originally published in the Davis Enterprise 07/28/05
The doldrums are the area of the
Pacific around the equator where the prevailing winds are often calm. Sailing
ships barely move until the trade winds return. So there can be days and days
of dank, hot stillness and inactivity.
For the bleak description, try Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
For a less depressing version of the doldrums, just reread Norton Juster's The
Phantom Tollbooth. Either would be fine in a hammock in the shade.
There are two difficult times of year
for color in the garden. January is a challenge because it is cold, rainy, or
foggy. This year we had a total of 4 sunny days in January! It takes a special
plant to bloom under those conditions.
The other challenging time is right
now: the 6 - 8 week period from late July into mid-September. The spring and
early summer blooming perennials are done, flopping over, setting seed, and
generally looking chaotic. The fall flowers such as mums are still gearing up.
And generally we've had some spells of really hot weather that has been
stressful to gardens and gardeners alike.
What to do in the garden in August?
There are a few maintenance
practices that can make your garden more pleasing right now.
- A quick grooming is useful. Trim off
seedheads of annuals such as marigolds, and perennials such as Coreopsis, to
keep them blooming. Cut back or
gently pull out the spent flowering stems of perennials such as Agapanthus and
Alstroemeria. Lightly shear shrubby flowering plants such as lavenders.
- Your trees and shrubs would
appreciate some slow, thorough soakings now. A hose at a low flow can be set at
the base of a tree or large shrub, or a drip system can be run, for several
hours or even overnight. Doing this every couple of weeks is very helpful to
large established plants.
- August is also 'the month of
weeds'--those little sprouts from May and June are either seeding or running
amok now. So a good soaking and some hand pulling, digging, smothering, or
spraying can make a big difference right now. A layer of landscape fabric and a
couple of inches of coarse mulch or bark will smother most weeds.
- There are a few things we don't do
during hot weather.
--Spraying pesticides when the
temperatures are above 85F can burn the foliage, even organic products such as
Neem Oil. Wait until an evening when the delta breeze is coming in.
--Fertilizers can burn if they aren't
watered in right away (and
thoroughly) during hot weather. Water immediately after fertilizing your lawn
or roses; don't count on the sprinkler system to water later.
--Hard pruning of evergreen shrubs --
25% or more -- can cause the suddenly exposed leaves inside the plant to
sunburn badly. Wait until fall for any major pruning.
The heat can really take its toll on
lawns. Brown spots can have various causes: female dogs, not watering long
enough, poor sprinkler coverage, insects, fungus.
There's not much to do about the
burnt spots caused by dogs. Mowing your grass at least two inches high, and
keeping it well-fertilized in the spring and fall, will help the overall
When the grass is underwatered, it is
dull green and the lawn doesn't spring back up when you walk across it. Usually
stress is more visible on the edges and corners, where the sprinklers don't
cover as well, or on mounds or slopes due to the water running off.
Our standard recommendation is to
apply one inch of water two times a week. You can measure with tuna cans or
equivalent high-tech cylindrical devices to see how long that takes with your
sprnklers. You may be surprised! It's often 35 - 40 minutes; over an hour with
impulse (Rainbird) types.
What if the water runs off in just a
few minutes? With heavier soils typical of West or North Davis it may be
necessary to split each into two or more waterings on a single day, or even
over a couple of days. Just get two inches a week on as best you can, and avoid
If your soil has been compacted by
traffic, you can aerate it with a mechanical device that removes a plug of
soil. Garden personality Jerry Baker, whose nonsense is often featured on KVIE
(don't get me started!) suggests walking on the grass in golf shoes to 'aerate'
the lawn? Doesn't work: the cleats just make compacted holes. Rent a sod corer
('lawn aerator') to do the job right. And then rake some compost over the
surface to percolate down into the holes to make even more of a difference.
Disease problems in turf have
diminished in recent years as tall and dwarf fescues have become more popular;
the natural disease resistance of these varieties is part of their appeal. But
those are often combined with bluegrass in the sod farms to improve the color
and to 'knit' the sod better. After a year or so the bluegrass gets fusarium
blight and begins to die out, leading to a mottled pattern of brown grass among
the green. Just rake out the dead parts and overseed with more fescue in the
fall and all will be well.
A customer recently reported his lawn
was 'disappearing', and indeed it was! He had a major infestation of cutworms,
which are caterpillars that eat the grass plants at ground level. A small
number is not a concern, but occasionally we get a localized large outbreak.
Often birds will take care of this! If they aren't eating fast enough, there is
an organic spray that is specifically for caterpillars.
White grubs are much less common here
than in the midwestern and eastern states, but we do sometimes see the brown
patches that they cause. They are the larva of various beetles and they feed on
the roots, so the grass looks as though it needs water. But the difference is
that the pattern of 'dryness' is erratic, and if you tug on the grass it pulls
right up (you often find the fat little grubs curled up in the soil).
Beneficial nematodes can be applied in the form of a soil drench.
(See our article There Are Brown Spots In My Lawn! for more information about summer lawn problems.)
What to plant now?
This can be a good time to put in a
few plants for late summer bloom. So what blooms during August? Think meadow
--Coreopsis and Gaillardia have
similar daisy-like flowers in shades of yellow, orange, red, and both will tend
to reseed. Again, new hybrids are more compact than the older types.
--Echinacea purpurea, the Purple
coneflower, flowers for several weeks and each blossom gradually unfolds over a
number of days. [Shown at left, and fully open at right]
--Japanese anemone, Anemone x hybrida
(aka A. japonica) has flowers that resemble single roses on tall stems through
August and September. It prefers partial shade and spreads steadily.
--Rudbeckia hirta, the Black-eyed
Susan, now comes in an array of patterns and most varieties are shorter, more
manageable garden plants than the original species. [Shown below]
--Yarrow (Achillea species) have
soft, ferny foliage and large clusters of tiny blooms which attract beneficial
insects to the garden.
--What's that pink flowering bulb you
see around farm houses this month? Naked ladies are always nice in the garden!
Planted in the fall, Amaryllis belladonna is a bulb with pink flowers up on
bare stems (hence the name).
Planting in August is perfectly fine!
Just check the new plants each day, though they typically only need water every
2 - 3 days for the first couple of weeks. Do your garden activities in the
morning or early evening, and drink plenty of water. And then curl up in the
shade with a good book during the heat of midday.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
Click here for Don's other Davis Enterprise articles