Spend the August heat in preparation for gardening

August in Atlanta represents a waning summer: There’s still an oppressive heat, but the days are beginning to shorten. It’s a time for gardeners to look toward cooler days and nights, whether they plan to cultivate flowers, vegetables or both in the fall.

Late-season gardening is somewhat of a transitional experience, but strategy and cool-season prep plans from Georgia gardening experts can keep gardeners involved in their horticulture pursuits.

ExploreGardening can offer older adults surprising benefits

Flower cultivation advice from a master gardener

Kathy Kennedy, 66, has been a member of the Sandy Springs Garden Club for over 20 years, and she’s also active with the North Fulton Master Gardeners. She’s certified as a master gardener through the Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteer Program.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Making August into a planning month means gardeners can use the time wisely while avoiding the potentially uncomfortable heat, she said.

“It’s hot. A lot of people don’t even feel like going outside,” she said. “If it’s too hot in August, go to your windows and look out and see what you planted that isn’t working. What’s dead? What is dying … Just reevaluate what you’ve done and make notes.”

Watering, planting and dividing

One thing holds true at the end of the summer season: Flowers need hydration and plenty of it. Water early in the day to ward off fungal infections from water that sits on foliage, Kennedy said.

“Basically, August is pretty much water, water, water everywhere,” she said. She advised her fellow gardeners to take care of their container plants, along with big trees.

“If we’re on water restrictions, those are the things to take care of,” she said. “The big trees, if they’re strategically placed, they can make your home 30% cooler in the summer.”

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Late-season gardening often amounts to prep for the next round of flowers, and Kennedy recommends starting colorful additions such as pansies for the cool season. And this is where a little discernment goes a long way — assessing current weather and temperature conditions and predictions. This will help gardeners decide whether to start this type of annual in a particular year. Plant pansies when it’s wet enough — but not too wet — so roots establish themselves before it’s too cold, Kennedy said.

This is also the time of year to prune roses, but don’t cut them back so severely that you encourage new growth that frost will later destroy.

“We’ve been known to get frost early. We’re not supposed to until mid-to-late October or November, depending on the map you look at,” Kennedy said, “But it can happen with global warming.”

Late summer is also a time to divide perennials, which she advises gardeners to split every three years.

“I usually divide my irises and daylilies. It’s really great to divide them right after they bloom,” she said.

One satisfying way of preserving some of summer’s beauty inside the home is moving portions of warm-season plants indoors around August in anticipation of overwintering them.

“You can start even taking clippings of certain plants like coleus and geraniums, and they will sometimes root in water,” Kennedy said. “And so, I will put them in my windowsill and let them root, and sometimes, they last for months. And then you stick them in a pot and plant them (in spring).”

She recommends calling a local UGA Extension agent or looking at the Extension website, extension.uga.edu for other planting and pruning advice.

A consistent routine

Kennedy’s gardening habits have remained constant as she’s gotten older.

“I do pretty much what I used to do because gardening is so good for your body that if you continue to garden, you’re exercising almost every bone,” she said.

Gardening allows seniors to get their steps in, she said — “You always forget something and have to go back around.”

And just sitting in the garden is an improbability in which she rarely indulges.

“We put benches all over our garden,” she said. “But you’ll very rarely see us seated on that bench because I take a glass of wine out at night, and I’ll sit down, and I’ll go, ‘Whoops — see a weed. Gotta pull it out. So, those don’t get used by me. They get used by other people.’”

The word on vegetables from a community gardener

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Bobby Wilson remembers leading the old hymn, “In the Garden” as a boy in a Methodist church in Bay Springs, Mississippi. Those words have come to hold deep meaning for Wilson, now 72, as he arrives daily on the grounds of the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm in College Park, where he supports the organization’s various crops and initiatives as CEO.

Like Kennedy, Wilson acknowledges that climate change has shifted things. Global warming means some crops mature on new timelines, and gardeners have to adjust. Nevertheless, August is still a time when it’s appropriate to think about the upcoming switch in temperature.

“As we move into mid-August, September, we’re going to start to think about planting cool-season crops,” Wilson said. “If it is a green-leaf vegetable, it’s most likely to be a cool-season crop. If it produces under the ground … it’s most likely to be a cool-season crop.”

Wilson has found fall vegetables that do well in late-summer heat include Georgia collards, Morris Heading collards and Florida Broadleaf mustard. The latter plant can grow in the summer heat without attracting as many white flies as other mustards. Turnips are a good addition for their greens or as a cover crop. The bulb also helps break up the soil, Wilson said. He also listed radishes as a good cover crop that’s tasty on salads.

“I like to tell gardeners, ‘You need to think dually,’” he said. “I like to get more than one use out of everything we do here, so if we overproduce radishes, then the rest of those radishes will be left in the field to kind of break up the clay soil.”

Soil prep

And soil prep is high on his list of priorities for gardening in the late season.

“You need to put a bed to rest every season so that you are replenishing the nutrients in that soil,” Wilson said.

There are several ways to ensure soil contains adequate nutrients when it’s time to plant again, he said. These include planting cover crops such as clover to replenish nitrogen and also putting compost-covered cardboard over a bed and then allowing it to compost back into the soil in spring.

Gardeners, he said, can also compost directly in a raised bed by pulling out old plants and leaving them in the bed with compost on top and allowing them to break down.

For Wilson, a garden can be an investment in yourself and others.

“We like to think of gardening as a place to grow food, but it’s a place where people can actually grow themselves and make their community a better place,” he said.

“Being here at Metro Atlanta Urban Farm and having a community gardening component, I see the therapeutic value that gardening brings to so many people.”

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Dos and don’ts from the Extension

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Sarah Brodd, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources agent for DeKalb County, gives a few tips on late-season flower and vegetable gardening:

For flowers:

  • Don’t: hang on to summer flowers until the bitter end. They’ll grow through October depending on the weather, but most people are ready to move on to fall colors.
  • Do: Pull out summer flowers, which will be leggy toward the end of August.
  • Do: Wipe down pots to freshen them.
  • Do: Add mums, snapdragons and ornamental peppers as the weather cools in September.
  • Do: Take root-filled soil out of containers and replace it with new potting soil. With landscape beds, add new topsoil to refresh the bed.

For vegetables:

  • Do: Plant beans as a late-summer crop.
  • Do: Start broccoli and Brussels sprouts from seed in late August. Georgia has four unique growing seasons, so you can plant these again in late January.
  • Don’t: Jump into a lot of cool-season vegetables until the heat winds down.
  • Don’t: Insist on maintaining your summer garden in the heat of August if you’re tired of watering.
  • Don’t: Let your vegetable garden go with bare soil. Put in a cover crop such as crimson clover, vetch or cereal rye if you’re not planning to plant in the winter. They’ll add nitrogen to the soil, prevent erosion in growing beds and discourage weed seeds.