It might be hot enough to create a wilted spinach salad on the sidewalk, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to be thinking about planting said spinach for cooler consumption.
Even though the mercury has been hovering around 100 the past few weeks doesn’t mean it isn’t time to start planning, preparing for and possibly planting a vegetable garden for fall harvest. Gardeners can plant almost anything they planted in the spring, from lettuce to beets to carrots to broccoli to, of course, spinach, and eat well from their land, even as the leaves begin to fall.
First, go take a critical, close look at the state of your current vegetable garden, says Jennifer Smith, horticulturist with the Douglas County Extension Office, 2110 Harper St. Smith suggests getting rid of any diseased or insect-infested plants, digging out weeds and adding compost and/or other organic matter.
“If you want to till, then this would be a good time to do that, to loosen it up,” Smith says. “If you’re doing no-till practices, you’d want to dig in some compost or organic matter, get rid of any weeds that might be there.”
Next, figure out exactly what you want to plant and if you want to do it from seed, or wait until local greenhouses have starter plants available in a few weeks, says Tim Berendsen, who works at Howard Pine’s Garden Center, 1320 N. Third St.
“It’s just maybe a week or so too early (to plant),” Berendsen says. “But if you’re growing stuff from seeds, it’s time to start getting your seeds started.”
And if you do go from seeds, be extra-cautious to keep them watered — though the warmer ground temperatures make starting seeds somewhat easier, those seedlings will dry out fast and can get in trouble quick in a particularly strong heat wave, says Patrick Leach, assistant greenhouse manager at Sunrise Garden Center, 1501 Learnard Ave.
“Starting cold crops from seed is much easier in the spring, because it’s cooler. In the summer, you’re going to have to go out there and keep them watered all the time — they’re going to dry out,” Leach says. “And in the summer, the plants do tend to stretch a bit more because it’s hot, so you may not get as uniform plants as you’d like.”
Want to stretch your dollars and space, too? Successively plant them and have greens going through the first heavy frost date, which is generally mid-October, Leach says.
“Let’s say (you are planting ) spinach and lettuce — it usually takes three or four weeks to mature. So, three to four weeks before the average frost date, which is, I think, Oct. 15th or somewhere around there. If you want continuous lettuce, plant them every week and so you have a long harvesting time,” Leach says.
It’s possible to overwinter some crops, says Smith, who suggests keeping those crops warm when the temperature drops with a mulch of straw, prairie hay or chopped leaves. Some of those winter-hardy crops like turnips actually may get a bit sweeter with a frost on them, she says.
Don’t think you’ll be able to deal with a fall crop? Now’s the time to think about seeding a cover crop for the winter — something that will fix nitrogen in the soil and protect it from erosion.
“Absolutely, this is the time to think about a cover crop,” Smith says. “A lot of those things also (should) be seeded about now and into mid- to late September. I really like buckwheat and annual rye grass.”