August is deep summer. Fireflies are at their peak, and the sun is only just starting to wane. My water barrels run dry a little more frequently this month – and so does my patience – but when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I try hard to make time for a little dusk-wandering with a glass of something. No matter what your garden looks like, it is at its best in the magical hour before the light leaves the sky.
Weeding. Pruning. Mowing. Harvesting. Processing. Each day can end in a lot of self-recrimination unless you accept the lessons being taught and apply them to next year’s garden and next year’s you.
More of this? Less of that? More drought resilient plants? Less containers to water? Instead of feeling fed-up, use that energy to make smart resolutions. I’ve made a few myself this year.
And if you’re only just getting started in gardening, know that August is one of the toughest months we gardeners face in the Northern Hemisphere – you are not alone.
“I should have planted that!” for the August garden
Carefully observing neighboring gardens month-to-month and putting in some of the wonderful things you see during the next planting season allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season without having to experiment too much with timing. For the challenging month of August, how about a dip into some tropical foliage?
Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ – (Red Abyssinian Banana) I admit, I’ve got tropicals on the brain right now, having just finished the manuscript for my upcoming book Tropical Plants and How to Love Them. But at the same time, my August garden just wouldn’t be the same without them. A few tropical accents will energize temperate companions and give you a reason to embrace the dog days of summer.
Tropical foliage responds to those days with strength and vigor, and no plant illustrates this better than the Red Abyssinian Banana. It’s architectural, colorful, textural, and sparks many conversations with visitors. A small, 18 inch plant bought in May from a garden center will easily put on five feet or more when planted in friable, fertile soil with lots of moisture. Ensetes have a thicker pseudostem than Musa (traditional bananas), and can give young gardens a bit of gravitas (or privacy) very quickly. Designers all over the world love that deep red-against-green motif, as well as the anchoring presence of this stately plant.
If you wish to keep your banana for next year, dig it (the roots are deceptively shallow), wrap the roots in a dry towel and place in a garbage bag. Keep it in a frost-free location (35-40F) without light for the winter, storing it upright. This could be a garage, basement, barn kept above freezing, etc… In mid-spring, unwrap the roots and repot the banana in good soil with slow release fertilizer – I usually put mine under a light to accommodate and stimulate growth. Then, after your last frost, plant up in garden beds or pots. The roots your banana has grown over the last couple weeks will aid with stabilization – these beauties can be top heavy.
You’ll find that this process gets harder as a banana gets bigger. I have some going on five years, and I usually draw the line when the pseudostem is bigger than my waist. No point in a hernia.
No matter – this plant makes a gorgeous Summer Romance. Next year, you’ll find new specimens in the garden centers for less than the price of a bunch of flowers, and you can start a whole new love affair.
Outside Tasks for the August Garden:
♦CLEARANCE SALES! Yep. It’s the month for it. By this time in the Big Box retail world, it is time to cut losses and start thinking about shelving for Christmas bling. I hate this arrangement, but the silver lining is that the clearance racks in the back of the nursery sections are starting to fill up. I could warn you of the need to take your time, research the plants and not spend excessive amounts, but the hypocrisy in that statement would make me blush.
♦It’s not the ideal time to move shrubs and perennials, but I subscribe to the late Christopher Lloyd’s philosophy that the time to move something is when you have time. If you need something moved, and the available time is right now, you can do it – but you will have to take extra care to keep it watered. (And don’t become too attached.)
♦Time to plant the last of the seedlings for cool-season crops. Broccoli, cabbage, kale and cauliflower should go in now and must be faithfully watered. By the middle of the month, it’s time to put in seeds of lettuce, spinach, arugula and other quick growing cool season greens. Don’t forget cilantro!
♦Much like July, you don’t want to be gardening between the hours of 11-6 unless you really have to. This schedule, and the long evenings, work well for those who work outside the home. By the time dinner is eaten and washed up, there is still time and light to connect with your outside space without exhausting you.
♦The edible garden is really producing now. Cucumbers, zucchini, beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant….you might be up to your neck in veg. Two points:
♦Make sure you get things harvested quickly, or you will lose future harvesting potential from the plant; and,
♦Don’t hoard veg you are not going to deal with, thinking you will. Give it to a friend, give it to the food bank – make it count for something. Most likely there will be plenty more where that came from so if you didn’t get to it now, you can make up for it later.
♦Keep a close eye on the state of your edibles and ornamentals, as bugs can get the upper hand quickly. In my world, it’s the squash bug and the harlequin bug that do the most damage in August, and I am handpicking every single day. Feel like spraying instead? Kaolin is a terrific organic barrier made of white clay, but will need some washing off, which can be difficult with some crops like chard and kale.
♦It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the August garden. The heat and humidity can exacerbate a difficult day, and before you know it you are looking at the garden as a onerous chore, not a quiet connection. Time yourself out and get back to it tomorrow, and try to realize that anything thing you do out there – any vegetable you harvest, compost you top-up or perennial you put into the ground – is a great thing. Just because you can’t get to seventy other things on the list doesn’t make you a gardening drop-out, it makes you totally human.
Gardening is a process, with surprising flashes of result thrown in to keep us moving forward.
Inside Tasks for the August Garden:
♦In August, we are tempted to spend more of the daylight hours indoors than out, so take advantage of that feeling and start to tidy up spaces for the migration next month of tender houseplants and tropicals.
♦If you haven’t already learned your lesson re: tender pot plants, this month is usually the month you can find great clearance deals on larger indoor plants. Many of these can populate your deck next summer too.
Wanders by, heavy with odors
Of corn and wheat and melon vines;
The trees tremble with delirious joy as the breeze
Greets them, one by one-now the oak
Now the great sycamore, now the elm.
– Hamlin Garland
– from “In August”