August in the Garden
Jobs and tips for August in the garden, what's looking good, observations plans.
Jobs / Tips
August is the main time that people go on holiday and so with the garden more needy of regular attention than at any other time of year - it gets abandoned, what to do?
The obvious solution is to get a friend, relative or neighbour to come round and keep all of your containers and recently planted trees and shrubs watered so they don't succumb to the summer heat. The reality of this approach is not always as you would like, but you can take a few steps to help your plants survive and make them easier for your volunteer to look after
- Give trees and shrubs that have been planted in the soil a really thorough watering before you go, about a bucketful each. Let the water gradually soak in, don't pour it all at once so half of it runs out of range. Then give them a heavy mulch 3-4" (7-10cm) of garden compost or manure, almost anything will do as long as it keeps the moisture in.
- Place all of your containers in a shaded area of the garden, the more shady the better, it will slow growth down and cut water loss dramatically.
- Remove all flowers from container plants. Even large buds too, depending on how long you're away for. No-one will see them and it will encourage the plants to provide new flowers ready for your return, also prevents them from running to seed if they're not dead-headed.
- If you have crops that will be ready while you're away, tell your garden-minder they can have any that ripen, gives an extra reason to look after the plants properly and keeps them cropping well for your return.
- Don't ask that the garden as a whole is watered, pick out a few particularly sensitive plants for special treatment, better a few get what they need while the rest can get by than they suffer. Don't leave instructions by name, tie a small piece of ribbon around the chosen ones.
- Cut the lawn before you leave. It won't hurt if it doesn't get cut for a couple of weeks or so as grass doesn't like high temperatures much and growth slows down now anyhow. If it has grown noticeably (more than usual when your cut it) by your return, give it a first cut with the blades set higher than normal, particularly if it's been very hot and dry and then cut it as normal a few days later.
Keep dead-heading all flowering plants. If you leave them, they start to put all of their energy into seed production and the flowers come to a halt. What starts off early in the season as a pleasant novelty becomes a chore at this time of year, but it's the only way to keep the flowers coming.
Prop heavily laden branches of fruit trees, to support the weight and prevent damage. Make a note, mental or written as to which tree/s and branch/es need to be pruned to help the problem, tie a piece of string or something around the branch to remind you to prune it later. Apple trees in particular can grow their branches further and further from the trunk with apples only produced at the ends.
Feed bedding plants in the ground or in containers, the same for crops such as tomatoes in grow-bags, use a soluble fertiliser as these get to the plant quickest. Once a week at least now especially in containers as most composts contain only a little nutrient and this will now be virtually used up. I noticed my Surfinia Petunias getting a few pale and yellowish blotched leaves recently meaning I need to increase the dose.
Set the mower a little higher than normal in hot dry weather. Though this year has been blessed with lots of rain so far and lawns in general are still looking very green, we can't assume this will continue. Best to mow little and often.
An effective way to reduce a whitefly infestation is by vacuuming. Portable car vacuums are reckoned to be ideal way of doing this, the domestic vacuum may just eat all of your tomato plants at the same time if you're not careful.
If any perennials are particularly badly affected by pests, cutting them back to the ground can be an effective way of revitalizing them. I cut my Delphiniums back last week for instance as they were looking rather tatty and the older leaves were succumbing to fungal infections. I'll be buying some named varieties soon when I been and come back from my holidays to replace the fairly ordinary versions that I have in my garden at the moment.
Trim hedges, particularly conifers.
Start to plan spring flowering bulbs for next year.
Still to do from last months list
Sow seeds of winter flowering pansies and violas.
A good time to take cuttings of shrubs.
Keep watering containers regularly.
Water autumn and spring planted trees and shrubs during hot dry spells.
Look for and remove "suckers" on roses or grafted trees.
August is a time of pause in the garden, freewheeling gently down the hill it's spent the year so far climbing up. There's still growth a-plenty happening everywhere, but it's less noticeable on most plants as they're bigger now and a few extra leaves or inches in height is less obvious than in the spring or early summer. Many of the flowering perennials are either taking a well deserved rest after shooting up from ground level and producing a wonderful show of flowers or still have their thing to do which won't happen until the end of the month or September.
The effects of pests and maybe a period of drought are also showing with some yellow or browned and pitted leaves. The lawn has slowed to a stop in the heat and the rich unbroken greensward that it was a couple of months ago seems like a distant memory now. The gardening year is approaching the maturity of September.
My plant of the moment at this time of the year is Lilium regale. Wonderfully huge scented white flowers, half a dozen or more on a single stem that reaches to 3 or 4ft tall. Individual flowers can get up to 12 inches across.
