Our garden is late this year. We’ve had the cold weather crops in for several weeks and the rest began going in as soon as the soil temperature allowed. Even plants started in greenhouses had to wait for the soil temperature to rise to 65 or 70 degrees. Raised beds help because the soil warms more quickly, but the region received less than a third of the available sunlight in May, and it’s hard to warm the soil without sun. We got the last seeds in on June 1.
If summer is truly here, we’ll see the garden take off quickly. Summer weather means three things to the vegetable gardener—hot weather crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash and melons can go in the ground as seedlings or seeds. Seeds placed in the garden once the hot weather begins should be planted more deeply than the same seeds in cooler weather and your spring harvest should be reaching its peak.
Hot weather crops are generally from the tropics. While cooler weather will not kill them, it will almost certainly stunt their growth. A tomato plant placed out in mid-May might never recover from one or two chilly nights. It’s only now that seedlings will flourish. A collar—a cut down frozen juice can or three-inch pot minus its bottom—placed around the stem an inch above and an inch or more below the soil line can prevent tender seedling from falling prey to cutworms. Water seedlings as soon as they are planted and do not let them dry out over the next couple of weeks as they establish their roots.
Summer squash, zucchini and cucumbers can be saved from the worse ravages of squash borers and cucumber beetles by covering them with floating row covers — an inexpensive spun material that is placed over the crop and sealed around the edges with soil. Using hoops to give the vegetables room to grow, the covers can stay on until the plants begin to bloom. Even if bad bugs arrive with the pollinators, plants will be bigger and stronger, and thus able to better resist bugs and still produce a sizeable harvest. Eggplants and peppers also benefit from protection from everything from flea beetles to potato beetles that will reduce the yield, when they don’t kill the plants outright.
If you are planting seeds, put them in deeper than you would during the spring. The warmer soil and hotter days mean the seedlings will be more susceptible to drying out. Deeper roots help protect the young plants. Plant corn, beets, squash or beets a half inch deeper than indicated on the seed packet. It is even more important when replanting spring crops like lettuce or carrots. Those seeds are normally very close to the surface, making it difficult, if not impossible, to keep them moist until the early roots are established. One dry day and they die. Doubling their planting depth won’t slow them down more than a day or two, but it will help increase their survival without having to water twice a day.
All the garden work is worthwhile when it is time to harvest. In June, you can pick peas, lettuce, spinach and swiss chard, pulling the first young carrots and beets and, if you started the plants early, harvesting broccoli and baby potatoes. By July, the diligent gardener may have added corn, cucumbers, eggplants, onions, peppers, squash and tomatoes to their dinner menu. By July you may need to add more fertilizer to even the best soil. Many plants such as corn, cucumbers and melons are heavy feeders. This doesn’t mean dumping on the fertilizer but, rather, scratching a small amount into the top layer of soil a few inches from the main stem. Some gardeners prefer liquid solutions of organic or inorganic fertilizer which works well too, but don’t overdo it—too much is worse than not enough.
Keeping up with the harvest means plants will produce longer. Almost every vegetable you grow (winter squash and parsnips excepted) taste better when they are young than old. Further, most vegetables are annuals and once they go to seed, they stop producing. Picking regularly also allows you to display your generosity by sharing your excess with friends and neighbors. When the plants are exhausted—and if they don’t have any disease or insect problems—take them to your composter. That way, they will be feeding your garden next season.
The Massachusetts Master Gardener Association is putting together a compost area at the vegetable garden at Mass Hort’s Elm Bank facility, demonstrating three types of home composting. Not only does composting turn your garden and kitchen debris into black gold, it also completes the natural cycle, giving back to the earth that which came from the earth.