Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Gardening in July

July in Washington, brings hot, humid days and nights, interrupted by more rain than the soil and earth can absorb. The garden, untended may look a tad worn, but for those who water diligently, when needed, and stayed on top of the unwanted plant challenge, the view is one of color and satisfaction. Cool weather grasses, such as fescues and blue grass are happily going dormant, and causing anxiety or worse, a large water bill. Vegetables, planted with insufficient organic matter in sterile lifeless soils are showing signs of nutrient deficiency; their leaves are turning a paler shade of green. Fertilizing is in order for those who did not prepare the soils organically.

Occasional surprises lurk in the garden. My Russian wife and I are living a reprise of the situation comedy “Green Acres”. She would have Versailles with all life forms registered at the gate, and anything that moves without a visa, dispatched at once. I prefer to let most living organisms live, and simply step aside, or some time accidentally on. Last year, a local, four foot long black snake chose to sun itself against the front door causing much interpersonal discussion and angst. This year it was a small brown garden snake which she ordered dispatched. I demurred and tried to remove the snake from the front walk boxwood with as little as possible danger to me or to the snake. After suiting up, in a fashion reminiscent of Mr. Douglas, advised from the rear by a constant patter of instructions and comment which included death options for both snake and self, I reached for snake, and came up with a small piece of a tree limb. The snake, a beneficial resident of the garden happily slithered to wherever snakes go when suddenly summoned or annoyed. All my efforts to explain the benefits of having snakes in the garden fell on deaf ears, but the snake yet lives to feed upon small critters , including, hopefully the rabbits which eat my plants.

Earlier in the month, my wife’s adventure in taming nature expanded bravely to removing anything green that was climbing up trees and fence posts. Oblivious to my warnings about leaves of three let it be, she proudly showed me here next victim. Fortunately, she enjoyed my remedy of a ten minute washing of arms in soapy water followed by a very long bubble bath, and escaped, thereby, this time the experience of poison ivy’s revenge.

Poison ivy is a naive (native) plant which makes my task extremely difficult when I try to explain the virtues of going native. Now, added to the problem of identification, for poison ivy has many leaf forms which can be deceiving, I read about research being done at the National Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville that, because of carbon dioxide increase in the air, the chemical, which causes the rash, is increasing in strength and will cause even more intense reactions to exposure in the future. I use triclopyr carefully painted onto the stem for about six inches near the soil line to rid my garden of this nuisance, all the while recalling that I once saw a variegated poison ivy plant in New England. I have never figured out how exactly to market this native plant.

I also note that, at my wife’s insistence, I have begun to remove the clover, which I so carefully encouraged by benign neglect. Having agreed to a small portion of mono cultural gardening in front of the house, I began last year to inorganically remove creeping charlie, wild violets, dandelion, which I love, and anything else not closely resembling a grass. My instructions from the porch are to limit diversity and go for uniformity. As you can see from the picture, I managed to convince her that watering the lawn was, for me, unacceptable; I have faith that the rains will come again. Naturally, the removal of the beloved, stays green all summer clover, has left me with a Maryland dust barrens, which turns green for a few minutes after each shower or deluge.

If you are planning for whatever reason to have a coffee table lawn, now is the time to assess the problem and to begin moving towards a plan of action. I started early, but you still have time. August is the time to remove broadleaf plants; September is for restoration aeration, and seeding, and first feeding. Do not forget to do a soil test. Know what you need to add, and add only what you need.

I must note that my wife decided for us to replace my annual flower beds with a vegetable garden. Our house is almost 1500 feet from the road, and invisible to the great opinionated public, so given it meant less work for me, I went along with the plan. I have to report, that my apartment dwelling, never-has-gardened wife is already harvesting cucumbers by the bucket load, as she prepares to make Russian dill pickles. Inconsistently as it may seem, she ordered me to not spray, for while she will attack any thing walking or flying not registered with her sense of place, the vegetables were to be organic. So we planted fennel to encourage parasitic wasps to attack the tomato horn worms, a tactic which seems to be working thus far. Too early for the peppers, but the basil is producing pesto for dinner.

The ground hogs have retreated, as we filled their burrows with lava rock, and the rats on stilts have chosen to eat in the neighboring farmer’s corn field and have not yet become a problem. Maybe the fish emulsion feeding around the house has disinclined their munching on our dinner. The container plantings look great and do not need weeding, so perhaps this is the new plan for gardening in years to come: flowers in pots, vegetables in the among the foundation plantings.

So what should you be doing? Water when needed. Use soaker hoses whenever you can. If lawns are to be your new hobby, begin assessing and planning because you will be staring in a few weeks. Cut off spend or old flowers from container, especially geraniums, and if you have a few perennials, make use of cut flowers, many perennials will then re-bloom. And most of all enjoy being outdoors, and look for the occasional surprise.

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