Gardening in the dog days of summer

A neighbor asked me the other day whether it was already too late to plant. What? Too late in the sense that global warming is happening even faster than scientists have recently surmised so why bother because everything’s just going to freeze or burn up or succumb to whatever other horrible things are going to happen? No. She’s read someplace that gardeners ought to have their plants in the ground by mid- to late June.

Hmm. Everyday gardeners, a lot of you may already know this but, for those who don’t, let me just say that there’s a lot of gardening information out there. A lot of it is wise and good and helpful, like this column, for example. But you’ll also find a lot of stuff that trots out all sorts of rules, rules, rules that, were the writers actual gardeners, they would know nobody really follows. This whole thing about it being too late to plant in what, for us, is the middle of a very short summer is a good example of the latter.

Like every other gardener I know, I plant right up until my frozen fingers can hardly manage to get another fall bulb into the ground. It’s fine to do that. Just be sure to keep up with your watering, particularly during the blast-furnace days of July and August when your new plants will be suffering the most because their root systems aren’t established yet.

As for watering, flowers, trees, and shrubs need about an inch of water each week. So if it doesn’t rain, you need to get out there and get the job done yourself. To figure out how much water your garden is getting, you can stick one of those plastic rain gauges in the ground or just set out an old tuna can or something. Put it someplace you’ll be walking by so you’ll remember to check it.

And the old saying about watering deeply rather than frequently is true. If you’re just spritzing your plants with the hose after supper they’re going to develop shallow root systems that won’t serve them well in the future. (I know it’s easy and rather relaxing. I’ve done it, too.) There are lots of dos and don’ts about watering. In a perfect world, we would all water in the morning so foliage has time to dry out before dark when the temperature drops and fungal diseases have their way with wet plants. When we water, we would all walk around with a sprayer or wand attachment on the hose, taking care to water the ground beneath each plant (not the leaves) for a full minute or two so the water goes deep into the ground. (You could also try those hideous soaker hoses.)

But, alas, this isn’t a perfect world and, if you’re like me, you sometimes water by hand but there are plenty of other times when you throw the sprinkler on the garden and set the kitchen timer for an hour while you clean up cat barf and make dinner. This is not a good thing, especially in the evening, because it really does increase the chances that some of your plants will be stricken with diseases of one sort or another. But, in my opinion, I’d rather have to throw out a sick plant now and again than go without a garden because I’m not able to tend it in the best possible way. Remember the motto of the everyday gardener is "gardening for mere mortals." We like plants. We’re doing the best we can. So don’t get your undies in a bunch when you see our sprinklers on.

OK, so here we are in summer’s dog days and we’re planting and watering and what else are we doing, oh, weeding. That’s a good one. As laborious as it is, try your best to keep your gardens weeded. At the very least, try to get ’em before they go to seed. Oh, and try not to freak out over a few chomped leaves. Most insects that munch on plants are going to do that for a short time and then go on their merry way. Even the "safest" insecticide sprays and powders can be toxic to butterflies and bees and other beneficial bugs. And just for the record, that whole thing about putting beer out to catch the slugs that turn hostas into Swiss cheese overnight is a ruse pulled off by slugs that like a chaser with their greenery.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can email it to [email protected]