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July gardens: The year's peak

gardening by Mary Robson, WSU Extension Agent
Maritime Northwesterners can't get enough of gazing at clear skies after the unending rains of winter and spring, 1996. This month, we're unlikely to feel much rain; less than an inch usually falls in July. The most demanding garden chore for July is watering.
   Many of the trees and shrubs enjoyable here, such as rhodoodendrons, azaleas, Japanese maples, and Eastern dogwoods need at least two deep soakings this month. We associate these plants with the typical Northwest landscape, but they are all native to areas that receive considerably more summer rainfall.
   Apply water slowly and let it penetrate down into root systems. Newly planted shrubs, trees, and flowers will need more frequent watering, weekly during dry spells. Their roots aren't yet established. The same is true for any plant that was transplanted during the past dormant season. Plants that are "drought-tolerant" do well once they have been in the landscape for about two years, but before that, they need water to get roots well down into the ground.
   Water's a precious, and limited, resource. Go for deep, slow watering. Water applied early in the morning or at night will be more efficiently used than water put out at midday or when the sun's baking a landscape--especially water emerging from sprinklers. Various studies have shown that 40-60% of water from a sprinkler evaporates in heat without reaching the surface of the soil. Concentrate on putting water down slowly, at the root level, and applying it deeply. Soaker hoses made from recycled tires work well, as do the many new and efficient drip systems.
   It's delightful to stand with a hose in hand, sprinkling plants, the ground, and bare feet, but this is the least efficient way to use limited water resources. Plants will develop surface roots rather than deep roots if they are sprinkled lightly and often. Long ago, the sound of sprinklers at evening was a nostalgic sound of summer: this is no longer the way to apply water. We aim for the soundless sound of water dripping slowly and deeply to the root level.
   In spite of the late, cold start this year, vegetable gardens can yield wonderful eating in July. Pick beans, squash, and carrots while they are young and tasty. Now's the time to plant crops for fall and winter harvest. Sow radishes, lettuce, peas, bush beans, carrots, and beets early this month for fall crops. Keep the area moist while seeds sprout and grow. Fall gardens (even though we hate to even think of fall!) must get started in mid-summer while warmth and light can give the plants a boost. For fall and winter cole crops, set out sturdy transplants of cabbage, bok choi, cauliflower, and broccoli.
   Cover berry crops with netting unless you plan to offer your precious berries to the birds. After picking June-bearing strawberries, fertilize the rows with 5-10-10 or another balancing fertilizer. Clip back the old foliage, water, and strawberries will renew themselves and set new crops for next summer.
   Container plants take special attention in hot, dry weather. Be sure to water enough to keep the soil moist. This may mean daily watering for exposed plants, or for fuchsias and hanging begonias that die quickly if they dry out. Even if they stay alive, the bloom will be reduced. A fuchsia basket in full glory, with hundreds of flowers and dozens of branches, needs extra care and watering. Immerse the pot up to the rim in deep water and let it soak thoroughly to wet the crowded roots. (Don't immerse the flowering branches.) Keep faded flowers picked from all container plants. And keep the summer fertilizer on potted plants for best bloom.

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