July brings hot weather. Finally. Now is the time to get a cool drink and say hello to summer in our Southern California gardens. I insist that no garden should be created without seating for the gardener to glory in the work that has been done. This is not the month to do a lot of planting, if you can help it at all. Water is what your garden wants along with some weeding and harvesting. Don’t just pour water on your garden without exercising your noggin! Monitor the soil moisture and apply water as needed – but before plants begin to wilt. Try to water when less will be lost to evaporation – early in the day or late in the day, even under the full moon, listening to the owls. Stick a finger in the soil up to the first knuckle. Better yet, turn over a small spot of soil with your trowel. It should be slightly moist down about an inch or so. The surface of the soil can be quite dry and that's fine. A gardener is more concerned with the moisture level in that part of the soil where roots live.
Check the mulch level this month; insure it is deep enough to keep roots cool and prevent evaporation of the precious water you are putting down. I don't use fertilizer, which means my plants are never over-fertilized and with the constant use of compost and mulch, they are well supplied with all they really need to thrive. I am cautious about using really good compost that might have a lot of nitrogen in it on tomatoes or other members of that plant family (peppers, eggplant, potatoes for example). They tend to use up all the nitrogen you give them by growing very large and healthy- looking plants and not setting fruit. For our climate, this isn't a disaster, you just have fresh tomatoes in September and October. But if you don't want to wait that long for tomato season to start, skip fertilizer or so-called 'hot' compost. Save it for corn which is a notoriously heavy feeder.
I mentioned this isn't a good planting month. I was supposed to get all that done last month, but I probably didn't and you might have a few things to wrap up too. With care, it is still possible to sow beans and, for those of us with the room, corn. It's also possible to sow another planting of summer squash and if the pickle gods smile on you, more cucumbers. Some of the real heat loving veggies can be set out, like more peppers or tomato plants. If you enjoy eggplant, you might set out another plant or two at this time, they will extend your harvest. But remember these late plantings will need extra water (try to plant them in the late afternoon – and try very hard to minimize root damage when you transplant them). The problem with planting now is that the leaves can easily transpire much more water than the small root system can take up. If these plants have been growing in the same amount of sunlight that they will get in the ground, they stand a much better chance of survival. But wilted leaves the following afternoon suggest the root system is not keeping pace with the lost moisture. Unless your little darlings put on enough roots quickly, or you can do some judicious, temporary shading, your crop might not make it to a productive adulthood. With tomatoes, a little pruning of leaves from the plant will cut down on the water loss and the plant will put the leaves back on as soon as its root system can handle it.
Other experienced gardeners have disagreed with me so this is purely my own call, seen with my own eyes, but I don't think corn works well once the Summer Solstice has passed (June 21 or so). As the days get shorter (Wait! Weren't they just getting longer? What happened?), corn “realizes” it has to set seed before the cool months of fall and winter so it flowers and sets seed as fast as it can. I've seen corn seedlings at six inches high fully tasseled out and trying to produce ears of corn. The ears they did produce were so small you needed a 10x jeweler's loupe to see them! Charming though not satisfying. Gardening will disabuse a person from believing that California doesn't have seasons! Plants know seasons better than we do; of course, as a gardener, soon you'll see the seasons too.
In our climate, especially in that part of the west coast that gets a lot of Pacific Ocean influence, growing the cucurbits can be a challenge because the moisture in the air allows mildew to grow and kill these plants. The cucurbits are cucumbers, squashes, melons and pumpkins (which are really a squash) and they are particularly susceptible to getting mildew. It can be hard, in some years with heavy 'June Gloom' to get a good crop. There are some remedies for mildew but I haven't tried any yet. Perhaps this is year I’ll actually try a baking soda and water mixture on mildew and report back to you later. Up to now, I've simply gottnn rid of the infected plant and grown another. It's usually only a hassle with winter squash which take longer to ripen, summer squash, the yellow crooknecks and zucchinis produce a lot of food quickly, so a replant will keep you up to your ears in zukes, if you don't get enough from the first harvest.
Summer squash is called that because you eat it in summer. This includes all those zucchini, patty pans, crooknecks, and the squashes the British call 'marrow' and 'courgettes.' They are characterized by soft skin and will rot if you keep them around too long without refrigeration. Winter squash, on the other hand, which includes pumpkins, are so named because they can keep for many months and provide food over the winter months. It is their hard outer shell that allows them to be a part of a winter diet in a world without refrigeration and be transported easily over thousands of miles. Our ancestors relied on the keeping ability of winter squashes to hold starvation at bay. Keeping winter squashes edible for a long period of time in Southern California is a challenge because we don't have root cellars to store them in a cool and dry place. Gardeners with small gardens have trouble with most winter squashes because of the space they take up.
The avalanche of ripe harvest should begin to worry you before July is halfway through. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, beans, corn, zucchini, stone fruits and others will begin to overwhelm a gardener. Keep the harvest coming by picking when ripe promptly and finding ways to keep the produce for later or share your abundance with neighbors, friends or send it off to a local food bank – there are many who can't grow their own food and can't feed themselves and their families good, clean (sans pesticides) nutritious meals.
