With temperatures still steamy, it’s hard to imagine cool days, but they will come, bringing a harvest of vegetables that love to grow in fall.
Most fall crops are leafy greens such as lettuce, which you can sow or transplant as late as October. If you plant now, you could also reap Swiss chard, kale, collards, endive, escarole and a long list of Asian treats, from tatsoi to mizuna. If your local nursery doesn’t come up with handy transplants, sow the seeds directly, keeping them well watered on days when you don’t get that afternoon thunderstorm.
Don’t forget the root crops. Baby beets, radishes, scallions, baby leeks and little white turnips are quick crops for fall and even winter, given the protection of a cold frame. But the champion is the cold-weather carrot. All the crops noted above taste sweeter and milder in cool weather, but with carrots the change is even more dramatic, as if those long orange roots were tapping an underground vein of honey.
Here are some tips to make a summer-sown carrot crop succeed. First, give them what I call “carrot soil” — loose, fluffy and stone-free. If your soil is clay, forking in abundant peat moss will do the trick. Carrots need an easy, unobstructed path downwards.
Make your furrows six inches apart by pressing a long, straight piece of wood (such as a thick yardstick) into the soil. That takes only a few seconds to do.
Use pelleted seeds. (Both Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Vesey’s sell Napoli seeds in pelleted form.) They’re coated with a medium that makes them larger, more visible and easier to handle, so you’re more likely to get an even spacing. Shoot for two inches apart, or just tap the seeds out of the packet and thin to that distance after they come up. Cover the seeds lightly.
Keep the soil moist until germination. This is absolutely crucial, especially in hot weather. You might have to sprinkle the ground several times a day, but once little tufts of green appear, you can be more casual.
Start sampling the carrots when they’re about five inches long, but don’t be too greedy. They are going to be so much better after a few frosts — well timed for after-school snacks, pulled straight out of the ground. You’ll want to serve them raw at every meal, but try steaming them, too, with an inch or two of green tops, so handsome on the plate.
As long as the ground doesn’t freeze you can pull carrots for most of the winter. A heavy layer of straw will protect them if a hard freeze is imminent. At the end of January they will start to re-grow, and their flavor diminish. But you can enjoy them until then, in the unlikely event that any uneaten ones remain.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and author of “The Garden Primer.”