Next to a knack for creating great soil, the most important skill in gardening is timing. Everything you do seems to be framed by the two great questions: “Is it too early?” and “Is it too late?”
A friend confided that he’s just now starting his parsnips, a task most of us got out of the way in early spring, if we started any parsnips at all. He’s sowing them in flats and then transplanting them — again, not the way it’s usually done. But I once did exactly that with some too-late salsify and still got nice roots, a bit small but tasty. And sowing in flats is more foolproof at this time of year, when summer heat makes germination iffy. He’s also getting around to sowing Brussels sprouts, at last. They won’t be pickable until after frost, but that’s when they taste best anyway.
It made me think about all the things I meant to start this year and didn’t. There are still a few empty beds left for pole beans. I think I could easily get some to bear an early fall crop. I might even sow some bush beans as well, for freezing. And stick in a few late zucchini.
I do want to make sure there are some empty spaces for fall crops, and it’s not too early to start thinking about those, even if it’s a little soon to plant them. The day for sowing late carrots is a day I don’t want to miss, because it will guarantee many months of fine winter eating, the best carrots of the year. But I’ll wait until at least mid-August, gently watering the soil surface, at least daily, until the seeds have germinated. I’ll sow fall kale about then, too, and some successions of arugula, baby leaf salads and other cool-weather greens in the weeks to follow.
Timing for fall or winter harvest is tricky, because with increasingly short, cool days it’s the opposite of spring. But like anything in gardening it becomes instinctual after you’ve been at it for a while, and you watch for certain signs and signals. For me, a red flag is waved when the roadside day lilies start to bloom. “It’s summer for real,” they announce. “Did you order seeds for fall?”
There are plenty of “too lates” in gardening. If a snapdragon plant falls over, it will grow upward, creating an unattractive right angle, wrong for any bouquet. If a leek plant is left to continue growing too long in late winter, as the days lengthen, a flower stem will form at its center, creating a hard, inedible core. Only by being in the garden physically and frequently will you know to stake the flower or harvest the leek in time — unless you never got around to planting the garden this year at all. Fortunately, it is not even too late for that. A good garden center might even have a few tomato plants left, in large pots. Perhaps you’ve never planted a garden ever, period. Again, neither in the season nor in your life is it too late at all.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Tomato plants need even moisture and a source of calcium to avoid a fruit-destroying condition called blossom end rot. Work bonemeal, limestone or washed, crushed eggshells into the soil around plants to provide sufficient calcium. Remove lower leaves disfigured by early blight.
— Adrian Higgins