With the arrival of summer, it’s time to strap in and do some work in the garden. In the vegetable patch, it’s time to thin out the extra plants that are crowding each other. In addition to carrots and beets, others such as rutabagas, kohlrabi and parsnips that are grown by seed in the ground may require thinning.
Carrot seeds are tiny, so we don’t often plant them one by one. Instead, we tend to sprinkle them on and – by gum – most of them grow. I maintain that carrot thinning must occur by July 4th, so get to work. If they are very close together, you can use scissors to cut the extras at ground level to avoid ripping out the carrots you are trying to save.
I like to be efficient in everything I do, and that includes keeping a garden relatively weed-free. Many weeds mature quickly, flower and set seed. Your job is to keep them from producing seeds or crowding out your plants.
One way to control weeds is to prevent them from getting the sunlight they need to grow. You can do this by mulching. I spread newspapers on the ground and cover them with straw, hay or leaves. Four to six pages of newspaper keep light out and inhibit 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’re not adding heavy metals to your soil (which was the case years ago ).
This method works well on walkways and around large vegetable garden plants, but is more problematic for onions and carrots which are small and closer together. I use grass clippings or chopped leaves, without the newspaper, around small plants.
Mulching in the flower garden is good too. It retains weeds 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 the bark mulch, but I usually don’t. I find that pernicious weeds end up sending roots through the woven fabric, which makes weeding very difficult. Landscape fabric can also constrict perennials as they grow over time, smothering them.
What about plain old black plastic? I do not use. 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. Also, the plastic ends up in the waste stream, which I want to avoid.
This is the time to prune lilacs, forsythias and other trees and shrubs that bloom in spring and early summer. They set their buds for the next spring in summer, so if you wait until fall to prune, you will reduce the number of flowers. But don’t grab a hedge trimmer and just zoom in a foot or two. Make every cut thoughtfully.
I start by deciding on the perfect height and shape for the shrub. I recently reduced the height of some lilacs from 12 feet or more to about eight more manageable feet. I cut each stem where two branches meet. If you cut a branch in a random place, 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 obscure your surgery.
You can also trim tall, fall-blooming perennials by a third to delay flowering and create shorter plants. It’s best to do this in mid-May, but it’s not too late. Sometimes I’ll cut the outer stems off a large clump and leave the center stems full length. It gives me a longer bloom time and the lower stems help support the higher stems.
Be warned: not all perennials will flower if you prune them. I wouldn’t do this for peonies or irises, for example, but something like an aster will respond well. Experiment with 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 the most common garden plants.
If we have a dry summer, you may need to water. Established perennials shouldn’t need added water, but your vegetable patch might. I don’t favor overhead sprinklers because they water everything: plants, paths and weeds. I prefer a sprinkler wand, which is a device that I attach to my hose. This is 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 provides 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 seem to provide a lot of water, but it may not.
A sprinkler timer will provide water while you are on vacation. They attach to your faucet and allow you to use an overhead sprinkler or soaker hose. So don’t let your garden dictate your holiday schedule. With mulch and a sprinkler system, you can come home from vacation with nothing worse than a lawn to mow!