This week you may notice the podcast sounds a bit different than it normally does. That’s because instead of recording indoors, I recorded from my home garden, the GardenFarm™. You can follow me as I walk along and share my observations from the summer so far and my plans for the weeks ahead.
As I recorded this week — the week after the Fourth of July — the garden is lush and beautiful, as is typically the case this time of year. As you follow along with my words, you can imagine what I describe and picture what I am seeing in your own mind — but I’ve also included a number of photos here for good measure.
Here in the Atlanta, Georgia, area, I am in zone 7b. I’m ahead of many of you in terms of the timing of the growing season, so I hope you can benefit from hearing about what’s happening now in my garden, as you may see the same soon.
Before proceeding, I want to let you know that in January 2024 I am leading a trip to Costa Rica with about 30 gardening/wildlife enthusiasts, and we only have five slots left. It’s a great time of year to visit Costa Rica, and I am looking forward to going back. Find out more at joegardener.com/costarica.
Cutting Back on the Tomatoes I Grow for an Easier Season
As I begin my day in the garden, there is no better place to start than my tomato beds. I have four beds, with four plants in each. That’s 16 tomato plants, which may sound like a lot, but if you’ve followed me for a long time you know that is a huge reduction from how many I have historically grown — in the neighborhood of 60 to 70 plants. I usually use grow bags, straw bales and anything else I can find to grow tomatoes in, in addition to the raised beds.
I finally decided this growing season that I should come to my senses and quit fighting an uphill battle and taking on that many plants at one time. If you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you know that they can be a lot of work. And when you multiply that exponentially, it takes up much more time than I frankly have to deal with them.
I’m a big proponent of being proactive, which means being out there as often as you can. When you spot diseases on your tomato plants — and tomatoes are a huge target for diseases — you cut them out and try to stay ahead of them. With several dozen plants, you can imagine how exhausting that work is.
I realized I’m not getting any younger, and I want to enjoy my tomato garden as well as everything else. I’m very happy to be down to 16 plants, and I think the universe is rewarding me for that because I have a very healthy four beds of tomato plants.
I just had my first fake BLT sandwich, with fake bacon — I’m not a meat eater — and amazing lettuce and tomato. As I look over my 16 tomato plants, I am seeing more tomatoes that are about to come off the vine, and they are huge and plentiful. There is also very little disease. I do have a couple of plants that are suffering from soil-borne diseases, and I have some wilt issues, which is to be expected — but that’s about it. Honestly, I haven’t had to do much proactive care to remove signs of disease. Yes, the standard early blight shows up, and I take that out as I can, but really very little of that compared to what I’m used to.
My New Perimeter Flower Beds
In January, we added flower beds around the interior perimeter of my raised bed garden and planted loads of flowers. This has made a huge impact on wildlife activity. My garden has really come alive this year. It’s always been healthy and attracted pollinators, but now that we’ve proactively made a conscious choice to attract them with a lot more flowers, the difference between this year and the last is incredible.
The perimeter beds are just 6 or 8 inches deep and no more than 2 feet wide, to allow room to walk around comfortably. They are planted with strawflower, Celosia, Gomphrena, snapdragon, Dahlias, Zinnias, cosmos, Salvia, sunflowers, milkweed and Rudbeckia.
In addition to the flowers on the perimeter, my garden manager Tobi and I are incorporating flowers into the existing raised beds, among the vegetable crops. I have herbs such as borage, basil, oregano, fennel and dill that I am allowing to go to flower, plus nasturtiums and marigolds, and they are adding a lot to the garden.
The growing season is far from over but already I have filled up the nine bays of my three-bin pallet composting systems. Between all the cutback going on in the garden — minus diseased cuttings that are thrown away — and the leaf debris and some things from the kitchen, they’re really full.
I also add grass clippings, a great source of nitrogen, to my compost. Sometimes it can be hard to find enough nitrogen inputs to balance the carbon inputs, such as shredded paper and leaves, so I use the bagger on my lawn mower every other week or so and empty the bags into my compost bins. I never use chemical herbicides or pesticides on my property, so I have no concerns about my grass clippings being contaminated by something that’s potentially harmful. In the in-between weeks, I mulch the grass clippings right back onto the lawn, so the nitrogen is returned right back to the lawn.
Do everything you can to maximize what you put in your compost bins from the garden or from yard cleanup and food scraps from the kitchen because this is a time when there is a lot of opportunity to beef up those bins with more inputs. You want to take advantage of that, and I certainly am here.
Look for Turtles and Other Creatures Before You Trim
Prior to firing up my string trimmer on Sunday to cut back some weeds that were getting unsightly, I scouted out the area. You never know what’s just behind your sightlines, so I always make a point of checking. In this instance, I am really glad I did because I just barely pulled back the weeds and saw an eastern box turtle feasting on a tomato that had fallen on the ground.
