August can be a light work month in the garden, assuming you have repaired water leaks and kept the weeds, diseases, and pest insects to a manageable level. The main job this month is to conserve water in every way you can and plan on ways you can make your garden more drought resilient. For those of us who simply must do some gardening, here are a few tasks August is perfect for:
Planting: It’s time to plant seeds for cool season vegetables: Asian greens, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, leek, lettuce, pea, spinach, and Swiss chard. Direct-seed another crop of beans. For almost everything else, wait until the weather cools or plant in the shade.
Maintaining: Avoid over-watering. Some plants, like citrus, require even moisture and must be watered regularly. Other plants, like most California native, Mediterranean, and desert-origin species can manage on less water, especially if they don’t grow in the wild along rivers and marshes. Let your low-water-use plants, many of which are our spring-blooming sage, ceanothus, manzanita, and lupine, rest during the summer. However, if you wisely added narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) to your garden, you may be noticing it in full bloom or producing seeds vigorously. Many milkweed species love summer weather!
If your garden is less than three years old, don’t expect the plants to be tolerant of drought. They will continue to need extra TLC until their roots are established. Deep soaking and occasional extra sprinkles for a few plants is the best practice. If you live in a fire prone area, keep your plants watered so they will help slow down wildfires and reduce flying embers.
Add a minimum of three inches of mulch if you haven’t yet. Wood or rock mulch hold in water and regulate soil temperatures, making for healthier plants year-round. When first spreading mulch on dry soil, you may need to increase the irrigation for your plants for a day or two.
Spider mites love dusty plants. If you see these distinctly finely-webbed cobwebs, it’s time to hose off the plants. In gardens with drip irrigation, this is a big problem, because overhead sprinklers aren’t washing plants off. Follow your water district’s guidelines but go ahead and wash your plants off in the cool morning or after the sun has set.
Cut back and divide your iris if you haven’t already done so. Prune apricot, olive and oleanders, but avoid pruning so much you get sunburn on newer branches. Continue to deadhead roses and remove suckers and unwanted branches. Open rose bushes up to increase air circulation through the shrub. Continue to prune hedges. Keep your pruning tools clean and sanitized. Clean up fallen fruit. Support heavy, fruit-leaden tree branches. Remember to use mosquito dunks anywhere there will be standing water, even in plant trays, to avoid mosquito breeding.
This is a good summer to skip the fertilizer, especially high-nitrogen products. Let everything rest a little, including yourself, and let’s all keep our gardens healthy, but recognize they may not be the showcases they are in wetter years.
If you spray with post-emergent broad-spectrum herbicides, apply it when the temperature is about 85°F and when there is no breeze, to avoid phytotoxicity and vapor drift. Using a product with surfactant is important to improve penetration on toughened summer weeds. Towards the end of the month, you can start using a preemergent to impede germination of cool season weeds. If you have only a few weeds, hoe or dig them out instead of spraying, or investigate where the water supporting the weeds is coming from and make a change in your irrigation practices if you can.
Conserving: Will this finally be the year you stop watering that thirsty lawn? Switch to a better alternative like hybrid Bermuda or Val Verde Buffalo grass. Or reduce the size. Or replace the lawn with a low-water-use mixed planting or ground cover like Kurapia (a sterile Lippia nodiflora cultivar) or a mixed-planting of plants that support nature and are more interesting.
The first step in managing diseases and pest insects is identification. That’s so you don’t accidentally do more harm than good. A good web site to consult is ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/menu.homegarden.html. Ornamental plants can tolerate some insect damage and those insects can be bird attractants (food). The exception is Argentine and other non-native ants; control those throughout the garden with ant bait products, switching the active ingredient every few months. Use Tanglefoot around tree trunks if necessary to stop ants from “farming” scale and aphids.
It’s okay to leave dried flowers on native plants. Finches and other birds will thank you. If you want to attract more birds and pollinators, it’s fine to be less fussy about trimming every plant and removing every brown stem. I invite you to push your own boundaries, to improve the efficiency and usefulness of the garden, and to share it a little more. It’s less work too.
The Master Gardeners will be live to answer your questions on Saturday, Aug. 6, from 8 to 11 a.m. at the Visalia Farmer’s Market in the southwest parking lot of Sequoia Mall. They can also be contacted between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays to answer your questions at 559-684-3325, or visit their web site at ucanr.edu/sites/UC_Master_Gardeners.