Midsummer “To Do” List

Maintenance, Pruning

For many gardeners, spring is the critical gardening season, what with preparing the soil, starting seedlings, setting out transplants, pruning, watching and staying prepared for late frosts and . . .  In my view, right now is just as crucial, and for an equal number of reasons.

True, a 90 degree day with high humidity doesn’t exactly pull you out to the garden to putter around in blazing sunlight. But early mornings around here are mostly cool, calm, and beautiful.

Much of what needs to be done is regular maintenance. Pruning tomatoes, for instance.Tomatoes, staked, July I train my tomato plants to stakes and single stems, which allows me to set plants only 18 inches apart and harvest lots of fruit by utilizing the third dimension: up. At least weekly, I snap (if early morning, when shoots are turgid) or prune (later in the day, when shoots are flaccid) off all suckers and tie the main stems to their metal conduit supports.

Espalier is the training of trees to two dimensions whereby the tracery of the stems is as decorative a plant feature as are the leaves, flowers, and/or fruits. To maintain that tracery of branches, my espaliered Asian pears need frequent pruning. Espalier Asian pearI lop wayward shoots either right back to their origin or, in hope of their forming “spurs” on which will hang future fruits, back to the whorl of leaves near the bases of the shoots.

The response of the pear trees depends on the weather, which is unpredictable. Dry sunny weather is conducive to spurs. Rainy weather coaxes, instead, new shoots pop out right where I cut back old shoots. I think.

Maintenance, Water

Whether or not the weather is dry, rampant growing plants quickly suck the soil dry. So I also keep attentive to watering this time of year. The vegetable garden and potted plants are the neediest in this respect; fortunately, they demand little from me to do because a timer turns its drip irrigation system on and off automatically. All I have to do is to periodically check to make sure drippers are all dripping. Drip tubes to potted plantsNewly planted trees and shrubs are another story. This first year, while their roots are spreading out in the ground, is critical for them. I make a list of these plants each spring and then water them weekly by hand all summer long unless the skies do the job for me (as measured in a rain gauge because what seems like a heavy rainfall often has dropped surprisingly little water).

A one-inch depth of water is needed to wet a soil about a half a foot deep. I provide this with 3/4 gallon of water per estimated square foot spread of the roots.

Fall preps

Sowing seeds and setting out transplants isn’t only a spring gardening activity. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, and other summer vegetables peter out during the shorter, cooler days of late summer and early fall. But there are plenty of vegetables that enjoy growing conditions that time of year.

Some of the fall vegetables need to be sown now to be large enough to mature in fall. No need to provide space for them by digging out tomatoes, peppers, or any other summer vegetables. I sow endive, kale, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, and, if I could stomach it, cauliflower seeds in midsummer in seed flats. Once they sprout I “prick them out” into individual cells of automatic watering GrowEase trays for later transplanting. Autumn seedlingsNot only vegetables get this treatment. Buy a packet of seeds of delphinium, pinks, or some other perennial, sow them now, overwinter them in a cool place with good light, or a cold (but not too cold) place with very little light, and the result is enough plants for a sweeping field of blue or pink next year. Sown in the spring, they won’t bloom until their second season even though they’ll need lots of space that whole first season.

Cuttings are another way to propagate plants this time of year. Early this morning, when cells were plump with water, I made cuttings of hardy kiwifruit and begonia.

And, Yes, Weeds

Weeds can make all this pruning, watering, and seeding for naught. Clear ground is needed in which to eventually set my cabbage and kale transplants. Weeds stealing water and nutrients, even sunlight, won’t let plants grow at their best. They’ll also promote disease by preventing free flow of air; fungi fester under damp conditions. Weedless corn & lettuce bedEvery time I look at a weed, I’m thinking how it’s either sending roots further afield underground or is flowering (or will flower) to scatter its seed. Much of gardening isn’t about the here and now, so I also weed now for less weeds next season. It’s worth it.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, and Pears


Whew! How quickly this growing season seems to have scooted by. I am putting the last plants of the season into the vegetable garden today. These were transplants of Shuko and Prize Choy bok choy, and Blue napa cabbage. I’m eyeing some lettuce transplants, and if I decide that they’re sufficiently large to transplant, they’ll share a bed with the cabbages.Chinese cabbage transplants

Reconsidering, the end of the gardening season isn’t really drawing nigh. The cabbages won’t be large enough to make a real contribution to a stir fry or a batch of kim chi for at least another month. And then, with cool weather and shorter days slowing growth, the plants will just sit there in the garden, doing fine, patiently awaiting harvest.

