Gardening Calendar for July

July days are now warm or hot everywhere, but nighttime temperatures depend upon your distance from the ocean and its influence.

Water, water, water is the rule by which Humboldt County gardeners live in summer. The amount needed, and frequency of application, depends upon many things, including the type of soil and whether plants are deep- or shallow-rooted. Shallow-rooted plants like azalea, camellia and rhododendron suffer when the top few inches of soil are dry. If the leaves begin to curl, this is a sign that they need water in a hurry, or they will quickly shed their biggest liability, the flower buds. Humidity-loving plants such as ferns, fuchsias and begonias need a light sprinkling each day. Newly planted shrubs and trees will need more water than established ones. Containers may need water every day.

The time of day that you water makes a difference. In early morning city water has higher pressure so every watering device works at peak efficiency. Avoid watering after the wind starts to blow since the sprinkler pattern is disrupted and the water is wasted.

To save water, make basins beneath small trees and shrubs, extending them as far as the branches reach. Direct water into these where it will wet the soil and root area rather than being wasted on bare ground. Water early, then spread a mulch three to six inches deep over the entire basin to increase humidity, reduce surface evaporation and eliminate competition from weeds.

Overhead watering, contrary to the opinion of many, is a good way to water once in a while. It helps control mildew and red spider damage, and washes smoke and dust accumulations off leaves. However, it should be done only in the morning, because when plants go into the evening wet, fungus disease may be introduced.

Tuberous begonias have begun to flower. They can be transplanted easily when in bloom. Stake and tie tall-growing chrysanthemums, disbud these and dahlias for large blooms. Tall, late-blooming perennials, such as autumn asters, should be staked now. Dahlias should have plenty of water and a feeding or two of fertilizer low in nitrogen. Winter vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli and turnips, should go in now. Go ahead, spoil yourself, buy that gorgeous fuchsia basket while you're at the nursery.

Trees, both deciduous and evergreen, should have their summer pruning later this month. It is important, even on young trees, to encourage an open-branching structure by removing crossing branches and those that tend to grow inward. Pruning cuts made now have a chance to heal rapidly.

Sow perennial seed now. It is an ideal time to sow delphinium; plants from a July sowing may flower this fall, though they will not put out a normal-sized spike of bloom until next spring. Watch for snails and slugs; it is best to spread a bait just before new sprouts are due to appear.

This is the time of year when plants that thrive on neglect are especially attractive to gardeners harassed by the chore of continual watering. We naturally think first of California natives which subsist without summer rain. Ceanothus, Matilija poppy, fremontia, oenothera, and carpenteria are excellent for dry areas that cannot be watered.

Many of the gray-foliaged plants add a soft, pleasing texture to dry, sun-baked areas. Some of these are wooly thyme, Stachys lanata, snow-in-summer, pinks, dwarf rosemary, sedums, santolina, and dusty millers. Taller perennials for dry soils include globe thistle, showy sedum, oriental poppy, coreopsis, and yucca. Annuals such as California poppy, rose moss, and verbena supply summer color with a minimum of watering. Shrubs that are undemanding of moisture are mugho pine, cotoneasters, sumac, pyracantha, hypericums, manzanita, Choisya ternata, barberry, broom and that old standby, juniper.

But now is only the time to plan, not plant. This type of garden should be planted in the fall, just before the rains begin.

If you go on vacation, soak your trees and lawns before leaving, and add mulch around your roses and shrubs. They can probably go for two weeks without any further attention, but get a friend or neighbor to attend to your other plants.

Here's a good example of having to choose the correct plant for the area. This corner (North Main and Third, across from the old bowling alley in Fortuna) had always been an eyesore because it grew blackberries and weeds, some ten feet tall. It required occasional maintenance with a weed eater to keep the weeds down, but it still was unattractive. It included a driveway for access to City utilities. Since the car storage area behind it was also inherently untidy, it didn't exactly make the best impression on someone coming into town for the first time.

My plan started by looking at the soil -- and I found that there wasn't any. The entire area had been filled with river run rock to support the roadbed. Plant choices then were limited to several factors; not only would the plants not be watered during the dry season, they also had to grow in compacted gravel! Adding to that, during the rainy season the ground was completely saturated due to runoff from higher terrain.

Fortunately there are plants that grow well given these conditions (after all, the weeds did great!) and I started by planting a 350-foot-long row of Escallonias along the fence from the overpass to the corner to screen the car storage area. This large shrub is common on the north coast primarily because it is as tough as nails. I had put in a Matilija poppy a year prior to that when it outgrew the container.

The corner garden area was planted with rosemary, dwarf santolina, teucrium chamaedrys (germander, they have the purple spikes), helianthemum (red sun rose, the wrong color, it should have been pink), cistus (more pink and lilac rock roses), a couple of hawthorn trees donated by Kiwanis, several luma apiculata (small tree), and several Abelia 'Edward Goucher".

The primary planting tool was my pick. I planted in the fall, opened shallow, wide holes, added a ton of mulch and lots of rocks.

Not all these plants survived, but the ones that did are able to stand up to the climatic excesses and even a couple of excursions by out-of-control vehicles. I made the mistake of watering the Escallonias the first year and they grew too thin for the lack of nutrients in the soil. They were then all chopped off a foot above the ground and allowed to grow on their own and are now forming a nice hedge. Not only have the visual esthetics improved, each year there's less maintenance for this area and time can be budgeted for other new landscaping.

UPDATE, 2008: This garden has not recently been maintained due to lack of staffing. Considering the hedge has not been pruned or shaped, it is still in pretty good shape, although the holes the cars had made were not repaired. Most of the landscaping was taken over by large weeds which were subsequently mowed to provide visual access for the traffic.