Archive for July, 2005

Bigger Dahlias, More Squash

Dahlias always make larger flowers – with longer cutting stems – if you disbud them, and as they swing into high gear in late summer this small attention can really pay off. Just use your fingernails or a manicure scissors to remove the small side buds that form under each large one.
Summer squash should be starting heavy production long about now, so it’s time to start lifting those leaves. Neglected fruits don’t just grow tough and watery, they tell the plant – by their maturing seeds – that it’s okay to quit making more.
So the squash mantra is always “keep them picked to keep them coming ” … but don’t try to get ahead by picking them too soon. Zucchini looks cute when it’s finger sized, topped with a stiff, unopened flower, but it doesn’t taste like much at that stage. Ideal harvest time for zucchinis – and crooknecks, straightnecks, pattypans and cousas – is shortly after the flower opens ( shortly being defined as anywhere from an hour or so to 3 days).
In very hot weather, plants wilt at midday even when they aren’t thirsty, but if yours seem to be slow reviving , look pale, or show other signs of stress, that stress may be dry soil. Don’t be deceived by a damp top layer, dig down 3 or 4 inches to check. When watering is indicated, be sure to do it at ground level or use the sprinkler early in the day. Wet leaves and humid nights are a justly famous recipe for the spread of fungus disease.

Deadheading Annuals

Nothing like summer thunderstorms for reminding you the word microclimate is not to be taken lightly. There have been enough of them here to keep everything growing nicely – and knock down every tall stemmed flower except the stalwart cephalarias – but friends only a few miles away are moaning about the drought.
We are mostly moaning about the heat. A friend who lives even closer says this week’s garden tip should be to go to the movies, preferably at a theater that serves beer. This would be an excellent idea if I could just teach the cats how to deadhead annuals. Cosmos, zinnias, bachelor buttons, painted daisies, love-in-a-mist… seeds are forming everywhere and they will be the seeds of a flowerless September if I don’t get them cut off the plants soon.
We will also be strawberryless if the Tristars don’t get some tending soon. This tasty “day neutral” variety produces well into autumn if you keep the plants watered and weeded during the dog days. But that’s a big if when you’re eating peaches and cherries — and going to the movies.

Coping with the Weeds, Managing the Beans

If the weeds have gotten ahead of you, the best thing to do is admit it. Then take a grass shears and chop off the flowers – or seedheads, as the case may be. Pile the cuttings in deep shade, where they can decay – or sprout and THEN decay – without causing further problems. The living weeds will rebloom before long, but this does give you some breathing room – and it’s far and away the most efficient use of limited weeding time. The results don’t LOOK as tidy as getting some small corner nicely weed-free, but the payoff in future weed prevention is far larger.

Early bush beans should be slacking off soon. You can just let them peter out, but after all the work it took to prepare the bed, it’s nice to do something else with it. If you have pole beans coming along, might as well cut off the bean plants at ground level and plant some greens (try to leave the bean roots in place to nourish the soil).

If you don’t have more beans on the way, cut the plants down to about 5 inches tall. Water well, then feed with a mixture of fish emulsion and liquid seaweed. In about 2 weeks they’ll be back to full size and ready to make a second crop.

Butterflies in the Garden

I thought I saw a monarch the other day – orange stained glass sailing through the field – but after it landed on a rosebush it turned out to be a Viceroy.

We keep telling ourselves it’s a good thing the driveway bed is overrun with milkweed. Not only does it smell great, we say, futilely tugging at long ropes of root, we are providing essential host plants for monarch caterpillars. But ever since the population crash of 2001 we’ve scarcely seen any, even though those who follow them closely say they’ve recovered substantially. (For a very great deal more on monarchs, check out, produced by the University of Kansas.)

Monarchs may be in short supply, but there’s no shortage of swallowtails because we have a large parsley bed and tons of volunteer dill. And the field is full of Queen Anne’s lace, so there’s somewhere to put them if they get too pushy. That’s one more great thing about butterflies – even the ones that have children on your food are fairly easy to control. Each caterpillar tends to stay put, so all you have to do is move it to something else it likes to eat.

Don’t know what that is? Try the Audubon Field Guide to North American Butterflies. Its genus descriptions include brief menus.

Mosquitos vs. Beetles

It’s unscientific poll time: would you rather have mosquitoes or Japanese beetles? I ask because we are plagued with both — the plant eaters in New York, the blood suckers in Maine. Bill hates the mosquitoes so much he votes for the beetles, but I think he’s nuts. Mosquitoes’ only harm the garden by keeping you away from it. Japanese beetles, on the other hand, are out there chewing 24/7 … and humping away at the same time, a formidable combo.
Fortunately, they don’t like rhododendrons, so our late pink one is glorious…assuming you don’t mind disorder. I never seem to get around to pruning, so it has become a vast, undulating lump, pulsing with bumblebees.
Lilies are this week’s showstopper flowers, especially the yellow trumpets, but the brugmansias are coming on strong, well festooned with giant white trumpets that cede nothing to jasmine in the night fragrance department.
If you peer closely at the brugmansia leaves, you can see that cucumber beetles will eat what Japanese beetles won’t. But years of hauling these tender beauties in and out of the cellar have given us big, bushy plants that hit 6 or 7 feet by September, and they can take a fair amount of damage without looking too shabby.

Garden Alert : Late June/Early July

This week’s garden tips: It will soon be safe  to cut off garlic scapes without risking bulblet failure, and while you’re in the garlic patch, don’t forget to weed. Also the onions and leeks, if you’re growing any of those. All these alliums are weak competitors – crowding really diminishes quality – and because they don’t make broad leaves to shade out weeds they need lots of help from you.

If you haven’t mulched your tomatoes with straw yet, put it on top of the list. Covering the ground beneath the plants is one of the best ways to fight the blights that live in the soil, splash up on the lower leaves and spread from there. It also helps to remove the lowest leaves and generally make sure there is lots of air circulation at the base of the plants.

And just in case you’re not busy enough; take a look at the bottom of the fence to be sure it’s nice and tight. The deer are such a constant plague it’s easy to forget that the world is full of rabbits, but the wretched things are lurking everywhere and if they get into the garden will make short work of lots more than lettuce – speaking of which, don’t forget that bolting lettuces too bitter for salad do make delicious soup: butter, spring onion, a new potato, lettuces and water (not chicken stock!) . Puree when done. Add cream and chill – chives on top.

White Flower Clouds

The crambe is in full bloom, so we are having the annual crambe debate: does it or does it not merit the space? It’s gorgeous, no doubt about that, numerous 5 foot stems topped with huge clouds of tiny white flowers, but those coarse, cabbagy leaves are not lovely – except to the slugs – and I’m not keen on the smell. Bill says the flowers ” have the fragrance of fine old pipe tobacco.” I say they smell like old socks….

Our other white clouds are the elderberries. Don’t know if it was the slow spring or something about last winter (which was milder than it felt at the time) but the elderberries are doing splendidly. We never net them, so birds will get all the fruit, but if I can squeeze out the time we’ll probably have blossom fritters at least once or twice. The flavor is pretty delicate; I’m not sure I believe the people who go into raptures over them, but they are easy enough to make and we both love doing something so traditional.