The secret with these bulbs is to look after them and keep them going from year to year. The first year, they'll be good, but it's from the second onwards where they really excel. As soon as the flowers are over, snap off the remains leaving ALL the leaves intact so that they don't put their energy into seed. Look after them watering and feeding as you would normally for a valued plant. This way the leaves will start to channel energy into the bulb for next year.
They're best placed where there is some protection from the wind and weather, containers on a sheltered patio are good. I've had stems snap off as the fully opened flowers are weighted down by rain and then broken by the wind. If this happens to yours however all is far from lost as the single stem of flowers can make a display all on its own in a simple vase and will fill a room with scent for days on end.
Archive - selected parts of previous year's newsletters from this month
The heat has taken quite a toll this year - and all those hours of sunshine. Lawns have taken quite a battering, though mine are pleasingly greening up again after the rain of the last week. I've noticed a lot of brown dead and dying trees in the hedgerows, parks and along roads, some completely so and others obviously suffering badly. In the garden it's my perennials that have suffered with trees and shrubs surviving pretty well. I've only watered containers and any new plants that have been put in the garden since the winter, so the perennials have been left to their own devices.
I've had several emails from people describing damage to their plants that in many cases sounds like the effects of the heat and sunshine. If you have any plants that are looking the worse for wear with yellowing or brown leaves with no obvious explanation, then it's most likely to be the weather. Often new young growth is fine, with the older spring grown leaves suffering. You could help them by giving them a bit of a tonic to try and build them up a bit, give them a good long drink with a soluble fertiliser and apply a good deep mulch around the base of the trunk.
One rather odd effect is that a couple of purple leaved plants I have - a Phormium and a Japanese Maple have started to revert to being green rather than purple - not from new growth, but by the purple pigment being less prevalent in the leaves "unmasking" the green that's also there.
This year seems to have become the year of the fungus. I've noticed it on all kinds of plants that have contracted some vague illness that can't quite be pinpointed. Discoloured leaves that are brown at the edges, maybe tending to black, but still alive rather than dry and crispy. A common question has been regarding a "sooty" deposit on plants, this is almost certainly "sooty mould" that is not growing on the plant as such, but on the sticky honeydew exuded by aphids higher up in the leaves. The sooty mould is a fungus that feeds on the sugary excretions, in itself it will not directly harm the plant, but it will cause discolouration and block light. The honeydew itself will also make it easier for other infections to take a foothold.
There have also been a whole host of emails about dying hedges and conifers. Brown patches that have been growing slowly for some time, that have suddenly become much larger and killed more of the hedge or tree. There are a number of possible causes of this - all fungal. What is probably happening is that the hedge or tree has been poorly for a while, but this warm damp summer came along and it became party time for the fungus. What can be done about it? Not a lot really once it's started to happen. It's more a case of removing dead or dying growth that may spread within the plants and then in the future carrying out basic hygiene. Dead leaves for instance from diseased plants should leave the garden in the wheelie-bin, down the tip or up in smoke, they shouldn't go on the compost heap or the infection will continue.
Spraying your plants with a general fungicide will help to reduce the effect or extent of the infection, but not completely eliminate it. Remember a garden is simply a collection of novel exotic food for all the local pests and diseases to have a go at!
Speaking of pests, whitefly in particular have been very prominent this year, especially so it seems on beeches, both trees and hedges. Why this should be is down to a series of factors building up over the last couple of years of weather and of predator population sizes that means that plenty of whitefly survived the winter and the predators weren't ready come the spring.
Every year there's some plant / pest / disease that does particularly well due the nature of simultaneous overlapping cycles of nature that happen to come up in favour of one and the detriment of another. My Fuchsias are superb this year, better than they've ever been, but the sweet peas just haven't really made it properly wherever they've been planted.
On a more benign note, we're experiencing a huge population growth of hover flies in East Anglia, especially on the coast, where home-grown flies are being added to by continental cousins flying / blown over from mainland Europe. Despite looking like bees or wasps, hoverflies are completely harmless if irritating in their rather rude manners of landing on you. Whereas normal flies are a bit circumspect and buzz around for a bit - at least they seem to realise they're unwanted and act like it - hoverflies treat you like any other shrub or tree and just land when they want to.
The adults feed on pollen but the larvae, bless their little cotton socks, feed on a variety of food - in particular aphids. Hoverflies are economically very important in the role that they play in reducing this pest on crops and in gardens too. The adults have had a surprisingly useful purpose on my lilies. Lily flowers have great big wobbly hanging stamens that are covered in a bright orange pollen that I always manage to get on some clothing that is light in colour so consigning it to an early wash. At the moment, as soon as the tip of the lily flower opens, there's hoverflies trying to get in and very soon after it is open the stamens are completely naked of pollen - something I've never seen before. At least it'll keep my clothes clean :o)
Do you have a water butt? This is one of my pet subjects as I'm constantly reminded how useful they are and plants prefer rainwater too. I've one large one that gets filled from the garage roof at the top of the garden, and another couple of plastic barrels at the bottom of the garden that fill from small shed roofs. I rarely have to use any mains water on my assorted containers, containerized plants, and establishing shrubs and perennials. The butts/barrels fill up when it rains and the plants are naturally watered, and then during the next dry spell, the butt/barrel empties. It usually works out that it rains again just in time as my rainwater supply runs out.
