In Washington in late July, the garden is becalmed. Once lush and colorful beds are in the doldrums — hot, airless and not going anywhere. And no, you can’t jump ship; it’s time to do something about it.
The growing season has weeks — months — of life left in it, and quick action now will revitalize the garden in late summer and through the fall.
Here are five easy-to-grow annuals — some edible, all decorative — that can be started from seed for a great display in a few weeks.
For about $50 in seed, you can transform your autumn world. There is an additional cost, in commitment. None of my selections can be sprinkled over hardpan clay or on top of mulch — they need weed-free, cultivated beds in sunny locations. As they grow, you will also have to water them, thin them and keep the weeds at bay. But the rewards will be great — in their beauty, their appeal to pollinators and the simple satisfaction of growing them yourself.
There are so many attractive varieties available today that it is possible to grow them (almost) as much for their ornamental value as for their deliciousness. Lettuce falls into two basic groups: looseleaf and heading. Once a looseleaf is half-grown, leaves can be cut off individually with scissors without compromising the plant or future growth and harvests, a technique known as cut-and-come-again. Heading lettuces are harvested in their entirety as needed. In these parts, fall is better than spring for growing heading lettuces such as bibb, butterhead and romaine types, which prefer to mature in cool weather.
● How to grow
Lettuces do best when grown from seed sown directly into a prepared garden bed. They will take partial shade but prefer a bright location that gets at least six hours of unshaded sunlight after midday.
Grow them in their own beds that have been dug and improved with organic matter. They can be grown in containers as well — use looseleaf for a continuous harvest. If you have room for more containers, you can try mini-head varieties such as Tom Thumb.
A bed that is 6 feet by 6 feet in area will provide a family with lettuce from early September to late November. A bed half that size is sufficient for one or two people.
Lettuce plants can be sown in blocks, but I prefer to grow them in discrete rows to keep a better track of germination, to distinguish lettuce from weed seedlings and to make spacing, or thinning, simpler.
Furrows should be straight, about a quarter-inch deep, and spaced roughly eight inches apart. Sow carefully, so that seeds come up about an inch apart. This care will reduce the thinning burdens after germination.
Germination can be spotty in warm soil, so keep the rows moist and save enough seed to go back to fill in gaps if needed.
Lettuce plants need to have enough room to avoid stunting. The gardener must thin seedlings several times as they reach maturity, which takes about eight weeks. At first, use scissors to avoid dislodging the keepers. A couple of weeks later, the next set of thinnings will be big enough to eat.
After germination, a light mulch of compost or leaf mold will help keep weeds back, but avoid heavy wood or bark mulches. A regular, light watering is essential for germination and seedling development. If a vacation is imminent, wait until you return to deal with the lettuce; there will still be plenty of time for a fall crop.
● Varieties and sources
Decorative multi-variety seed mixes are readily available, some in shades of red or lime green, or both. I particularly like Mesclun Valentine, a mix of seven red lettuce varieties by Botanical Interests; Wildfire Lettuce Mix, at least five selected lettuces from Johnny’s Selected Seeds; and Cut and Come Again, from Renee’s Garden, which has six looseleaf varieties ideal for snipping when young.
I have tried a number of heading lettuces that I like, including Rhazes and Skyphos, both small red butterheads from Johnny’s, and Little Gem and Flashy Troutback, which are available from Territorial Seed and other sources.
Any red-leafed lettuce adds drama to the fall garden; the low sun offers some striking backlighting to them. My favorites include Sea of Red, Rouge Grenobloise, Red Oakleaf, Lollo Rossa, Red Sails and Merveille Des Quatre Saisons.
If you have room, try some lettuce varieties that are particularly cold-hardy. These will shrug off light frosts in late fall and, with protection on the coldest nights, will provide fresh salad greens until the New Year. Try these varieties: Winter Density (Johnny’s and Territorial) and — from Seeds From Italy — Passion Brune, Winter Marvel, Parella Rossa and Americana Bruna.
Scarlet runner beans are a type of New World pole bean grown both for their pretty red flowers and their edible pods. Their vines are tall, lush and full of large heart-shaped leaves, and the bright scarlet blooms are not only attractive but draw hummingbirds.
● How to grow
As with lettuce, runner beans dislike our hot, humid summers. But if sown in midsummer, they will mature as the evenings cool in September. Each bean can produce a vine that is 15 feet long. It is a favored bean of English gardens, but don’t be fooled by the delicate bamboo trellising used there — the bean grows markedly more vigorously in our climate and benefits from a taller, stouter support. Use eight-foot stakes or bamboo poles for trellising or tepees, with 12 inches buried in the soil. If you don’t want to rig up a trellis, the beans can be grown on existing fences, arbors and other structures.
