The end of August is harvest time in Western Washington gardens so celebrate the tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and squash by feasting on fresh produce and sharing the bounty with your food bank or neighbors.
Check vegetable plants daily so you can harvest at the peak of ripeness. Tomatoes are the most popular to grow crop but sweet corn may be the most rewarding as the sooner you pluck and cook the corn the sweeter it will be. This is because the sugar starts to convert to starch immediately after the corn is harvested, so if you haven’t taken a bite of home-grown corn you haven’t tasted corn at the peak of sweetness.
The best way to capture the taste is to have the pot of water boiling and the butter waiting in the kitchen before you venture out to the garden. Then grab a few ears of corn and run, don’t walk, removing the husk as you go. Immediately drop the ears of corn into the boiling water but only for a few minutes. In our area the best varieties for sweetness are Sugar Buns, Kandy Korn and Sweetness, all available in the spring from Ed Hume Seeds.
Q. How do I know when my corn is at the peak of ripeness and ready to harvest? T., email
A. Sweet corn is ready when the kernels can be poked with a fingernail and the sap is the color and consistency of milk. When overripe, the kernels are hard and the sap is thick. The silk on the end of the ears will turn brown and the pointed end will become more rounded when the final kernels mature.
Q. Why do my sweet peas stop blooming by the middle of August every year? I keep them watered and well picked but the tips begin to dry up and then the vines wither. H.H., Olympia
A. It is not your fault. The end of summer means the end of the growing season for many cool-season crops such as sweet peas. When summer flowers fade think of it as Mother Nature reminding you to visit the garden center and freshen up your floral displays with freshly-grown plant material. Look for asters, mums and foliage plants now as nurseries and garden centers restock with fall color.
Q. I love the rose of Sharon shrub in my garden because it flowers in August and September when no other shrubs are in bloom. Also the giant flowers remind me of the hibiscus I grew in Hawaii. My question is when to prune this shrub. Mine is getting too wide and I am wondering if it is possible to prune it into a tree shape with one trunk like I saw at a nursery. Also, I want you to know I love your column and have been reading you for years. M.W., Auburn
A. Thanks for reading the column. The Rose of Sharon is an old-fashioned shrub that has now been updated with better cold hardiness, bigger blooms and move vivid colors. Some of the new varieties have double rows of petals resembling roses in bloom. Rose of Sharon is a member of the hibiscus family but the type sold at area nurseries for our climate are Hibiscus syriacus, a winter-hardy cousin to the hibiscus you grew in Hawaii. These shrubs often scare gardeners in the spring as they are slow to leaf out but the late-summer flowers make up for the months of naked limbs.
As for pruning, wait until early spring when the daffodils bloom to remove no more than one-third of the branches at a time. You can shape this shrub into a standard or tree form but it is easiest to do when the shrub is young. Pick one main stem to be the trunk and stake it straight if necessary. Prune off any competing stems emerging from the ground the first year. The following year remove the lowest branches that sprout from the main trunk, again not removing any more than one third of the branches. In future years just continue the early-spring pruning by keeping the trunk free of new growth and allowing the higher branches to spread outward. The hardy hibiscus can also be used in a row as a hedge, in a large container as a specimen plant or as the backdrop for a fall and late-summer theme garden.
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Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply.
For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site, www.binettigarden.com.
Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.