Whether it be a turtle, toad, frog or snake, I don’t want anything bad to happen under my watch to an animal. I encourage you to give that consideration to the creatures that take refuge under weeds — or anyplace they go to feel safe and protected.
I wish I knew whether the box turtle I found in my garden on Sunday was the same turtle that I had rescued when I found it crossing the street. However, I know now that I really shouldn’t have brought that turtle home. I should have put that turtle across the road in the direction it was headed. I learned that typically a turtle crosses the street to find a place to lay eggs, and they also have a very small territory. Driving them far from their home is disorienting for a turtle; wildlife experts recommend leaving them in their natural habitats.
Several years ago a box turtle visited my garden almost every day to eat fallen strawberries. I would take him out of the garden, so he wouldn’t get stuck, but he always came back. That’s why I nicknamed him Boomer, as in boomerang. The turtle that visited this past weekend could have been Boomer, but either way, I’m just happy to see an eastern box turtle on my property.
My New Greenhouse
My new greenhouse has been a real blessing this year. I’m so thankful to have it, and I used the heck out of it over the wintertime coming into spring for all of my seedlings.
If you’ve seen pictures on my Instagram feed, you’ve seen how that greenhouse progressed and how quickly it filled up. After I held a number of seedling sales and the temperatures got too hot, the greenhouse was emptied out.
Right now, I’m utilizing the benches in there to dry out my alliums — garlic and onions. The onions had a whole bed and the garlic had a whole bed too, so that makes for a lot of harvest. The greenhouse was the perfect place to allow the onions and garlic to cure. You want a warm dry place with good air circulation. In the past, I’ve resorted to the garage with fans blowing, but it still gets a little stagnant in there. And so this time they cured way faster, and it was a good use of the greenhouse space in the middle of the summer.
Making more plants, or propagation, is a hobby for me that borders on an addiction. I’m a big seed starter, sowing tons of seeds in winter, which is just one form of propagation. Then in summer, I propagate by cuttings.
Growing plants from cuttings is a form of asexual propagation, which is essentially cloning. The new plants are exact duplicates of the plants they were cut from.
If you stick a fig cutting in the ground and keep it moist, preferably in the shade, it will root and you’ll have a new plant. In fact, just last month I accidentally cut off a healthy fig branch with lots of future figs on it but made the best of the situation and cut that branch into 20 pieces. It’s weeks later, and I am 20 for 20, not because I am that talented but because anyone can propagate figs easily.
Make a cut below the second set of nodes on a branch and stick the cutting in the ground so that the bottom node is covered, and preferably the top node too — and voila. You’ll get roots.
I put the fig cuttings in my seed starting room under grow lights and under humidity domes. They grew leaves, and roots have started coming out of the bottoms of the pots. I have since moved them outside into shade, and next spring, when the root balls are more developed, I will repot them into bigger containers.
To propagate hydrangeas, you can take cuttings in spring, early summer, later summer or even later in the year, but the best times are spring and early summer. Right now, the new growth is transitioning, and you can see the difference. New growth starts out green and becomes more woody in time.
Hydrangeas can be very easy to take cuttings from. Rather than reiterating here how to successfully propagate hydrangeas, I encourage you to listen to my podcast with propagation expert Brie Arthur. It will equip you to confidently propagate not only hydrangeas but a wide variety of plants.
I have five trays with 38 cells each, full of hydrangea cuttings that I have taken over the last month — and they’re all taking. In order words, they are all showing signs of life and rooting.
Early in the cutting, I take a cutting of a parent branch that has multiple branches growing off it. Once I bring the cutting inside, I cut off those branches that are growing off the parent, and those are the cuttings that I root. Once you try this, you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and you’ll have plenty of new plants next spring.
Planting What I Buy
I visit my local native plant sale every year and end up bringing home lots of plants — usually more than I have time to plant. I typically buy 1-gallon containers because, once in the ground, those plants will get established quickly. But because I don’t get around to planting everything right away, those plants sit in those pots, and then summer comes along. In summer heat, those plants can really suffer in those containers, and if the plants are put in the ground in the heat, they can have a very hard time getting acclimated, especially if you don’t stay on top of watering them.
This year, I again did not get everything planted in the ground, but I was better about keeping up with watering the 1-gallon containers. I also potted the plants up to 3-gallon containers with well-draining soil amended with finely ground pine bark.
If you have plants sitting out in containers, you should pot them up now with well-draining soil and set them in an area that gets some shade. You’ll be able to keep those plants going strong. Then, come fall, you can plant them in the ground. Late fall is a great time to transplant, as there is relief from the heat and still time for the plant to grow strong roots before winter sets in.
