and Special Projects
I looked back at my Garden Chores recommendations from a year ago, and felt inspired. Inspired because, except for the joy of some summer rains, this can be a challenging month for flower gardeners. And my advice a year ago was good advice for me right now: Don’t give up!
It is tempting to give up on the garden in August; to toss in the trowel and head for the hammock. I know I harp about weeding, but it pays to keep after it. And summer will be over before we know it. I had a certain grandmother that was fond of reminding the world that when it was the Fourth of July, “…summer’s OVER!” She was not a popular gal. But as I get older, I unfortunately understand what she was saying in her cruel warning!
“Veg gardeners,” as they say in England, live in a different world than the rest of us. Each week brings new bounty that has to be harvested and sometimes processed pronto. There is no thought of a hammock in the veg gardener’s mind, because they have all dealt with the fourteen-foot zucchini, and don’t want to repeat the experience…
Some thoughts about my current “veg” garden, very limited as it is right now. I am mad about tomatoes, and in the past, had gardens devoted to them exclusively. You know, forty plants of thirty varieties-type crazy tomato gardens. Right now, I have weaned myself down to nine plants. And I had to learn about Beet curly-top virus, unfortunately. This is a viral disease I never saw in my New York tomato plants, but is very common in New Mexico. It is spread by the beet leafhopper, so I have learned to encircle my tomato cages with floating row cover to keep the leafhoppers off my plants. Unfortunately, lots of New Mexico plants and weeds are in the same family with beets (Amaranthaceae; Chenopodiaceae has been “sunk” into it) and harbor both the virus and the vector, the leafhoppers. I have found my new strategy to be effective. However, the row cover can hide the tomato flowers from pollinators, so I adapt in two ways: I use a fruit-setting hormone that I spritz on the plants about every two weeks, and I do a slow strip-tease of my tomato plants from top to bottom as summer progresses, rolling back the row cover, hoping the pollinators find the flowers before the leafhoppers infect the plants. That’s gardening: You live, you learn, you adapt!
Remember, you can continue to groom and dead-head your perennials, but it is getting late to prune or deadhead roses: stop by Labor Day, latest, or you will encourage new growth that will not have time to “harden off” before cold temperatures arrive. Back off or stop fertilizing (with a few exceptions, see “peony” and “conifer” below). Again, you want growth to begin to slow and ripen or “harden” before any fall cold snap.
I am thrilled with how well peonies do in Santa Fe (they do need some extra water). August, especially late in the month, is a great time to plant peonies. Unfortunately, mail-order nurseries tend to ship in late September or October, so you will have to wait for new varieties that don’t come “over the garden fence.” It’s also time to lift and divide the peonies you may already have in the garden, if the clumps are robust and you would like more plants of the same. Remember that the growing points or “eyes” should be planted just an inch or two below the soil surface. Improve the soil before planting: Peonies are very long-lived and resent root disturbance, so this is your best chance to add organic matter and a slow-acting organic fertilizer. Water the peonies in, and then mulch with a few inches of an organic mulch, to keep the roots cool and moist as they settle into their new location. Doing this in late August or September gives the divisions time to grow new roots, and perform well next spring. Follow this planting advice for mail order plants that arrive later, too. Planting too deeply is a prime cause of failure to bloom in peonies. And if you decide to divide your peonies (or other plants that might be crowding your garden), mark your calendar, become a member, and bring them to September’s Members Plant Swap – an excellent way to share your gems and trade for new plants.
Late August into September is a great time to establish new conifers or transplant them. They have hardened their top growth, but the roots will continue to grow until the soil temperature drops below 45 degrees. It is OK to use some slow-release or organic tree fertilizer on new or transplanted conifers.
Take the time to sip some iced tea and take stock of your garden. Flip through some bulb catalogs; I like Brent & Becky’s Bulbs (and a portion of dollars you spend go to support us!) and Van Engelen (wholesale quantities) or John Scheepers (retail quantities), but there are wonderful bulb specialists out there: Try looking at the website for the Pacific Bulb Society for inspiration, but keep track of the cold-hardiness of any bulbs that pique your interest there. This site provides lists of specialty bulb growers.
See if there is a place to add a native plant to your garden to benefit pollinators; they need our help. Think about replacing an exotic or two each year with a beneficial native plant. Here’s a helpful link that explains the need, and will also help you avoid some pitfalls that befall anyone trying to create “a meadow from a can” in New Mexico. It explains clearly that currently, transplanting natives into garden situations is your best approach, and makes recommendations for annuals, perennials, and woody plants.
Have fun, and don’t quit!