They need a sunny location for optimum flowering and fruiting as well as good soil and plenty of moisture — keep them watered if the weather turns dry. They benefit from an application of fertilizer, but avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, which will reduce flowering.
Sow beans four to six inches apart. Vines can be controlled by trimming the growing tips at the desired height. The pods — wide and rough to the touch — should be harvested before they get too long and stringy.
● Varieties and sources
A number of varieties have been developed, but three are commonly available — the classic Scarlet Runner Bean; Painted Lady, which is a red-white bicolor; and White Dutch Runner, with white flowers. As a legume, the bean has a pealike bloom that draws bees as well as hummingbirds. Often sold as a flowering annual rather than a vegetable, the runner bean is available in many seed catalogues, including Territorial Seed Co., Renee’s Garden, Johnny’s Selected Seed, Burpee and Seeds of Change.
The purple hyacinth bean differs from the scarlet runner bean in a couple of respects: It is a warm-season climber that laps up the heat. For the same reason, it doesn’t hit its stride until July, when hot temperatures promote vigorous growth. It can still be seed-sown now for a great display in September and October.
Unlike the runner bean, it has a highly decorative pod, a deep glossy red-purple. This hue is echoed in the blooms, which are pink-purple, and the purple stems and veins of the leaves. The mature bean is toxic, and in the parts of the world where it is eaten, it must be repeatedly boiled. Grow this easy plant for ornament alone.
● How to grow
At this time of year, seeds germinate quickly, especially if soaked for a day before planting. Vines can grow to 15 feet or more and need at least as much support as the runner bean. Grow the vines about six inches apart — thin as needed. In the fall, allow some pods to fully mature and harvest the beans for seed next year.
●Varieties and sources
There are few if any named varieties. The bean is known botanically as either Lablab purpurea or Dolichos lablab. It’s available from Park Seed, Johnny’s and the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants. In the fall, allow some pods to fully mature and harvest the beans for seed next year.
Late summer becomes a challenge for basil lovers: The plants you planted in May are getting old and want to flower, which diminishes the flavor.
Basil seed will sprout quickly and the seedlings can be transferred to herb gardens, flower beds or containers a month after sowing. This will provide a fresh and pungent source of basil for September and most of October, without the constant battle of plants getting seedy.
Most seed-grown varieties will be a type of either Genovese and Thai basil, which will grow happily until nighttime temperatures dip consistently below 50 degrees, usually at the end of October.
●How to grow
Sprinkle seeds into a pot with a seed-starting or potting mix, place the pot outdoors in an area of afternoon shade, and keep the soil moist until seeds germinate in a week or so. Once the seedlings are a few inches in height, dig them out carefully and either plant them in other pots, with individuals spaced four to six inches apart, or transfer them to garden beds. Alternatively, you can grow the seedlings in their original pot, after thinning them out. If you are adopting the second approach, sow the seed more thinly and seed more than one pot.
● Varieties and sources
There are many varieties available, some hard to distinguish from others, especially the variations on the Genovese theme. Miniature varieties form compact globes and look good, sold variously as Pistou, Boxwood, Spicy Bush and Minette. On the other end of the scale, Mammoth has leaves twice the size of typical Genovese basil, though not necessarily twice the flavor.
Sweet basil seeds are commonly available from racks at garden centers, supermarkets and mass merchandisers. The following are among seed companies with an array of varieties: Burpee, Johnny’s, Renee’s Garden, Park Seed, Seeds From Italy, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
Zinnias sprout quickly in warm soil and can reach blooming age just a month after sowing. They are bright and floriferous, providing a sea of color until frost. Large blocks illuminate tired late-season garden beds and can double as a cutting garden. If you want swallowtails and other butterflies in your garden, grow zinnias.
●How to grow
To germinate, zinnia seeds need cultivated soil in a sunny location. With a rake, scratch the soil a little to cover the seeds and then keep them moist until they sprout, in about a week. Plants should be thinned to allow six to eight inches between them.
● Varieties and sources
A raft of commercial breeding programs have produced zinnias developed for use in containers, for cut flowers, and for such general advancements as flower production, mildew resistance, heat and drought tolerance and overall vigor. Look for varieties in the Benary, Zahara and Profusion series. Mexican zinnias have narrow leaves, single blooms and form compact bushes, making them useful as bedding or ground-cover annuals. Zinnia seeds are readily available from retail seed racks. Seed mixes are available from Burpee, Johnny’s, Park Seed, Harris Seed and Renee’s.
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