Second Summer Gardening

Timing the garden is hard. Planting out tomatoes and peppers has to be done when the nights are no longer cold and all danger of frost has passed. You start getting excited when the first warm days of April come, but it’s still too early. Around here it is late April to early May, but some people still wait until Mothers Day. And then, all of the sudden, it is June, and the weather is a steady dose of “hazy, hot, and humid”, and the time for planting is over.

Well… not really.

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Here in Virginia, zone 7, we can have two plantings of summer vegetables. A second planting of tomatoes, melons, squash, cucumbers, to keep you in hot weather veggies up until frost. Yes, technically a tomato plant will bear until frost. But one planted in late April will just be done by early September. For me at least, it will either be overtaken by blight, knocked over in a severe thunderstorm, or just be tired and have given up on life. You can do multiple plantings of corn and beans of course, too.

The time to be planting the late summer garden is now. Late June and early July is ideal because the plants need to be a good size before the days shorten and growth slows down. So even though you have yet to harvest a tomato or cucumber, it is time to plant another batch.

Where to put all this? Peas, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and onions should be finishing up so when those get pulled, some people put in new summer planting’s. I do not. I need that space to replant all those things for the fall garden in late July! That means that to get your second summer veggies in, you have to have empty space ready now. Maybe you could fit something super quick in early in the season like radishes. But I just have space waiting in the same area. My row of tomatoes has four spots waiting, my melon patch has a full empty row, etc.

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Now for a little crop by crop overview of vegetables that are a good candidate for a second summer

Tomatoes- They need to begin by the fourth of July for our area.  They can be direct sown in late June, or you could go through the whole seed starting in tray process in early June.  OR, you could do the easy thing and root some cuttings in a cup of water and then plant in the moist soil as soon as roots appear.  People may wonder what in the world you are doing with tomato branches cut like they are flowers, but oh well.

A smart person would probably grow MORE tomatoes as their fall crop so that they can they do their canning when it is a little cooler.  I have never done this, and get too excited in the spring to hold back. (Actually, a smart person would probably buy canned tomatoes.)

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Who needs sunflowers when you have tomato leaves?  Me!   Speaking of…

Sunflowers- Branching sunflowers, despite being inferior to single stem sunflowers in most ways, have the distinct advantage of putting out many flowers over the course of the summer.  They don’t do so forever, though, and a second planting is beneficial.  They should be direct sown, and you may want to plant darker, more autumnal colors.  I like Chianti, Autumn Beauty, and Soraya for late summer and fall.    (Do some more zinnias too!  White, red, yellow, no pink.)

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Melons- Full size watermelons are around 100 days to maturity, so planting them mid June will give you late September melons.  Plenty of time.  Smaller ones (Little Darling is THE BEST), are more like 70 days and will bear in late August.  They take up so much room, so make sure you have left a good amount of space.  They are direct sown also.

Cucumbers- They will get huge too, and can actually benefit from three plantings over the summer as they mature so quickly.  You will want to space out pickling cucumbers too, because refrigerator pickles are the only acceptable pickle and you will want them for as long a time as possible.

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And two plants that are a month behind:

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Corn- Corn is a bit trickier because two different types cannot be maturing at the same time as the seeds will cross and affect the taste.  (This is because you are eating the seed part, unlike with other vegetables).  So you can either plant one kind and stagger it, or be sure that your other varieties will be at least 2 weeks apart in maturity.  A simple plan would be to plant twice, two different varieties each time.  For example:

May 1st, plant American Dream (75 days, matures July 15th) and Silver Queen (93 days, matures August 4th)

June 20th, plant American Dream (matures September 5th) and Silver Queen (matures September 23rd) again

Remember it must be planted in blocks, so this will take a lot of room.

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Pumpkins- Not a second planting, just the only planting.  A May 1st planted pumpkin will mature in August.  No thanks.

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And one month from now it will be time to put in the fall garden!  Yes, this is a whole different thing.

It is really not that much work to put these things in a second time, and you will be SO glad you did in September.  Just think of it as one more chance to get it right.

Have a good weekend!

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Growing Crunchy Lettuce

My husband is the worlds pickiest adult eater. He does not eat any type of lettuce other than romaine or iceberg, so that is all we grow. And let me tell you, it is not easy to get crispy “grocery store” lettuce. This may be something you just buy. But there are 1000 seeds in most lettuce packets, which cost about four dollars, so it is certainly worth the trouble if you can get it right.

Here is how I do it.

