We've been having the kind of weather that makes gardeners leap over the compost pile.
This year June and August did a flip-flop: Instead of the usual dank and dusty greens of late summer in Washington, we're seeing June-like foliage, bright, clear, aching greens appearing everywhere. Even normally ferocious August thunderstorms have been relatively mild this year -- more like June showers.
And the garden. Well, the garden, too, has been revitalized. When weather like this hits in August, gardeners should take a day off, catch up with the summer's fecundity and get a jump on the fall plantings.
SOW BEFORE REAPING: When you can practically count on evening showers, it's the perfect time to plant. Barring that, cool, springlike days are also perfect. Get in those peas. Plant them thickly, so they'll support one another. Plant sugar snaps against a fence or trellis. In the fall they'll grow even taller than in the spring. Expect them to achieve heights of six or seven feet. An eight-foot row will easily accommodate half a pound of seed. Put in lettuce and spinach thickly, too, in rows fairly close together -- perhaps a foot apart. When the young seedlings come in, thin as you need them for salads, and let the rest mature more for freezing (spinach) and larger salads (lettuce) later.
KEEP IT SHALLOW: A common mistake, even among seasoned gardeners, is to plant seeds too deeply. Often the plants won't come up at all, or, if they do, it will be after a few weeks of the soil settling down to allow the seeds to sprout. A rule of thumb is to cover the seeds about four times their size. In other words, small seeds are most comfortable with about a quarter-HO to a half-inch of soil over them, and larger seeds, such as peas and beans, will do best under perhaps twice as much soil. If you mulch, push the mulch aside and draw a line in the soil with the blunt handle-end of your trowel. Put the seeds in the furrow, cover them lightly and press down gently. A good watering is a big help if you don't think it's going to rain Saturday night. In warm soil, the plants will emerge far more rapidly than in the spring. This is one of the rewards of summertime planting.
ROOTING AROUND: Root crops that will withstand early frosts, with the help of the warm soil packed around them, can go in now. Carrots, turnips, beets, radishes, parsnips and rutabagas are among these. Select early-maturing varieties, plant them more thinly than you would green crops, to allow for maximum root development, and thin to about two inches apart for the larger vegetables and one inch apart for the smaller ones. I like to hold off thinning anything until at least some of the root has developed so I can get those small, young vegetables -- nothing tastes better than tender young beets, or barely rounded turnips -- even for those who can't stand turnips. Finger-size carrots do well now because these mature early.
GOOD INTENTIONS: Look around your garden this weekend and see if you need more August color. Remember that most likely you won't have this much of a variety of greens next year as this year's unusual weather has provided; generally, color is harder to find in August than, say, springtime. For next year, consider morning glories in cool whites and ice blues for vine color as you head out for work in the morning. Think about vincas in blue or white adorning a trellis, or its sister flower, the Madagascar periwinkle, as a neat, flowery border. Offset the white with shade-loving impatiens in pale pink or powdery lavender, or, perhaps, a clump of zinnias where the sun is strong. Plan on putting in August-blooming day lilies this fall. They come in rich, buttery shades of apricot and yellow, and naturalize very well. Day lilies are also wonderful in poor soi, should that be a problem. Make notes of what you like in other gardens in August and plan on enhancing yours in time for next August.