The spring planting is done. Perennials have reached their full size. I suggest five priorities for the garden.
First, this is the window of opportunity for planting direct-sown crops that love heat, and to add summer vegetables you may have missed or not been sure about. You can still plant most of the summer crops until July, and expect to get a harvest. Indeed, melons, okra, and peppers are just now getting the weather they need to thrive.
Tip: If you already have bush beans, basil, corn, greens, determinate tomatoes, and other crops with a concentrated or single-cut harvest, remember that you need to sow again for a continuous supply. We have a page to make finding these easy.
Once the soil is warm and your summer standards are growing, you might want to try something new, or give something that you didn't think you liked a new chance. Many of you grow the Three Sisters of Native American gardens--corn, beans, squash, (with sunflowers making the fourth sister.) They are good companions because there is a legume, a grass, a tall bush, and a groundcover. The African Sisters–okra, watermelon, sorghum, and cowpeas–are good companions for the same reason. They are just as easy and rewarding to direct-sow in warm soil. Indeed, if you haven't grown our okra varieties, you'll be amazed to find that they go from seed to stove in about the same time as lettuce, and make beautiful hibiscus-like flowers.
Second, add diversity to your garden. Once the main crops are in the ground, it’s important to add flowers, herbs, tea plants, foliage plants, and less-common vegetables to the mix. This is the best way to make your garden more pest-resistant, more beautiful, more dependable, and more fun.
Tip: Use the ends of rows and the corners of vegetable beds for a plant or two of annual flowers or herbs. Fill any empty spots with companions like coreopsis or dill that won't bother adjoining plants. Zinnias, tithonia, marigolds, coreopsis, and cosmos are easy to direct-sow, and will repay you with armloads of blooms for the house, the yard, and to attract pest-fighting insects. Herbs like dill, cilantro, and basil are fast, easy, and beneficials love them.
Third, grab a cold drink and really look at your whole landscape now that everything is leafed out. Are the paths getting crowded? Where do things look bare or boring? Where are the problem spots with weeds, drought, steep slopes, rocks, parking, or access? Are there pleasant places to sit both morning and evening? Is there enough shade for comfort and enough sun for growth? How about wind: Are the places where you’d like to relax or to grow things swept by wind, or suffering from not enough fresh air circulation? This is the time to see what works in your yard and what is keeping you from full enjoyment of the space. Sometimes, things have changed so gradually that we don’t notice how pinched and confined a space has become. Or we are so used to a fence, shrub, tree, or shed that we never think about what the space would be like without it–more or less private, useful, satisfying, or uplifting.
You should sort your observations into two levels: one for now and one for later. Major design issues like the layout of your garden, blocking or creating views, the routes that paths take, the location of sheds are major changes that will become part of your long-term planning. But there are also plans you can implement right away to make your garden more useful, inviting, and refreshing.
Tip: My favorite easy landscape hack is to line the paths with plants that have silver foliage. Silver plants are more drought-tolerant and wind-tolerant than others, and usually grow well in poor or compacted soil, which most paths are. They make the path easier to spot, and guide the eye along it naturally. At night, the effect is magical--it looks as if a moonbeam is lighting your way.
My favorites for for this are Rose Campion (which also has bright purple-red flowers on tall stems,) Wormwood, and Mullein. Among low beds of vegetables, they add a structure and height. They all make a stroke of silver that lightens a path, especially one with a background of trees, shrubs, and other large, dark plants. Silver makes flower colors more vivid, especially pinks. Other choices are sage, horehound, and lavender. Low-growing choices are oregano, wooly thyme, and mentuccia.
Fourth, observe how much sun your garden gets and modify it if necessary. Check out the How-To section for tips on using shadecloth when temperatures go above 85 degrees. Natural alternatives to shadecloth include cotton sheets, wood or bamboo latticework, taller plants, and planting to the east of buildings or trees. In this photo, a simple trellis with an annual vine on it (pole beans or morning glories are easy ones) creates a dappled shade. You can also create planting spaces in areas with natural shade, especially for small short-term crops like salad greens, which prefer some shade in summer.
Tip: Containers are a great way to grow salad crops under trees without trying to dig and plant among existing tree roots. A couple of tubs, boxes, or a small raised bed will give you a lot of greens over the course of the summer. Crops I recommend for containers in part shade are lettuce, chard, mizuna, sorrel, Vitamin Green, mustard, and peas--both for pods and for pea shoots.
It may be that when you look at patterns of sun and shade, you find that there is too much shade. This is not uncommon in established neighborhoods, where mature trees have gradually closed in the canopy. You won't want to take trees out without a lot of consideration. But sometimes a single branch is overhanging or blocking the sun, and it can be trimmed. Often the problem is just a shrub that has gotten bigger over time and has outgrown it's space. With shrubs, (and trees as well,) proper pruning can prolong their life, make a healthier plant, and result in more flowers. The key is to remove whole branches down to a major trunk--or to the ground for multi-stemmed shrubs. Cutting or clipping branches to a stub results in an ugly, unhealthy, and even more uncontrollable plant. Always cut back to a crotch, a Y, or the ground.
eFifth, look carefully for signs of disease or pest problems. Aphids are usually pretty obvious, and if you have a healthy garden, their predators will show up quickly to eat them up. The key is to wait--it takes a few days for predators to find them, and then to multiply. They will, however, if you have provided a poison-free, predator-friendly garden for them. The ladybug at left is busy eating aphids, and has left many empty gray shells already.
Tip: Check for hard-to-see pests like whiteflies, thrips, and spider mites. Alyssum, dill, cilantro, and phacelia are excellent attractors of predators that eat them. Our Summer Companion Collection and our Spring/Fall Companion Collection contain dependable attractors of pest-eating insects.
When you have waited for a couple of weeks, but the problem is still increasing, you often will get good results by spraying a mixture of compost tea with a bit of seaweed extract. This helps in several ways. It physically washes off small pests. It coats the leaves with beneficial microbes that compete with pests, and it gives the plant's immune system a big boost, so it has the strength to fight pests off. Repeat every three times at 3-day intervals. If it is just one or two plants, sometimes it's best just to take them out. The pests are telling you that they are not healthy, and won't be as nutritious as stronger more vibrant plants. Sometimes you see this when gophers or voles have damaged the roots. Sometimes it is a soil issue. In such cases, take the hint and improve situation rather than fixating on the pest.
One exception is tent caterpillars on fruit trees. They don't just eat the leaves this year--they kill the growth points for following years. If there are just a few, cut off the twig they're on and throw it away or burn it. If there are many separate colonies, use Bt, (Bacillus thuringensis,) a natural bacteria that interferes with their digestion.
Now, when things are growing fast, everything can change quickly. It helps to remember that only half the work of gardening is physical. The other half is thoughtful observation.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.