This month brings heat and humidity (at least in the deep south part of the zone). These twin demons mean gardening in July in Zone 8 is not for the faint of heart. Nonetheless, the twins also make it possible to grow an incredible number of different plants, ranging from citrus trees to live oaks, from camellias to coreopsis. Who needs a blue spruce when you can have a towering loblolly surrounded by azaleas? Just be careful that you, the gardener, do not become the twins’ victim. Stay out of the noonday sun and keep plenty of water on hand when you are outdoors. Protect yourself from the varied insect life that comes with the territory (Why DID God make ticks, really?) and spend as much time as you can reclining in a shady spot admiring the work you did in cooler months. There are some chores that can and should be done this month in Zone 8. Between daylight and 10 a.m. would be a good time to accomplish such work.
• Tomatoes are tropical fruits that thrive in the heat. To get the highest production of big ripe tomatoes, prune your plants ruthlessly. Cut off nearly all the non-fruiting branches, leaving only those branches with blossoms intact. Leave alone the leaves at the top of the fruiting branches where the terminal buds are continuing to put out new growth. You will be astounded at how many blooms pop out the day after you prune. Keep doing this all summer and you will not only increase production, you will have disease-free plants because of the increased air circulation. Keep tomatoes mulched heavily.
• Harvest all ripe crops every day. You know how gnarly okra gets if you don’t pay enough attention to it. And even one ripe cucumber or tomato left on the vine will slow its production dramatically. If you can’t use everything you pick, either preserve it by freezing or canning or put it in the compost heap. Just don’t leave it on the plant.
• If you haven’t already done so, create new beds for fall planting, either directly in the garden or in raised beds. Build raised beds and fill with topsoil and manure at a rate of one bag of manure to three bags of soil. Or you may till new beds on the ground and begin amending soil. This should be done several weeks before planting to give the amendments time to do their work, really to give the micro-organisms and earthworms a chance to do their jobs. Beds for vegetables or ornamentals should be about ¼ organic matter and should be dressed with garden lime (follow instructions on the package) unless you are planning to grow something that likes acid soil, like blueberries.
• Meanwhile, start fall plants indoors. Collards, chard, turnip and mustard greens and lettuce will all breeze through the mild winter, even if there is a rare snap of really cold weather. Use seed-starting kits or make your own using a good quality potting soil or seed starting medium in peat pots.
• Succession plantings of beans and corn can go in the ground this month to replace spent early crops of beans or greens from the spring. If beans were growing in the space, till the plants into the soil and plant your next crop. If corn or potatoes were growing there, fertilize with a nitrogen-rich amendment, such as 12-10-10 or cotton seed meal.
• There’s plenty of time to plant more quick bloomers like zinnias and dwarf sunflowers, marigolds and nasturtiums.
• Fill in beds where earlier blooming perennials are spent. Petunias, zinnias and other quick bloomers can still be set out now. Remember that as delicate as they appear, petunias can handle the intense heat and humidity better than almost any other flower. And their colors can’t be beat.
• When pulling up your early spring-planted annuals, such as poppies or larkspur, shake their heads where you want them to come up next year.
• Cut back annuals that have already bloomed to encourage new growth and more blooming.
• Plant late summer or fall blooming bulbs, uch as spider lily or autumn daffodil. Day lilies may be planted now as well. They may not bloom until next year, but they will be well-established and ready to take off next summer.
• Dig up, divide and replant iris and daffodils if they are crowded. Soak iris rhizomes in water to plump them up before potting them up to share or putting them back in the garden. Have a new bed ready for them ahead of time so they don’t dry out.
• If you want to save bulbs or rhizomes to plant later, dry them completely before storing, then keep them in a cool, dark place until you are ready to plant them.
• In established beds, make sure your mulch is fluffy. Replenish if it’s getting threadbare. Mulch holds in moisture and gives the earthworms organic matter to take down into the soil to nourish it. If your perennial beds are in need of renewal, rake back the mulch, put down a layer of compost and replace the mulch. The earthworms will do the rest of the work for you. (This is why you should use landscape cloth only on paths or under structures. Earthworms can’t get to the goodies in the mulch through the cloth.)
• Deadhead, deadhead, deadhead. Many perennials will re-bloom if given a haircut after the first flush of blossoms passes, especially dianthus, tickseed, rudbekia (Black-eyed Susan) and other hot-weather bloomers.
• Most established perennials don’t need extra water unless there is a drought. But if everybody seems to wilt before noon, water at dusk. Always water deeply as it encourages deeper roots that will seek out subsurface moisture better. Shallow watering yields shallow roots in the soil zone that dries out the quickest, requiring you to water more. Deep watering once a week is always preferable to light watering every day or so.
• If you are tempted to move that pretty little magnolia or dogwood out of the woods and up near the house, don’t. There are plenty of nursery-grown cultivars better suited to your garden. Plus, native plants are under enough pressure from development. Leave them alone.
• Also be aware that in the Zone 8 climate, some well-behaved plants from other regions of the world can go wild and become invasive. Check with your local university’s agriculture or horticulture department about which plants are invasive in your area and don’t plant them. Dig out the ones already there, such as privet and Chinese wisteria.
• Camellias need no annual pruning, as do some flowering shrubs. Do examine the camellias for pests and treat if necessary. Do not use an insecticidal oil when temps are above 80 degrees, as it will ‘fry’ the soft tissue of the leaves. Sometimes a blast of water from the hose, followed by a soapy spray, will be helpful in knocking off aphids. Other pests may need more severe treatment. Check the shelves at your Home Depot for appropriate treatment.
• Fall is the best time to plant trees, but now is a great time to long for shade. So spend some time planning where you would like to have some lovely shade trees in your yard and mark where you want to plant them. Remember that large trees need lots of space, so research the mature size of the tree you want to plant and make allowances. Don’t plant too close to the house or to other trees (or on top of your septic tank!). And remember not to plant a big tree on the south or east side of your vegetable garden or you’ll wind up with all that lovely shade where you don’t want it.
• Some good shade trees to consider in Zone 8 are live oaks, tupelo (or black gum), Southern magnolia, Ginko and Florida maple. You should be able to find a good selection of these when fall planting time rolls around.
• Consider deeply mulching with pine straw now in the area where you want to plant the tree to soften and enrich the soil. It will be much easier to dig a nice big hole for that new tree if you do.
• Mulch around existing trees and shrubs to conserve moisture and control weeds.
• July is a good time to lay sod for St. Augustine grass, zoysiagrass or Bermudagrass, all good hot-weather turf grasses. Till the soil down at least three inches, better six, and rake it smooth. Lay the sod. Water deeply and repeat every few days. Keep children and pets off the lawn as much as possible until it is established.
• You can fertilize established Bermuda and St. Augustine lawns now, but leave zoysia alone.
Keep the grass a little longer in the hot months, say 2 to 2 ½ inches. It will tolerate drought better if you do. But mow frequently so that you are cutting only about a third of the grass height. Let the clippings stay on the lawn. They are rich in nitrogen and you won’t have to fertilize as much.