HANDS-ON GARDENER: Winding Down and Gearing Up

by Miriam Hansen

A redefined and renewed flower bed. Photo courtesy of Miriam Hansen

A redefined and renewed flower bed.
Photo courtesy of Miriam Hansen

As the growing season winds down, I find myself thinking about next year, what I want to divide and what I want to move, where I think a bed needs more color, discarding disappointing plants or plants that moved in without a by-your-leave. It is so hard for gardeners to discard plants but, as in the vegetable garden, there comes a time when you have to uproot the cucumbers, even if they are still producing! So it is with flowers. We have to make choices. There just isn’t space for everything.

Even though I won’t cut back and divide until late September, August is when I make notes about it, and start to prepare places for the newly divided plants to go. With grass beginning to encroach in the older beds, I’ve taken the opportunity to both edge and expand those beds. There is nothing like a clean edge to redefine and renew a flower bed.

The quickest, most efficient way to remove sod is with an edger, a fork and a Cobra weeder. You can use a gardening hose to outline the new shape of the bed. Then just edge along that line, cross-edging at intervals to cut the sod into smaller rectangles or squares. Lift out those pieces with the fork, turn them over and strike repeatedly with the Cobra weeder’s pointed end. Then lift the heavy rectangle of sod and beat it with the flat side of the Cobra. This will loosen and release much of the soil, so that you are primarily discarding grass and roots, rather than the topsoil they were growing in. I then fill in with homemade compost (see photo), tamp it down by walking on it and cover with bark mulch. When I am ready to plant, I will rake back the bark mulch, dig the hole and plant in the mixture of soil and compost. Water before and after you move a plant and tamp down around the plant with your feet.

August is the time to order bulbs. If you want to purchase bulbs from Fedco, your order has to be received no later than August 21. I love the look of the parrot tulips, typically bicolor flowers with irregularly fringed or waved petals. They look wonderful emerging between spring blooming epimedium (fairy wings) and are slightly longer lived than the large Darwin species tulips that play out after only a few years. By contrast, daffodils, narcissi, crocuses and many of the smaller species are not only long-lived, they also multiply rapidly for moving around beds or naturalizing in a lawn. As we relish our riotous beds of monarda, phlox, lilies and daisies, it is rejuvenating to order our bulbs and gear up for spring.

Some of the lesser utilized smaller bulbs can make huge statements in naturalized drifts or swaths across a bed. Try the white, pink, purple or blue, Chionodoxa (Glory of the Snow). One of the earliest bloomers, they multiply readily and are beautiful massed with daffodils and hyacinths. Siberian squill (Hyacinthoides or Scilla), a bright blue, nodding little flower, flourishes in light shade or dappled sun. Striped squill or Puschkinia is another sweet little bulb that can handle slightly moister soil and will do well in both partial and full sun. I’ve got some of these white star-shaped flowers with their deep blue contrasting striped vein in my rock garden where they put on a show in the very early spring.

This year, I’m planning to purchase bulbs from Scheeper’s —                                                                             http://www.johnscheepers.com/flower-bulbs-index.html a company specializing in bulbs, with gorgeous photos and descriptions of all the different genera and species. Remember that like other perennials, individual bulb species will bloom from early spring, to mid-season to late spring —another way, to extend the beauty of spring bulbs.

Even though Asiatic lilies are prey to the red lily leaf beetle, I’ve decided to buy some this year. There really isn’t anything quite like the display these lilies put on in late summer, so I’m going to take the chance, hand pick the adult beetles, crush the larvae and eggs.

In the vegetable garden, the crabgrass is just going to seed. We have knocked it back considerably. We’ll see what next year brings. We have had very few Japanese beetles this year. Two years ago we spread milky spore disease on the lawn surrounding the garden and the results have been fantastic! I’ve only seen a handful of Japanese beetles this year.

It is time to top tomatoes and Brussels sprouts. This just means cutting off the growing tips so that the plant’s energy goes into fruit production rather than leaves and flowers. If you haven’t already done so, remove the lower leaves from the tomatoes. Likely they are beginning to yellow and brown – both likely signs of early blight and other conditions but not late blight. Do keep an eye out for late blight. Now is the time it begins. There has been a case reported in Chittenden County. Keep an eye on the progression of the disease at http://usablight.org. This website also offers the best photos of the various diseases for positive identification.

Late August is the time to start garden greens for fall harvest. Spinach, lettuce, bok choy, chard, kale and arugula will all produce greens before we have killing frosts. Covering them with row cover in September will extend the harvest considerably. Happy planting, ordering and harvesting!

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