by Marjorie R. Williams
Summer solstice has just passed and despite your best intentions, you haven’t even begun to plant vegetables yet. If this sounds like your life (and mine), don’t despair. It’s not too late to get started and still enjoy ample harvests.
First, decide whether you’re going to plant a garden bed or potted containers, or maybe both. Regardless, the important factor is soil. Keep in mind that the soil of southeastern Massachusetts tends to be acidic and that most vegetables prefer neutral to slightly “sweet” (alkaline) soil. If you’re planting in the ground, dig down about a foot and turn the soil over. Neutralize it by sprinkling in a small handful of pelletized lime. Further enhance soil by turning in composted manure and fish emulsion. Optimal soil moisture—neither too slippery nor too powdery dry—will promote seed germination. You should be able to squeeze a handful and have it hold together loosely, then crumble when worked between your fingers. Local horticultural expert Nan Sinton explains, “Ideally the soil should look like a Duncan Hines chocolate cake.”
Keep your planting area small and manageable. Container plantings are great options, but they require daily watering in the heat of summer since they’re unable to draw moisture from the earth. You can recycle barrels or other large containers, as long as they have drainage holes. Avoid placing containers on blacktop (they’ll bake), but instead put them on gravel or on your deck, and raise them slightly on pot feet or blocks of wood.
The options for what to plant are dizzying, so here are some criteria. First, what do you enjoy eating? Tailor the choices and the quantities to your family’s tastes. (Several of my friends suffer from “zucchini-induced anxiety” each summer—what to do with their excess crop after they’ve tired of every zucchini recipe and can’t persuade others to accept them as gifts anymore.) Another consideration is “days to maturity,” which indicates how much time is needed from sowing the seeds to harvesting ripe vegetables. In our area, the first killing frost is usually mid-October, but to be conservative calculate backwards from late September.
Check your seed packets or online seed catalogs for this important maturity information. Choose vegetables that will be fairly quick to mature and include those with multiple pickings, such as bush varieties of beans, zucchini, and delicata squash, where each harvesting encourages new growth. When planting mid-summer, pick crops that are heat tolerant so they don’t bolt (flower prematurely), which makes them unfit for eating. If you’ve got a small area, avoid crops that are space greedy, such as corn and pumpkins. Kathy Tracey of Dartmouth-based Avant Gardens advises, “Start small. Be successful. Get big later.”
Some tried-and-true winners for our area, particularly for midsummer planting, include:
• Tomatoes transplant well if you buy them in 1-2 gallon containers. It’s too late in the season to obtain decent six-packs. Any that you do find will probably have stunted roots. Stay away from big beefsteaks since they probably won’t ripen in time. Instead, pick smaller tomatoes such as grape and cherry varieties with shorter maturity dates. Patio tomatoes are a good bet because they’re easily grown in a container with a support stake and lots of sun, water, and food. All tomatoes thrive on manure-rich soil.
• Salad greens, such as lettuce and mesclun, perform best if seeds are direct sown. Select “summer” seed mixes since they are more heat tolerant. Salad greens can be re-seeded every two to three weeks. Don’t plant all the seeds at once. Stagger plantings throughout the summer, adding a new row each time one hits maturity. Snip greens when young and let the plants regenerate.
• Other leafy greens such as kale, Swiss chard, and collard greens are hardy and can withstand the cold. In fact, they taste best when harvested after a frost.
• Carrots and other root vegetables (such as parsnips, turnips, beets) require stone-free soil. Dig down at least 12” and remove large stones so the roots have an unimpeded path. Cover seeds with organic material, such as composted cow manure. Seeds will germinate quickly. Thin the rows of seedlings once or twice because crowded plants cannot produce good roots. Weed frequently. After the last thinning, mulch (try using seaweed for additional nutrients) to keep the weeds down.
