It a common misperception that vegetable growing is only for early spring planting and harvest in the summer. The reality is that pretty much any veggie that can be planted in very early spring can also be planted now for fall harvest. And, as it gets later, there are even more food crops that can be planted to overwinter for growth in early spring and harvest in early summer. Those fall-planted crops are the subject of another column in the near future. Today, let’s focus on crops you can be planting now in early August.
When we hit mid-summer, the heat can drive even the most stalwart gardener indoors, and diminish enthusiasm for time in your yardscape. For those that will push through this struggle, you will be richly rewarded with a very flavorful harvest just before you put your garden plots to bed for the winter. The fact that it still light enough to see outdoors until 9 p.m., and that the temperature typically drops as dusk nears, should be a strong encouragement to be out in the garden without the sun beating down on you.
Right now, you can either direct sow, or cultivate starts indoors under grow lights and transplant them outdoors. Either is fine. There are a few simple things to keep in mind for your fall garden that will help assure your success. While we are used to having warm soil or warming mats that result in very fast germination times for seeds, high temps can work against us when planting cool weather crops. Soil that is warmer than 85 degrees is likely to slow down germination times for our cool weather friends. To assure soil temperature is below 85 degrees, the soil must be keep cool with adequate moisture. If your seed bed is allowed to dry out, or if your soil crusts over because of low moisture and a low organic-matter percentage in your growing bed, you will experience only moderate success. This is where our friends mulch and compost come in.
If you are direct sowing using seeds (carrots must be done this way), lightly mulch the soil after planting and keep it consistently moist. Again, shade goes a long way until the sun softens a bit. You can even cover your seed row with wet burlap and check for germination regularly. Once the plants appear, remove the burlap, and lightly mulch around your baby plants. With all the rain we’ve had recently, you’re probably cutting your lawn quite often. These clippings are terrific mulch for protecting your tender your plants. If you are planting seedlings, cover the soil around the plants with mulch, water generously and consider putting up some shade cloth over your planting until sun angle gets lower and the plants are not being stressed by so much direct sunlight.
What are some great candidates for planting this time of year? A general rule of thumb is all the same “hardy” vegetables that you can plant in very early spring. The USU Extension Service recommends crops such as peas, radishes, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, Swiss chard, turnips, kohlrabi, cabbage, broccoli, kale and cauliflower for mid-summer planting. They also point out it’s highly unlikely you’ll find seeds or seedlings at nursery centers for these crops in the middle of the summer, so you’ll need to plan ahead and stock up in the early spring, or use the second half of a seed packet from your early spring planting.
If you have something you want to attempt to harvest from a mid-summer planting, the first thing to check is the “days to harvest” listing on the seed packet. Today is Aug. 7. The first average day of frost in Tooele is about Oct. 15. That’s roughly 70 days away — or 10 weeks. Yes, it’s an average, meaning the first day of a hard frost could be later, but on the other hand it could be earlier. This is another reason the best candidates for a mid-summer planting are hardy crops that don’t mind those early frosts.
Not only do some of these crops do fine with frost, they generally respond positively to it. While they have their reason for a change in their plant tissues when the temperatures drop, we literally reap the benefit. Someone recently told me that their favorite vegetable is mid-summer planted parsnips. That’s because those frosts cause the plant to sweeten up the roots. The plant is doing this to over-winter and continue its life cycle the following spring. For our purpose, the plant is best harvested at the peak of its sugar content and freshness. Others I know remark how wonderful their fall harvested spinach tastes, again because of increased “brightness” in flavor.
If hard frosts do set in while your crop is maturing, you can give them frost protection by covering them until you finish your harvest. Cool weather crops actually have varying degrees of cold hardiness and are categorized as “semi-hardy” and “hardy.” Spinach, peas, radishes, lettuce, beets and Swiss chard are semi-hardy and will be damaged when temperatures dip to the mid-to-high twenties. Hardy crops, such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, carrots, turnips and cauliflower will not experience damage until temperatures drop to the low twenties. So, you’ll need to time your plantings to have the plant matured and harvested by the time the thermometer drops to levels that will damage your plants.
There’s something very satisfying about getting more out of your garden each year by planting more than once. If you’ve not done this before, why not make this the year to begin this great harvest extender?
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.