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The Monthly Gardener by Robert Smaus

Heat of the moment calls for prep work

Get a head start on seeds and plant tomatoes, sweet peas.

July 27, 2006|Robert Smaus

IT DOESN'T SEEM like this summer could get any hotter, but it could. You don't want to be doing any major garden projects in August, but you can begin preparing for the planting season.

Before the fall

In California, the best time to plant almost anything is during the cool late fall and early winter months. We can get hot weather at any time, but from mid-October through January the sun is lower and less intense, and the days shorter, which give plants plenty of time to become established before summer. Now's the time to decide what you are going to plant, or what changes you will make to the garden. Things to think about: bulbs (begin arriving in September), winter vegetables, most trees and shrubs (but not tropicals), a new lawn or other groundcover, native plants (which must be planted later).

The good seed

One would never guess that August is a great time to get seeds started for the plants you will put in the ground, come fall and winter. Seeds need moisture and warmth, so if you put the seed trays or pots in bright shade, you'll get plenty of warmth and it won't be difficult to keep the soil moist. Try sprouting seed of unusual perennials, shrubs, even trees, or flowers and vegetables that will be planted in the fall. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower do best when they are transplanted as seedlings. That way they can be planted deeper, which supports the characteristic crook in the stems that might cause the plant to lean or topple later on. Keep the seed flats or pots off the ground, away from slugs and snails.

Winter tomatoes

It's much too hot to plant most vegetables in the ground, and too near the end of the summer season. But if you live in a frost-free climate (or nearly so), you can plant three special varieties of tomato for winter fruit -- 'Champion,' 'Celebrity' and 'Sweet 100.' Orange County gardeners first made this discovery, and though the tomato skins are thick and the vines will not produce many fruit, you will get ripe, red tomatoes in the middle of winter. Pick a spot against a south-facing wall for extra heat. Don't plant the tomatoes deep, as is usually recommended. In winter, when frosty nights threaten, be ready to cover the plants at night with a sheet. Meanwhile, if summer's tomato vines suddenly quit producing fruit, don't worry -- they'll begin again when the weather cools a little. If it's too hot, the blossoms simply drop off and never become fruit.

War and sweet peas

Well before World War I, Southern Californians used to delight in bowls filled with freshly cut sweet peas during the Christmas holidays -- sweet peas that were planted in August. It still works if you plant "early blooming" kinds, such as 'Early Multiflora' or 'Winter Elegance,' before Labor Day. Soak seeds overnight and then plant 1 to 2 inches deep in really good soil. Press down on the soil so it contacts the seed. Protect from slugs and snails and from birds (with netting). Water two or three times each week until the seeds sprout. Don't get the soil soggy or seeds will rot.

Divided we flower

Bearded iris rhizomes need to be divided every few years, a job often done in August, or July near the coast. This timing assures that the newly planted iris will make enough growth to bloom next spring. Wait too late and you'll only get leaves next year. Left undivided, the plants will stop making flowers. Carefully dig up the rhizomes and shake the soil from the roots. Cut back the leaves to about 6 inches and the wiry roots by about a third. Discard old shriveled rhizomes and replant the fat healthy ones. Space about 12 inches apart in the direction you want them to grow. Cover the rhizome with half an inch of soil. Water, and by next spring they should be ready to flower.

Pretty, tough ladies

Naked ladies are the common name for those lovely pink lilies (Amaryllis belladonna) that flower at the end of summer, when there are no leaves left. Some people have trouble getting them to flower, but nothing could be easier if you ignore them and don't bury the bulbs too deep. The necks and tops of the bulbs should be above the ground. They are so tough that they're more often seen growing in vacant lots than in irrigated gardens. The leaves return along with the rains, after the flowers are finished.

Water world

Sudden drenchings from thunderstorms may temporarily refresh plants, as will sprays from the garden hose, but they do not count as irrigation since the water can't reach down to the roots.

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