1. Choose the right variety.

All those beautiful spring mixes and leaf lettuces, in different shades of purple and green? They are lovely, but they will never be crunchy. They are a whole different animal. For crunch, pick a romaine, iceberg, or butter crunch.  Right now I am growing “Paris” romaine and “Igloo” iceberg.

And think of when you want them, and how many. You do not want dozens maturing at once (unless there is a large Caesar salad party planned, in which case you are under a lot of pressure). Start a few seeds every week or two.

2. Start seeds indoors.

I prefer to start all seeds in seed trays if they are ones that will transplant well. The seeds are very tiny and they come up quickly in the fine seed starting mix, much easier than they would in heavier garden soil. There is no thinning or going out to the garden to keep the soil moist until they germinate. Starting them inside just keeps things more in your control.

I start them inside, on a heat mat. Once they have germinated, I move them outside almost immediately. I am not paying to run a grow light for lettuce. Also this way they get plenty of sun and harden off naturally.

(If you have fine soil that makes a nice seedbed, and can grow lettuce all through the summer and therefore can plant it when the soil is warm, then you might as well direct sow.  But we have heavy soil and weather that heats up quickly once summer hits.)

3. Plant them in the right spot.

Lettuce prefers sun but cool weather, so I am only able to grow it in the spring and fall.

Give each lettuce plant at least one square foot.  (Bring a ruler to the garden, it is hard to judge.)  Since they are relatively quick to mature and the whole plant is pulled at the end, they are a nice crop to fill in empty spaces that will be taken up later.

They like plenty of water. They are watered with the drip line and I also water them with the watering can whenever I have it out. There is no crunch without water!

4. Wait for maturity

After a few days of settling in, your transplants will start to grow. New leaves will appear almost daily. They will look soft, floppy, and you will be sad. Don’t be sad! They are not what you will eat, anymore than you would eat the green branches of a tomato plant. Be patient.

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(Still babies!)

60 to 90 days later (check your seed packet), it will be time. There will be a true “heart” in the center of the plant. It should be firm when you squeeze it.

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(See the distinctive heart in the center?  This one is ready.)

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(This one too, an iceberg with a firm round heart.)

5. Harvest correctly.

It must be done in the morning, while it is still dewy. Pull the whole lettuce plant.

There will be a lot of extra leaves on the outside that you don’t want.  Only the heart is crunchy.  No one in my family eats the softer, greener leaves.  Not even thechickens.  I so I compost them, and save only the heart.

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(Yucky stuff on the left, heart on the right.  The lighting is weird because I did this at five in the morning!)

The hearts go right in the fridge, in a ziplock bag with a few holes poked in it.  You just saved yourself a whole dollar. (…)

I am not going to tell you that you will be amazed by the taste and quality. It tastes pretty much like lettuce from the store, just very fresh. And that, my friends, is a victory.

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May Harvest

Two beautiful words that don’t really belong together. The garden is so full as cool weather and warm weather plants are both in. And what is there to harvest? Very little, at least in my garden.  Some people are good about extending the harvest, which is something I need to work on.  But for now, there is not much available fresh.

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(Not yet.)

The only things I could eat out of here are cilantro, spinach, and green onions. In a few years I hope to have a productive strawberry and asparagus patch, and I guess that is what will tide me over for these months. Leaf lettuce would be ready around this time too, but I don’t grow any, because someone in our house will only eat romaine and iceberg.  Most cool weather plants around here won’t be ready until mid to late June. (Maybe even July since this year we got to a late start.). They are at least up and growing well, the peas, onions, broccoli, potatoes, and lettuce.

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(Nope.)

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(Closest to being ready, but no.)

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(It sure doesn’t look like much for how much work it takes.)

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(You can hardly see any plants here, but they are there.)

And as far work goes, there is a lot of it.  I put one thing in a day to avoid burnout.  Baby seedlings need to be, well, babied, making sure they are watered in and kept weed free, since it is hard for them to compete at this young age. I still have some things yet to do, like melons and a second corn planting.  By the time that is done, it will be time to put in fall-harvested things.  The weeds are happy and flourishing in the warm days and cool nights, so it is a constant battle. The second planting of carrot seeds need to be watered twice a day until they germinate, and then they have to be thinned. The first planting has some nice ferny looking leaves, but nothing else.  It is all work and and no reward.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a bountiful May harvest here. It’s just a harvest of a different nature.

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These were planted by previous owners, and we have not done a thing for them, except water them very rarely in dry spells. Past the gate is the old house, chicken coop, raspberry and blackberry patch, and the Pinecone Forest, where the kids like to play.

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We are collecting eggs by the dozen, having to give them away.  Any poor soul who stops by our house is forced to take a carton.

