August in the Northern New England garden means ripe blueberries and ripening tomatoes, fresh cucumbers every day, the first harvest of basil, a river of orange and yellow self-sown calendulas flowing through the vegetable garden. August means stepping gingerly over elephant-ear leaves of winter squash, broccoli seedlings growing on the porch rail, goldfinches pecking at sunflower heads, the fragrant flowers of summersweet blossoms, oak trees with moth-eaten leaves, acorns in the grass.
In August, goldenrod wild carrot (Queen Anne’s lace) bloom on the fringes of the garden and, in wetter spots, the flat-topped white aster flowers. Together these plants form the heart of a natural insectary along the rough edges of the garden.
Reaching into the middle of the purple raspberries to pick one perfectly ripe berry, Marjorie says, “This is what August is all about, grazing on the fruits of our labor.”
Indeed, much of our August harvest is eaten in the garden; picking berries hand to mouth is our way of entering and leaving day’s work. The strawberries of June and early July are followed in the first week of August by the peak of raspberries, both red and purple, then the highbush blueberries in the month’s second week and bunches of table grapes ripening at month’s end. When a friend asked if we planed to make wine, Marjorie said no, most of the grapes never make it into the house.
On peak blueberry days there are enough left for Lynne to make her famous blueberry buckle. Any surplus is frozen with thoughts of warm muffins in December.
Bumblebees are also grazers and they join us in the August garden, buzzing from one type of flower to another. I followed one as it crawled over the silver-blue orb of a globe thistle, sipping randomly, then vanished within the folded petals of a monk’s hood, finally taking a nip of nectar from a nearby goldenrod.
We cut stems of these three flowers, taking what the garden had to offer as a feast for the eyes; blues and yellow, a combination so appealing to the human eye. When I look at the arrangement of cut flowers, I am reminded of the bumblebee’s delight in these same August blooms.
Early-sown carrots may be ready for harvest by the end of August. Don’t pull them up, as this often results in a handful of tops with the root left behind. Instead, dig carrots with a spade or fork. Push the spade into the soil several inches from the row and push down on the handle, wedging the carrots out of the ground.
Carrots can be harvested when they reach finger size. Dig what you can use immediately and let the remaining roots continue growing. If you do harvest excess, store them in plastic bags in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator.
For a fall crop of carrots, sow seeds of a short-rooted variety in mid-August, growing the crop in a raised bed. These mid-summer plantings mature quickly in the cool autumn weather, producing tender, sweet carrots that are delicious. Suggested varieties include Baby Spike, Little Finger, Minicor, and Short’n Sweet.
Onions should be pulled from the ground as soon as the tops die back, well before the plants start sending up flowering stalks. The harvested bulbs should be cured by spreading them out in a warm, dry, airy location, out of direct sun, until the tops and outer skin are completely dry and brittle.
Once cured, the bulbs can be stored in a well-ventilated, dry, cool (but not cold) location. Store the onions in mesh bags, each labeled by variety, so that air can circulate around the bulbs. Or braid the dry tops together, always keeping a few bunches of braided onions hanging in the kitchen, handy for the winter soup pot.
When garlic leaves start to turn yellow, stop watering. A dry spell prior to harvest will aid the curing process.
Some veteran garlic growers insist that garlic should be harvested when a third to half of the leaves have turned yellow. Wait longer and the cloves within the bulb start to separate, a condition which reduces storage life of the bulbs. Other experts suggest waiting until the lower leaves start to turn brown. The only way to know for sure is to harvest a bulb when half the leaves have yellowed and cut it in half; if the cloves fill out the skin, its ready.
Always dig the bulbs rather than pulling them up; they are too deep and too well-rooted for pulling. To minimize bulb damage, use a fork rather than a spade. Damaged bulbs will not store well and should be used right away.
After digging the garlic bulbs and brushing off the clinging soil, allow them to dry for three or four weeks in an airy location out of direct sunlight. Placing them on wire racks will improve air circulation. This “curing” process is essential to prolong the storage life of the bulbs. Once the tops and roots have dried, they can be cut off.
Store your cured garlic bulbs in a cool (32 to 40 degrees F, 60 to 70% relative humidity) dark place with some air circulation. If you braid the bulbs, hang them in a cool, dry location, not in a brightly-lit kitchen.
Finally, consider setting aside a few top-quality bulbs for next season, storing them
at room temperature with fairly high humidity to prevent desiccation.
(For more seasonal gardening tips, visit the Facebook page of my upcoming book, The New England Gardener’s Year (http://www.facebook.com/negardener).