Native Plant Rescue
A month or so ago, I finally got to do something I have been wanting to do for a very long time: a native plant rescue.
I belong to the Georgia Native Plant Society, an organization I am very proud of. It has so many dedicated, knowledgeable members, and several times a month it holds a native plant rescue on a property that is soon to be developed. These are carefully supervised events, and the permissions are all in place from the property owners.
I had a great time. There were about 15 of us. and we brought our own equipment. After receiving our instructions, those of us who wanted shade-loving plants headed off into the woods, and those who wanted sun-loving plants stuck to another area.
I ended up coming home with some fantastic ferns and some things I never would’ve been able to buy in a nursery, and saving them made it feel all the better.
Scoring free plants and spending half a day in the woods with fellow like-minded native plant lovers was great fun. I spent the rest of the day potting up the plants, and since then I have kept an eye on them, seeing how well they are taking to their new home on my property. I am establishing some of the ferns in my woodland garden that I’m working on, and I’ll certainly be going on more rescues as they come up.
Water for Wildlife in the Summertime
Right now, many of you are getting so much water all at once after not having water for weeks and weeks and weeks. Others are bone dry and have been for weeks and weeks and weeks. It’s just crazy. Either it seems to be too much or not enough. Rarely is it just right.
When you’re in a dry situation, I encourage you to think about water not just for your plants, but for wildlife. If you’ve ever added a water source, especially moving water, I know that you are probably amazed at the amount of wildlife that comes to that. The sound of the moving water attracts even more wildlife than water that’s static because animals are attracted to the noise.
When you add a bird bath, pond or other water source, be sure to keep it filled. Every three days dump out any dirty water that remains and add fresh water. I also keep a little brush nearby to scrub it out too.
This is a simple, small thing that we can do that really is a big thing for wildlife — keeping habitats as healthy as possible. It’s not just about cutting back on the chemicals that we use, it’s about being mindful of what the needs are and providing those needs for the creatures that live in the area under our watch.
Inevitable Pests Problems
Pests are an ongoing challenge, and some of us have more problems than others. It often comes down to how much biodiversity is in our gardens. More diversity attracts a range of predatory insects that will prey on pests, keeping pest populations under control.
When you focus on building a really healthy garden through the soil, and you’re patient and not overly proactive on your pest control, you can let Mother Nature do the work for you. It’s neat to see it in action.
I have a couple of large beds full of lots of Brassica crops, such as kale. I had some kale that was past its prime — it had bolted — and I left it in place with plans to collect the seeds. Then, because the kale is gorgeous, I left it even past the time I should have harvested all of the seeds. That was a mistake on my part because the only time I have had problems with pests on my Brassicas is usually aphids in the warm season.
Brassicas that I have planted in summer to grow throughout fall have not had pest issues and have overwintered beautifully. It’s in late spring or early summer when the aphids show up in force. But in this case, it was greenhouse whitefly. They multiply quickly, they’re hard to take out and they can infest your garden. Then they can start spreading to other plants, and you don’t want that at all. Unfortunately, they had made their way into all of my kale.
I was able to use an organic three-in-one insect product from Earth’s Ally that is made of botanical oils, and that appears to have taken care of the problem. When I have to resort to using a control method, it’s not something I look forward to doing or take joy in doing. Even though I only use organic insecticides, I use them sparingly. That’s because non-selective, broad-spectrum organic controls can’t distinguish between pests and beneficials. Fortunately, when I applied the product, whitefly was the only insect that I could see was present.
Because I used a nonpersistent organic control product, I could safely pull the kale and add it to my compost bin with no concerns of contamination.
The moral here is that if you have to resort to a chemical or organic control, be sure you know what you’re using and its unintended consequences so you can make smart choices.
I rarely have pest challenges because I focus on building healthy soil to create healthy plants that are less attractive to insect pests, and I promote an environment that attracts beneficial insects that naturally control pest populations. But pests spare no one.
In addition to whitefly, another pest that became a little bit of an issue for me was the Japanese beetle. I recently had Japanese beetles visiting my potato plants, which were in 16 large grow bags up by the greenhouse, lining the entire greenhouse wall on the sunny side. The plants were thriving when I started to see a Japanese beetle or two every morning on my inspection walks.
My pest control for Japanese beetles is always the same: Tap them into a cup of soapy water, or squish them. In a garden that’s not of commercial size, you don’t need to freak out about how you’ll manage Japanese beetles. If you have an average-sized vegetable garden, just walk around your garden with your cup of soapy water early in the morning when they’re still sleepy and groggy, and just tap them into the cup. And that is it. If you come out every day, over the course of a few weeks, you’re going to get totally ahead of that issue.