Don't use the rainwater for seedlings or cuttings. There is invariably some contamination in the butt even though lids keep most of it out and you may well introduce spores of fungi or bacteria that while older plants can easily shrug them off, younger ones may get ill.
The ones at the bottom of the garden are especially useful as I don't have to carry water any more than necessary - and I can never be bothered with a hose, too much trouble if put away, or too in your face if conveniently attached to the side of the house.
If you do install a water butt, I'd recommend using run-off from an out building or shed as I do. Down-pipe diverters from the house never seem to work well for long (maybe I've seen the wrong type). Avoid the classic mistake of the tilting water butt by making sure there is an overflow and that it doesn't just fall next to the butt. My overflows are led down to ground level by a pipe and then a short 3-4 foot piece of drainpipe (black, and hidden in the undergrowth) takes the water away from under the foundations of the butt. At a previous house I was even more organized and the overflow led into the sunken plastic liner of a bog-garden, so making sure it received more than its fair share of water - it all helps.
Listening to the plants grow - I've heard stories about this, but now I've actually witnessed it for myself and in my own garden too. I've two large pampas grass plants in a position in direct sunlight. They've obviously been growing at full speed as a couple of weeks ago I heard them at it.
They're producing their great tall feathery spikes of flowers that go up to about 8-9 feet at the moment. I was wandering around the garden about 10.30am when I heard a gentle sort of tapping sound, like when a large insect like a dragon fly gets stuck in the greenhouse or the like and bumps against the glass trying to get out again. It was coming from the pampas grass and I initially thought there was something flying around but couldn't see anything.
After much looking I realised that the sound was coming from the plants themselves. Growth of plants has two components, cell division (making new cells) and cell enlargement (the new cells getting bigger). Cell division often takes place around dawn (I remember this many years ago trying to make a good microscope slide of dividing onion cell roots - had to get up very early to do it) followed by cell enlargement during the day.
What I was witnessing was the filling out and enlargement of that mornings cells pushing the nested sheaths of leaves past each other. In other words, I was listening to the plants grow. It slowed down by about midday and they just grew quietly after that.
Homework - yes I know, but it's only once a year and you can mark it yourselves. Get yourself a small notebook (or large one if you'd prefer) and go around the garden recording your successes and failures for next year. Most plants that are going to will have flowered by now and those that haven't are about to, so it's the ideal time to record what works in your garden and what doesn't, not forgetting where it works and where it doesn't.
Start with seasonal and annual plants such as those in containers, hanging baskets and the like. Look at your baskets and containers, note what you put in them and did they work or not? I had one that was (if I may say so) just about perfect in the shade hanging from an apple tree and another that looks quite spectacular, but that's because it's been taken over by 2 Surfinia Petunias I put in it. The Pelargoniums in it can hardly be seen at all, so I won't mix them again next year for a sunny position.
I had a particularly spectacular success with morning glory "Heavenly Blue". I planted about four plants either side of the front door to grow over a framework of wires put there for the much slower Clematis and climbing rose coming one from each side. They've shot up the sides, met in the middle and have now covered a couple of rope "swags" I tied to the wires and then to just below the bedroom windows.
One side the morning glory was in a large container, the other they were in the (greatly improved) soil shared with the climbing rose. The score? about 4:1 in favour of the container. Others I planted further out in the garden have been dismal. The doorway ones have given 70-100 flowers every day for weeks, getting a bit fed up with deadheading every evening in fact.
My sweet peas on the other hand have been a great disappointment. I hope yours were far better - although of course I don't really, I want it to have been the weather - no it wasn't it was me. I normally put them in a large container under planted with violas and they do splendidly. This year I used Lobelia "Cambridge Blue" instead and they were just too competitive for the sweet peas which I pulled out weeks ago now.
Speaking of Lobelia, they did really well in the semi-shade of an apple tree in a hanging pot on their own, better than in the sun. Another lot went into a large container under a fishpole bamboo Phyllostachys aurea which can more than look after itself.
It all seems so clear and obvious now, but I know that unless I write it down somewhere and refer to it at the appropriate time next year I'll have forgotten it all together. My "failures" were mainly the result of experiment, so I'll know not to try again. There's an old Chinese proverb "The path is known to each man by his finding it", so true, so true.
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