I once knew a woman named Dot who lived in a seaside town and planted gardens for people. By the time she got around to her own, it was July 1, which some would call “too late.”
Dot, who also dug clams, knew that “time and tide wait for no man,” but, having no choice, she did in early July what she’d hoped to do in March or April. Somehow she always wound up with a productive garden.
Habitual gardeners rely on precise planning. But the guidelines we learn so carefully can seem more a belief system than an empirical science. “The last expected frost date,” after which the planting of most food crops is safe, is no more of a signpost than a blaze on a tree that has fallen across a trail.
Guesswork has always been a part of gardening and will remain so. Although forecasting temperature, rainfall and the like has gotten more sophisticated and perhaps more accurate, the weather itself has gotten more extreme and at times more “unseasonable.”
As a response to a life of weather uncertainty, I’ve become less attached to the idea of a gardening year, with well-defined seasons. So if you somehow never got around to spring planting, here are a few tips on how to go ahead and roll the dice.
Tormenting yourself about the non-sowing of spring peas is less helpful than ordering seeds for a fall crop, “fall” being a vague stretch of time that might, theoretically, be marked by cool temperatures. And while you’re planning for a garden that will perform from early September into November and beyond, there’s still time to stock the summer garden.
You can still sow beans, both pole and bush. In fact, any crop that you’d normally plant in succession crops will do fine. An early summer crop of summer squash is often replaced by a late summer one after the plants have begun to sprawl. Just ignore the first and plant the second.
It’s not too late to focus on the glory vegetables of summer, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Check garden centers to see whether they have leftover seedlings, which might be half price. The tomatoes may be tall and floppy, with yellow flowers and even little green fruits. Plant them deeply, burying part of the stem and removing the lowest leaves.
The great thing about tomatoes is that they form adventitious roots all along their stems, so overgrown seedlings, well watered, may still develop great root systems and bear lots of fruit. When they do, make a point of canning or freezing them. That’s what Dot did in fall, when her outdoor work lessened and the kids were back in school. In fact, she was better known for her well-stocked winter larder than she was for blowing off spring.
Greens such as lettuce and arugula, which wilt or bolt in hot weather, can be postponed until fall, though you might try a heat-tolerant lettuce such as Jericho or Nevada and see what happens. If you started greens and herbs in flats but never got around to preparing their beds, just make a salad of them and move on.
Between July and September, you can sow a variety of cool-
season vegetables, beginning with ones that take longer to produce, such as Brussels sprouts, potatoes, beets and carrots, and ending with quick greens such as mesclun mixes, arugula and Asian greens. By late summer, you can also add kale, collards and spinach — all of which (along with leeks) will join the sprouts in going well into winter.
You might designate garden beds for these late crops, covering them with a mulch such as hay, a tarp or flattened cardboard boxes, to keep the beds from growing weeds. That will also protect the soil and soil creatures from the hot sun.
Some day in December, when you reflect on the preceding months, you’ll realize how many unexpected gifts you received from your garden. A sudden rainstorm in the night that quenched the soil’s thirst and freed you from watering the next day. The tomato starts you got from a neighbor who grew too many. The edible weeds such as purslane, lamb’s quarters and wild sorrel that appeared unbidden, when you had no other green leaves for a salad.
Recently, the French have deemed their common word for weed inappropriate, knowing that even weeds can have value. Instead of mauvaise herbe, which translates to “bad plant,” some like to substitute the word adventice — a plant that simply takes advantage of a spot your garden offers. Sounds like a good name for the gardener as well.
Check that ties, labels and supports on young trees have been removed or loosened to prevent bark constriction as the plants put on their spring growth spurt. Neglected wires can seriously compromise a tree’s vascular system and long-term health.
— Adrian Higgins