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The Monthly Gardener by Robert Smaus

Ready for the summer?

May 25, 2006|Robert Smaus | Robert Smaus can be reached at

THAT INFAMOUS June gloom may let spring linger in the garden, but summer is approaching fast. Watering becomes chore No. 1 for the next few months unless your garden has been planted to require little irrigation. Just remember: Even natives and other water-thrifty Mediterranean trees and shrubs that have been recently planted will need some help to get through their first summer or two.

Sprinkler checkup

Many automated sprinkler systems are set to come on in the wee hours of the morning, so it's a good idea to turn them on occasionally during daylight to make sure they are working properly. It's no fun finding out the hard way. Dead plants aren't the only worry. You also could be wasting water if the nozzles have broken or if pipes are cracked or separated. After making sure the sprinklers are working properly, you might want to lengthen the time sprinklers are on and increase the intervals between irrigations, so plants get a good soaking but not too often. Frequent, short irrigations often work fine on lawns. Irrigate early in the morning, when water pressure is highest. Keeping soil dry at night discourages disease and slows the malicious wanderings of slugs and snails, which prefer moist ground.

Container care

Plants in containers need frequent watering in summer, sometimes twice a day. If the plants wilt often, they may need to be repotted to a larger container. Increase the size of a pot only one or two inches at a time. "Overpotting" -- where there is too much soil and too few roots -- lets water run around the old root ball rather than to it. If there are not enough roots to absorb the moisture, the dirt stays too wet and plants rot. Fertilize every two weeks or once a month; irrigations flush fertilizers from potting soils. A few soils have slow-release fertilizers built in, so they may not need any additional feeding.

Summer vegetables

Vegetable patches should be up and growing now, but you can still plant beans, beet, carrot, chayote, corn, cucumber, endive, melon, New Zealand spinach, onion, squash, sunflower, Swiss chard, tomato and watermelon. Leaf lettuce is another possibility, but it will need some shade inland. If you want pumpkins for Halloween, plant before June 15.

Water gardens

In the summer, even a small, quiet pool of water near a door or seating area has a surprisingly cooling effect. Most aquatic plants, including lilies, grow only in warm weather only, so now is the time to plant a water garden. Kits for small ponds are available at nurseries, and large containers (2 feet in diameter or larger) make fine water gardens if the drainage holes are plugged. Pot aquatic plants in individual containers filled with ordinary clay garden soil. Do not use potting mixes. Keep fish in the gardens to control mosquitoes. Mosquito fish are the most likely to survive in small pools, though the little, so-called "feeder" goldfish are nearly as tough.

June drop and

other troubles

Many trees naturally drop fruit in June, so don't be alarmed. It's more important to worry about those heavily laden branches. To keep branches from breaking, have sturdy props standing by. Use 2-by-2-inch lumber, nailing a pair of 1-by-2-inch pieces at one end to make a fork to cradle the branch. Add a piece of an old bicycle tube or cloth to cushion the bark.

Fruit splits because of erratic watering or over watering, often by automatic sprinkler systems. Water fruit trees separately and mound up watering basins or let hoses trickle, so the ground soaks in to a depth of 18 inches. Then don't water again for a week or more. Watch for grasshoppers on citrus as the summer progresses and handpick (harder than it sounds), the only control at this time of year.

Summer flowers

Spring was the best time to plant most summer flowers, but here's where the overcast skies of June can help. If it's not too hot, you can plant summer color. The possibilities are many: ageratum, alyssum, amaranths, balsam, calibrachoa, celosia, cleome, bedding dahlia, dusty miller, firetail (chenille plant), gaillardia, gazania, gloriosa daisy, gomphrena, coleus-like iresine, lisianthus, lobelia, marigold, nierembergia, pentas, petunia, portulaca, salvia, sutera, verbena, Vinca rosea (Catharanthus roseus) and zinnia. In the shade, try bedding begonias, coleus, mimulus and impatiens. Lobelia do fine in partial shade. Near the coast, don't overlook fuchsias and tuberous begonias for the shade.

Planting picks

The best planting months for most other things are past -- or yet to come. Mediterranean climate trees and shrubs as well as California natives are best planted in late fall, winter and early spring. Things that look and act like tropicals are best planted in spring, but because they need irrigation anyway, they also can be planted now as long as they are watered almost daily at first. Some will grow to become surprisingly drought tolerant. Mature bougainvilleas and bird of paradise, for instance, need little or no watering.

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