Zucchini and summer squashes are a special concern. A four inch squash on Tuesday will resemble a caveman's club by Friday and won't be as tasty and tender. Any summer squash will do that. The ones we call 'zucchini' are the quickest to grow to laughable sizes. It's the reason for a million recipes for Zucchini Bread, Zucchini Casserole, Zucchini Lasagna. (I have even eaten a Zucchini Crumble, brown sugar, butter and cinnamon, which was pretty good as long I avoided the bites with zucchini pieces.) Once zucchini get much beyond the four to six inch size, they aren't all that tasty and begin to get woody. Harvest them early and often. Like voting in Chicago!
Melons are a challenge. Cantaloupe and honeydew melons should have a wilted tendril at the stem end of the fruit and should smell ripe (read as “mouth waters when smelling”). Watermelons are much more difficult to tell; when I was twelve, one infamous melon outsmarted me, my grandfather and the judges at a county fair by winning a blue ribbon and being as green as the proverbial Martian. I only know to thump them-- listening for an almost hollow sound, to determine ripeness, and despite that aforementioned melon, I have been really good at since I was eight. One miss in almost fifty years of thumping is a better record than any baseball pitcher you can name.
Cucumbers are not so much a challenge – as soon a cucumber is big enough for you, snag it. There are many different varieties of cucumber and it would be impossible to list each and every one because they come in different sizes and shapes. Suffice it to say that Japanese cucumbers and Armenian cukes are able to get quite large and delicious! Not so with other varieties. I know a lot of folks get goo-goo eyed about 'Lemon' cucumbers, but I don't share the love. Some say you have to wait until they turn yellow before they are good to eat. I think they are never that good no matter when you pick them and they are stupendously big and rangy plants. I'll go with the Japanese or Armenian cucumbers – highly productive and delicious!
The harvesting of corn is another that begs a few words. The first time I saw folks in Los Angeles trying to choose ripe corn in the market, I was completely blown away! I had never seen people pull back the shuck (the leaves covering the ear) to see if the corn had filled out the cob or to see how large the kernels were. Although, I suppose if you hadn't picked it yourself, these points might be suspect. As a child on a farm that sold sweet corn all summer long, I had learned to merely feel through the leaves to 'see' what was underneath. Corn sold in markets – even farmers' markets – is usually picked after it's past the optimum stage – and non-gardeners are likely to prefer it. It is a 'more = better' kind of thinking. But corn kernels that have gotten big and fat are not as juicy and not nearly as tender. Smaller, as is often the case with vegetables, is better.
The tassel on a corn plant are the 'boy flowers' and the silks are the 'girl flowers.' The pollen falls from the tassel onto the silks and that causes the kernels – really the seed of the next crop of corn – to grow. Each kernel has its own silk. If you find a cob with a vacancy, no kernel where there should be, that is where one silk that did not get pollinated. When the silks begin to dry out, they have been pollinated.
In this season of heat, don't neglect yourself when you are in the garden. The sun we experience today is not the same sun our grandparents faced. With ozone depletion, it is much easier to contract skin cancer, so take steps to avoid having to deal with that. I know the popular method to avoid overexposure is to slather on lots of sun screen, but I don't find that a realistic alternative for a person in the sun almost every day. In the first place, I'm concerned that all that goop eventually gets washed off our bodies and goes into the waste stream where there is no provision to deal with. It isn't one of the substances ameliorated by city sewage treatment and so flows out into nature where we don't have a clue what it does. It's just another human pollutant and no one has bothered to investigate to determine it's harmful or benign. In my world, I prefer to deal with our environment, by always assuming the safest course of action and take exceeding care not to damage the only world we have.
I continue to wear long pants and long sleeved shirts even on hot days. I have several that are quite light and let the breeze flow through. It is one way to avoid harmful rays. I am as comfortable – or as uncomfortable – as the next person. Of course, I strongly suggest a hat which you see me wear daily, not only for the interdiction of the sun, but as a way of shielding my eyes and keeping cooler. Besides, a hat is the epitome of fashion!
And while we are on this tangent, consider your number one tool set in the garden: your hands. This is one set of tools you can't replace or upgrade so it's best to take good care of them at all times. For gardeners, the feel of earth in their fingers is one of the true joys – and feeling of connection –one can experience. However, the hands can also get injured easily in a garden so take a few steps back and consider how to protect them. When doing repetitive tasks that abrade your skin, wear gloves. Have more than one pair: one for moist work that has a moisture barrier of some kind, one for light work (goatskin gloves are marvelous to the touch – they contain a lanolin that works wonders on your hand while you work) and a heavy leather pair for hard work. The goatskin and heavy leather gloves can now be replaced by some non-animal products that are almost as protective. You will find good selections of gloves from your local nursery and your local big box store, Mail order gardening companies' catalogs display the full range of gloves that are available. Never buy a glove you find uncomfortable. It will discourage you from wearing that pair as often as you might need to.
Is your tetanus shot up to date? Talk to your doctor – this shot should be renewed every 5-10 years and you should strive to remain current. Recommendations about this, change over the years, like most other medical advice, so talk it over with your doctor to see what course of action you should take. You don't have to garden on a former dump site (which is what The Learning Garden once was) to be surprised by a nail or broken piece of glass. So while soil is one of the safer substances in its natural state (penicillin was concocted from a soil mold), soil in the city might be troublesome.
In the evening, grab some lemonade and contemplate your garden. You are awesome – you are growing food you can eat. Aren't you glad you put a seat in your garden? When you are done with your reverie, go inside and write me an email about how happy you are. Enclose a check...