Other plants awaiting harvest into autumn from plantings over the past few weeks are Hakurei turnips, crunchy, sweet, and spicy fresh in salads, daikon and Watermelon radishes, for salads or kim chi, and, also for salads, lettuce, spinach, arugula, and mustard greens. The last salad stuff will be endive, sown back in early July, and transplanted in early August in a bed previously home to the first planting of bush beans.

The season’s various plantings mesh together nicely. Those bok choy and napa cabbages went into a bed just cleared from the first planting of sweet corn. The bed previously planted with of lettuce, arugula, and spinach seed followed on the heels of onions sown indoors in February, transplanted into the bed in May, and harvested a few weeks ago.

A Whole New Garden, Now

In addition to good timing, the autumn garden — which is like having a whole other garden, except it’s in the same place as the summer garden — demands good soil. That soil has to support this whole other wave of plants.

Through summer, I looked upon any weeds I encountered as potential factories for making more weeds, via spreading seeds and/or roots. Left alone, that weed and its progeny would rob food and water meant for my cabbages and lettuces, and shade my plants into submission.

With that in mind, when I cleared the beds of spent corn or bean plants, I pulled out every weed in addition to the spent vegetable plants. I tried to get roots and all for each weed, which isn’t that difficult if you keep up weeding all summer.

After clearing a bed of weeds and vegetable plants, down went a carpet of compost. Spreading compost on bedA one to two inches deep layer smothers most weeds sprouting from seeds as well as provides nourishment for multiple waves of vegetable plants — for a whole year! (Also provides food and habitat for beneficial soil organisms, protects the surface from washing, and increases the soil’s ability to hold on to both air and moisture.)

So the season hasn’t scooted by; the autumn season is just beginning. There’s still some room for reflecting on the season up to this point. Most notable has been this year’s pear crop.

Pears: Easy To Grow, Hard To Harvest (Correctly)

Among the common tree fruits, pears are the easiest to grow. They’re a bit slow to come into production but are often free of significant pest problems. They’re also pretty trees, all season long, especially the Asian pears.

It’s not all smooth sailing from planting to flowering to harvest to eating for European pears, which includes Bartlett, Bosc, Anjou, and other pears with which most people are most familiar. The problem is knowing when to harvest them. Pears ripen from the inside out, so need to be harvested when mature (whenever that is), then ripened in a (preferably cool) room indoors. Left hanging on the tree too long, and the fruit tastes sleepy, at best, or has turned mushy; harvested too soon and the fruit never loses a grassy flavor. (Asian pears are easy to harvest. When they taste good right off the tree, they’re ripe and ready.)

Frederick Clapp pear tree

Frederick Clapp pear tree

Appearance of the fruit, calendar date, and ease of separation from the stem when lifted with a twist are all indicators of ripeness. I’m finding that few fruits dropping from a tree are a good sign that it’s time, or almost time, to harvest.

Pears, A Book

The Book of Pears
As luck would have it, a beautiful new book, The Book of Pears, by Joan Morgan, arrived in the mail just as pear harvest was beginning (with the variety of Harrow Delight). Replete with old and new illustrations depicting the history of pear cultivation, a large portion of the book offers intimate descriptions and history of many varieties. Beurrée d’Amanlis, for instance, which I grow, originated in a small village in Brittany, but became popular after 1826, when Louis Noisette, a Paris nurseryman, received some fruit from his son, director of the Nantes Botanic Garden.

The book devotes a little space to growing and cooking the fruit. I, of course, immediately looked to see what Ms. Morgan has to say about harvest: “ . . . the next challenge is when to harvest the crop . . . Once they begin to drop from the tree it is time to harvest . . . Experience with your own trees will tell you when to pick.” How true. I’ve grown the variety Magness longest, and usually can pick them to ripen off the tree to perfection. And perfection for Magness means biting into one of the best tasting of all pears.