And wildflowers everywhere.

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Some things are all reward, no work.


Foolproof Flower Pots

This is not the way to have amazing, professional looking flower containers like the ones you see at Disney World.  It is how to have flowerpots that do not look completely silly.

I just love flowers in containers on porches, decks, walkways, steps. They’re in the book “A Pattern Language” as something that makes a home feel right, and so they do.

But mine have always looked dumb. Mismatched, odd color schemes, looking exactly like what they were… the result of grabbing a bunch of things and mixing them together.  Every year I would find “inspiration flower pots” and what was available at stores would not match up with the inspiration at all.

For five years I only did red, white, and purple petunias. So I guess that looked okay, but boring.

Last year I did red white and blue but changed the plants. Stupid looking.

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That is just awful, and why I took a picture of it, I will never know.

One year I did yellow and hot pink. Yuck.

Yes I know the advice, “thriller, spiller, and filler”, which always results in something like this:

No thank you. Actually this one looks okay compared to most of the spiky plant ones.

And then, while watching the show “Escape to the Country”, (sort of a British “House Hunters”), and admiring the containers, I noticed something.

Those British geniuses plant one type of flower per container. One. Then they are arranged in groups. So one pot of all white petunias, one pot of red geraniums, one pot of some weird leafy thing. And when they are arranged, they look natural and beautiful.

I was further inspired by how they looked on my porch, waiting to be arranged.  Pretty good.

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So this year I gave it a try. I was able to pick out whatever flowers struck my fancy. They sort of coordinated, but I didn’t worry about it too much. I put some herbs in too.  Each got it’s own pot.

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As they grow, they will look better and better, spilling over the sides, and the basil in the bigger pots will give it some height.

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The more interesting flowers can stand alone and look lovely, instead of making a mixed planting look busy.

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The small pot has blue lobelia that I started indoors, and looks like it will bloom in approximately 100 years.

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Even the mudroom entrance got some.

And at last, I have flower pots I can be proud of! Or at least not embarrassed by. They will look better as they fill in a bit more.  And if I find that I need more contrast, more height, whatever, I can buy more plants, pot them up, and rearrange.

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Plant Tomatoes When the Dogwoods Bloom

Dogwood bloom? Dogwood blooms? The word dogwood now seems very weird.

Anyway, the time is here! It tends to be about two weeks after the average last frost date, and when nights are consistently in the 50s.  An overcast day is best so that they don’t get stressed and dried out after being transplanted.

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My tomatoes were taking over the house and it was such a good feeling to get them in the ground. They are also losing their dark green color which means they are hungry.

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How I plant them:

I set my cages three and a half feet apart, in rows three feet apart. I stagger the cages in a checkerboard pattern so there is a lot of air movement on all sides of the tomato plant. I do this because my mother in law told me to and she is the tomato master.

I always set up the cages first. It just helps me make sure everything is in the right spot before I get started. I loosely set them in the ground, then after I plant the tomato I set them in firmly. I have planned for 15 tomato plants this year, so naturally I have 11 cages and about 25 plants. The big cages came with the house when we bought it, which was great. I think they are some type of fencing rolled in a circle, and they are perfect. The little green ones I bought, and they are too small and I’ve already broken one.

After setting the cages, I take down the one I am working with and dig a wide, deep hole. I lay them down on their sides so that a majority of the stem is buried.  I snip off any branches that will go underground, just using my nails.  Roots will grow all along the stem and make for a stronger plant. The plant will look short and you will think how depressing, but in no time it will bounce back.

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This year I planted:

2 Celebrity (a classic looking red slicer)

2 Early Girl (a smaller, early red slicer)

2 Sungold (a very sweet orange cherry)

2 San Vincente (a red cherry, new to me this year)

2 Brandy Boy (a hybrid somehow related to Brandywine. It’s my favorite for taste, but gets a lot of cat facing.)

2 Madame Marmande (very beautiful red slicer)

2 Supersauce (a large Roma, good for canning)

1 Striped German (an heirloom that is beautiful but a little bland in my opinion)

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I asked Camilla to run into the house for pen and paper so I could write down what tomato went where, and this is what she returned with:

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But make sure you label them as they go in, because even though you think you will remember what goes where, I promise you will not.  I have mine mapped out on the back on an envelope.  I have forgotten for two days now to go actually mark them in the garden and live in fear of losing the envelope.

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All done! When the tomatoes are in, it feels like garden season is really here. The peas and broccoli don’t really count.

Now we just have to find a home for these guys.

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I’ll update as the season goes on to review the varieties and record the yield.

Happy weekend!

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