The same hot weather that brings out the best in tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and other summer vegetables makes spinach, lettuce, peas, and other cool-weather vegetables tough and bitter.
Midsummer weather makes the prospect of cool weather seem remote, but of course such weather will return. Now might be a good time to plan for and begin planting vegetables that thrive in autumn weather.
Growing autumn vegetables is like having another whole growing season in the garden.
Cool, moist weather, even with temperatures dipping below freezing, brings out the best flavor in vegetables such as kale, broccoli and carrots. And the fall harvest season is long because, with short days, there’s no danger of such vegetables as spinach and Chinese cabbage bolting to seed. Broccoli and cauliflower buds stay tight, patiently awaiting harvest.
FIRST, THREE VOWS
Before planning for a delectable harvest of autumn vegetables, take three vows.
The first is to maintain soil fertility. Autumn’s predominantly leafy vegetables are heavy feeders, and your garden has already had one growing season, so apply fertilizer and liberal amounts of compost or other organic matter to the soil.
Second, don’t forget to water. Seedlings beginning life in midsummer can’t get enough water otherwise through typical summer heat and drought. Natural rainfall and cooler temperatures will lessen or eliminate watering chores as autumn approaches.
And third, spend a few minutes weeding on a regular basis throughout the season. Summer weeds take up space that you could use for fall vegetables. They also compete for water and nutrients.
To figure out when to sow autumn vegetables, look on seed packets for the “days to maturity.” Cool weather and shorter days are going to dramatically slow growth as fall approaches, so count on any vegetable being ready for harvest around the time when cooler weather settles in in earnest in your area, and days become regularly cooler. For vegetables that are usually transplanted, add four weeks, which is the time they would need to grow to transplant size.
Depending on how soon autumn weather arrives at your garden gate, now or soon may be the time to sow broccoli, endive, winter radishes, cabbage, carrots, beets and parsley, all of which need a relatively long season to mature. Sow these seeds directly in the garden, in containers, or in a separate, small nursery bed, then transplant them to their permanent homes in a month.
Follow that first wave of planting a couple of weeks later with sowings of lettuce, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, kale and collards. Check the days to maturity for Chinese cabbages because some varieties take only 50 days to mature while others take much longer.
This first sowing of autumn lettuce should be the first of many. Every two weeks until about a month before the average date of your first frost, sow small amounts, and you will have a continuous supply of tender leaves for your salad bowl.
Whole rows of any vegetables in this second planting might follow earlier plantings of bush beans or sweet corn, or you can sow in containers for transplanting three weeks later. The nice thing about using containers is that there’s no need to plant a whole row at once — you can tuck plants here and there as space becomes available.
A third wave of autumn planting comes when cooler weather has begun to settle in, perhaps where you have gathered up mature onion and garlic bulbs or dug out cucumber vines that have finally succumbed to bacterial wilt. Sow directly in the ground seeds of spinach, mustard, arugula and turnips. Also plant small radishes, the kind you normally sow in spring.
Local seed racks are often cleared out after midsummer. If so, or if you seek varieties that are unavailable locally, order seeds by mail.
Lee Reich writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press. He has authored a number of books, including “Weedless Gardening” and “The Pruning Book.” He blogs at http://www.leereich.com/blog. He can be reached at [email protected].