It took two weeks of noticing Japanese beetles before I noticed any leaf damage. The plants were so healthy I think they were not even palatable to the beetles — unless the heat and the stress came on.
Foliage can take at least 30% damage before there’s any impact on a plant’s production, so realize that plants will still be able to photosynthesize just fine after being preyed on a little.
Also key to pest control is positive identification. If you don’t know what species of insect you are looking at, you won’t know whether it is a pest, a beneficial or something neutral. The vast majority of insects are neutral or beneficial, so don’t overreact when you see eggs, larvae, pupa or adult insects.
I recently noticed a clutch of eggs on the leaf of a volunteer squash plant. When you see eggs on a squash plant, you may be quick to assume that they are eggs of the harmful squash bug. But there are other things those eggs could be.
The eggs I spotted could very well have been eggs of beneficial ladybugs (which entomologists prefer we call lady beetles because they are not true bugs.) The eggs could also have belonged to squash lady beetles or Mexican bean beetles, both of which belong to the ladybug family (Coccinellidae) but are pests rather than beneficials.
The lesson here is innocent until proven guilty. Before you wipe away eggs or squish an insect, look up what you are looking at. You can use apps in your phone to take a picture of eggs, larvae or adult insects and get an ID.
I was sitting on my sofa recently, looking out over my deck, when I saw a downy woodpecker laying with its wings outstretched on the deck, and its beak between the slats. I was concerned that the woodpecker had struck a window — but I never heard a window strike.
I went out there with a towel planning to rescue the woodpecker and help it warm up and recover. But as soon as the bird saw me, it flew up into a tree nearby. Then for the next few hours, I never moved from the place in the tree it had flown onto. That really concerned me. I assumed it was in shock from the window strike and still getting its bearings. Then the next day, I looked for the woodpecker and it was nowhere to be found. What I did find that day was a robin fledgling on the deck, with its wings stretched out, looking too drunk to walk. I thought, oh no, not again, but I also wondered why two different species had similar symptoms.
I Googled what could be going on with these birds. What I found is that this time of year, birds are feeding on berries that have become overripe and fermented. In essence, the birds really were drunk. I looked around outside and realized I have a lot of berries around: pokeberries, blueberries and Elaeagnus (silverberry).
When you see a bird acting strangely, it may need your help — or it may just be tipsy.
Heat and Sun Protection in the Garden
Being out in the garden in the middle of the day is not advisable, considering how hot it is and how intense the sun’s rays are, but sometimes you’ll find yourself in the garden during this period. A T-shirt and shorts may be your regular attire for midday gardening, but I want you to consider how professional landscapers, even on the hottest days, tend to wear long sleeves and long pants — plus hats, bandanas, sunglasses and gloves.
I have adopted long sleeves and long pants myself. Importantly, I choose clothes made out of sweat-wicking materials that help me keep cool — way cooler than a cotton T-shirt. I also wear a bandana soaked in water for an extra cooling effect.
This really hit home to me last year when we were out filming in the garden all summer for our course Organic Vegetable Gardening. We were documenting in the garden every day what was going on and the different growth cycles. It was hot, but we had a lot to do in spite of the fact that it was almost 100 degrees outside. We just had to get it done.
I was burning up in my cotton shirt, and I looked ridiculous, I was pouring sweat as we were filming. However, my director of photography, Carl, was cool as a cucumber, as they say, in long-sleeve wicking material. That’s when I really became a believer and changed what I wear in the garden.
Also consider that, in addition to being hot and uncomfortable, we should be concerned about skin cancer. Long sleeves make a big difference in sun protection, as does wearing a hat, preferably one that will cover your ears and down to your neck.
I also wear Farmers Defense sleeves to protect my arms from scratches and scraps when reaching into prickly vines. The sleeves can be worn in combination with a T-shirt, but even with the sleeves on with a long sleeve shirt, I don’t feel hot.
Starting Fall Seeds
The middle of July is when I start my fall seeds indoors. Yes, I have a greenhouse, but in July the greenhouse gets too hot for seeds to germinate. You can use the same shelves and grow lights you used in winter to grow seedlings for spring planting, just with different plants. Four to six weeks later, you will have plants that are ready to be hardened off and then transplanted.
Yes, these are cool-season plants, but they don’t mind getting started in warm climates. What they need is to be able to finish growing before the days get too short or the temperature gets too cold. I plant out my cool-season crops in late August, or September 1 at the latest. These will be some of the best edible crops you can grow in your garden, and they will potentially last through December, give or take, depending on your first frost date.
If you haven’t already listened to my July garden observations and takeaways, you can scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
What are your summer observations from the garden this year? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing, and harvesting your favorite vegetables: no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.