• Bush beans are easy to grow and yield a quick crop on compact plants. Many types of beans are available as bush varieties. Bush bean plants tend to mature all at once, so make succession sowings every two weeks through early August to spread out the harvests. For the later sowings, plant seeds a little more deeply (about 2 inches). Mist the baby seedlings and give them some shade.
• Herbs thrive in containers or beds and are easy to grow. Basil works well from small transplants and likes full sun. Grow parsley and dill directly from seed. Keep the soil moist (if you mulch around the plants, they’ll need less watering) and fertilize monthly with fish emulsion. Skip cilantro since it prefers cooler conditions and will bolt when the weather is hot.
• Edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, calendulas, and pansies, add a welcome kick of color to your garden and later to your salads. They also attract pest-controlling insects and are good companion plantings to vegetables.
Once you’ve chosen what to plant, the next important decision is when. Seeds germinate in warm temperatures (approximately 68-84 degrees) but will not react well to extreme heat. Wait for prime planting conditions—ideally, temperatures in the 70s, overcast sky, and light rainfall ahead to assist germination.
Succession planting ensures a constant supply of fresh vegetables and makes maximum use of garden space. Plant crops such as lettuces, beans, and radishes in small batches at two-week intervals so that a fresh bunch of seedlings are taking root as others are ready for harvest. Another version of succession planting is to harvest one crop, and then replace it with an entirely different and fast-maturing crop. This requires planning ahead so that the combined days-to-maturity don’t exceed the remaining length of the season.
Companion planting recognizes that some plant pairs have synergistic relationships and others have negative effects. For example, dill and nasturtium make good companions for squash and cucumber. Basil makes a good companion to tomatoes. Yet, tomatoes and potatoes do not grow well together.
Interplanting is another method for making the most of crops’ low, leafy greens close to tomatoes to shade the soil and reduce evaporation.
Don’t be overwhelmed by this horticultural juggling and terminology. The best advice is to just get out there and experiment. Learn as you go. Keep a garden journal to track what works best. If you remember only one word of advice, it’s this: Water! And yet another: Begin!!
Sampling of Local Resources
Plants & Gardening Supplies
Morrison’s Home & Garden, 90 Long Pond Road, in Plymouth,
(508) 746-0970. Vegetable seeds (some organic), plants, fertilizers,
Marvin Grain & Hardware, 31 Cove Road, South Dartmouth
(508) 993-7672. Bulk seeds, organic fertilizer, compost, manure,
and garden tools.
Coast of Maine (www.coastofmaine.com) makes a variety of
high-quality organic products.
Ask your favorite garden supply store or nursery for organic
Organic Gem (liquid fish fertilizer), made in New Bedford, is 100% organic, environmentally friendly, and safe around children and pets. Local gardeners swear by this fish emulsion for increasing yields and maybe even repelling deer. Processed from converted waste from seafood processing plants, Organic Gem is suitable for fruits, vegetables, flowers, and indoor plants. Buy direct (call (508) 991-5225 or visit Advanced Marine Technologies at 33 Cape St. in New Bedford), or find it at Country Hardware (Acushnet), Sunny Nook Farm (Rochester), Wareham Seed (Wareham), and Marvin Grain (South Dartmouth). Follow directions on package for diluting only the needed quantity.
Neptune’s Harvest, another superb choice for organic liquid fertilizer, is available in fish, seaweed, and blended varieties. The family-owned seafood operation, based in Gloucester, MA, has found a way to utilize the entire catch, instead of dumping the remains after fish have been filleted for restaurants. Sold at many garden centers and nurseries, or at http://www.neptunesharvest.com. Animal manure also makes excellent fertilizer, containing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients. Adding this organic matter to your garden can improve soil structure, aeration,
and moisture-holding capacity. Composted cow manure is available at Alderbrook Farm in South Dartmouth at 1213 Russells Mills Road, (508) 636-4562, and elsewhere.
Check with the farmers at your favorite farmers’ market or farm stand for seedlings and plants.
Reprinted from edible South Shore & South Coast, Summer 2009.