Ah, mid-to-late summer marks the time that all the hard work in spring and early summer pays off. The flush of spring color might have faded, but July and August are the months when many annuals and perennials really shine.
Now is the time to kick off the garden clogs and enjoy the show outside. There are still some tasks to be finished, however. Most plants need water during our drought months.
If you don’t have an irrigation system, now is the time to evaluate which parts of your garden are thirstiest. Take notes and plan your irrigation now so that it can be installed before next summer.
Another summer task is deadheading, which is simply the removal of spent flower heads. Deadheading is not recommended for all plants, since the seeds of some plants provide food for birds or even hang on to provide winter interest. Sunflowers are a good example of the former, and many ornamental grasses are good examples of the latter.
If a plant’s seeds are neither food nor ornamental, however, there can be a number of reasons to deadhead. Some plants, such as Nepeta (catmint), will even reward you with a second bloom if sheared back after its late spring blossoming. For others, such as Aubrieta, deadheading or shearing back will keep the plant and your garden looking tidy.
You can also add some flowering plants this time of year – plants that thrive on neglect once you have made sure that they are adequately watered for the first few weeks.
The carnation family Dianthus can go into the ground now. My personal favorite is Firewitch, a low mat-forming carnation with gray foliage and flushes of pink flowers in late spring. Sea holly is another plant that takes well to summer planting; situate it in a sunny, well-drained area and it will reward your efforts with long-lasting, teasel-like flowers.
Finally, good old-fashioned hollyhock starts can be planted now, along with our native Gaillardia. And of course, do not forget to order your spring-flowering bulbs like crocus and daffodils before choice supplies are depleted.
For me, the stars of the summer garden, however, are vegetables. Although spring is traditional for starting vegetables, there are so many that can be started right now for a late summer or autumn harvest. Most notably, a lot of salad plants can be direct-seeded now for later salads.
Two of our family favorites are arugula and the perennial wild arugula, or Sylvetta. They are fast and easy crops to grow from seed, and are familiar to all who dine in fancy restaurants. Their relatively small leaves pack a tasty punch all the way from micro-greens to fully-grown plants. Hand-torn leaves will spice up any summer salad, especially Mediterranean-inspired salads with a good olive oil vinaigrette.
They can be cooked in frittatas or omelets, used as pizza toppings or a pesto base. Toss them in sandwiches or soup.
If you are interested in a more traditional salad green, you can still start lettuce from seed, as long as you sow the right variety in a place protected from mid-day sun. So plant it in shade or in the shadow of other plants.
Avoid lettuce mixes, which likely contain varieties that will not produce in the heat of summer. Consider, instead, the more robust Buttercrunch, Cimmaron, Salad Bowl or Romaine Little Gem. Whatever you seed, keep it well-watered and harvest it before full maturity. All these robust summer varieties will be ready for the compost in two months from sowing. So if you want a lettuce supply to last, engage in succession planting by sowing just a few seeds every two weeks from the beginning of July through the end of August.
Another salad addition good for summer sowing is kohlrabi. If you’re not familiar with it, let me extol its merits. You might have seen it in farmers’ markets and wondered what on earth it is. It looks like a mutant turnip sprouting leaves directly from its spherical body. But unlike the root vegetable turnip, the culinary gem of kohlrabi is the swollen stem, harvested at any size from a 2-inch diameter up to the size of a tennis ball.
Although generally harvested between 50-70 days after sowing, in my experience kohlrabi is still great well into very late autumn if garden pests leave it alone for that long. For summer salad crunch, cut off the rind and then cut the flesh into matchstick-shape pieces to toss into virtually any salad.
If you are interested in more detail on summer vegetable growing, I recommend Linda Gilkeson’s book “Backyard Bounty: The Complete Guide to Year-Round Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest,” just released in its second edition.
It won’t give you recipes but, hey, there’s always Google.