Ground rules and tools
  Summer is an important season for gardeners

June 2, 2005

Gardening is the art that uses flowers and plants as paint, and the soil and sky as canvas. -Elizabeth Murray

MARTHA SAWYERS

Victoria County Master Gardener

Now that school is out, thoughts shift to vacations and the hot, sometimes lazy, days of summer. The summer solstice, marking the beginning of summer, falls on June 21. Many of us look forward to the longer daylight hours to give us more time for outdoor activities.

This is an important time of year to be in the garden. In fact, the master gardeners have been in the Victoria Educational Gardens a lot in the past weeks, maintaining the mini gardens and new greenhouse, working on the major expansion plans, and guiding various groups through the gardens. Some 400 area students and several garden clubs from nearby counties have toured VEG in its prime this spring. Tours for the young and the young at heart are available into the summer and beyond by calling the Victoria County Extension Office at 361-575-4581.

Now is the time to be sure you have prepared your plants for the stressful heat that normally occurs in our Crossroads area during the coming summer months. Last year brought very unusual weather to Victoria with a monthly rainfall total of 13.50 inches in June 2004, which was the wettest June in Victoria's history. By June 30, we were only 0.14 of an inch shy of our normal precipitation for an entire year! Who knows what this year will bring?

Wet or dry, pay close attention to this year's rainfall amounts and soil moisture so your sprinklers are not watering needlessly. With our summer weather often too wet or too dry, it is wise not to water on a preset schedule. Turf grass should be watered early in the morning and not late in the day. Proper watering technique involves watering thoroughly to encourage a deep root system. Frequent, shallow watering results in a shallow, poorly developed root system.

Our soil is quite alkaline so watch for signs of iron deficiencies (yellow leaves with dark green veins) in your landscape and garden plants. Apply an iron-containing product to correct or prevent iron deficiency.

June is a good time for gardeners to look at their landscapes to plan next spring's garden. Note plants that should be relocated or removed next spring before they start their active growth stage. Take pictures of color groupings that you wish to repeat. Good records from this year will make your spring gardening much easier next year.

Keeping in mind that routine observations keep the gardener ahead of potential problems, watch for stressed plants in your landscape. Tiny spider mites thrive in hot, dry weather and can stress plants even more. Badly infested plants should be destroyed before other plants are affected. Use an organic control such as insecticidal soap for treatment as a first resort and then chemical control if needed.

One of the best things to do for your plants is to add mulch. Earth-Kind gardening from Texas A&M defines mulch as "any material spread on the garden to protect root plants from heat, cold or drought, to reduce problems with weeds, and to keep fruit clean." Mulching conserves moisture by allowing the soil to soak up more water and by reducing the rate of water loss. Mulch can be either organic (straw, compost, sawdust, and similar plant materials) or inorganic (plastic, rocks, rock chips, and other non-plant materials).

Summer applications of organic mulches, which are the most commonly used, benefit the landscape by reducing soil temperature and saving soil moisture. An added benefit of organic mulches is that, at the end of the season, they can be turned into the soil to improve the soil's physical condition.

A layer of mulch can reduce maintenance by preventing weed seeds from germinating. Always remove weeds promptly to prevent them from blooming and producing seed. It is much easier to pull a few small weeds in June rather than pull many large weeds later in August.

Check to see if spring annuals have passed their prime and need to be replaced by plants that are more tolerant of our hot, dry summers. Some of them may need to be trimmed for a better appearance. Fertilize your container plants and hanging baskets as needed. A light fertilizer will give them a needed boost in the coming months. Potted plants will dry out quickly in summer heat and may need to be watered daily if there is no rainfall. Remember that transplants need to be watered as needed until their roots become established.

Remove faded flowers from annuals and perennials to keep the plants growing and producing flowers or from going to seed. Pinching the flowers from sun coleus and other annuals and perennials will make them branch out and look attractive longer. Help them by giving a light application of fertilizer every four to six weeks.

Heat-loving zinnias and portulaca can still be direct-seeded. Consider adding periwinkle, salvia, marigold, cleome, portulaca, and purslane to give summer color to the garden. Heat-tolerant perennials that do especially well here include esperanza, firebush, lantana and cannas. "Texas star" hibiscus is an attention-getter featuring striking red star flowers with white centers. "Flare" and "Moy Grande" hibiscus feature stunning 10- to 12-inch flowers from summer until fall.

Crape myrtles are now in bloom, so this is a wonderful time to ensure purchasing a tree with the desired bloom color. There are many varieties of crape myrtles, so study the plant tag to know that the size is appropriate for your planting location and that it is disease and pest resistant. Buying the proper tree will reduce your maintenance and help avoid the temptation to "top" the tree as it reaches full size.

Flowering shrubs such as azaleas, gardenias, and Indian hawthorns may be pruned when they finish blooming. Avoid severe or needless pruning of shrubs this time of year. After trimming, apply fertilizer according to label directions.

Roses may be slowing down. Apply small amounts of nitrogen immediately after a flush of bloom or every four to six weeks. Continue to spray susceptible roses with a black-spot control such as Funginex every seven to 10 days. Water as needed to maintain a moist but not wet or dry soil during the growing season and, if at all possible, avoid wetting the foliage. Deadhead to encourage future blooms.

Whether outside for play or work, be sure to drink plenty of water. Many garden tasks can be performed during the cooler times of the day, early in the morning or late in the evening. Protection from the sun and heat make outdoor activities more tolerable.

Be vigilant to try to keep your summer garden free of insects, diseases, and weeds. Many problems can be easily remedied if they are caught early. Observing your landscape and treating problems promptly can make your maintenance much easier so more time can be spent viewing your efforts. Most important, though, enjoy your summer landscape and share your gardening efforts with your family and friends. Take pleasure in seeing and sharing the flowers, plants, soil and sky as paint and canvas of your garden.