Extension Educator, Horticulture
Has your vegetable garden become a scary place? The weeds are grabbing your ankles as you walk by and the neighborhood cats are disappearing. You are so frustrated you are ready to get out the mower and give up for this year. But wait, it's not too late to have a productive garden.
It may seem strange to be thinking of planting crops in the middle of the season, but there are some advantages to a late season garden. In some cases the late season vegetable garden can be less work because the soil was already prepared in the spring. Seeds are often on sale this time of year. Maybe you just have more time now than in the spring.
Many vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower grown for late season harvest are actually better quality because of the cooler weather when the heads are forming. Some vegetables such as kale, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, and Swiss chard actually develop a better, sweeter flavor after a frost.
A real plus for late season gardens is less weed seed germination. By now most of the weed seeds have germinated, especially if the soil is not worked further.
Before planting a fall garden, remove any crop or weed residue. Do not work the soil unless absolutely necessary. Plant seeds at the proper depth as instructed on the seed packet. Cover seed with vermiculite or potting soil to prevent crusting of the soil surface. Keep the soil evenly moist with frequent light sprinklings. The upper inch of soil should be kept moist at all times until the seeds germinate.
Keeping seeds moist after planting is more of a challenge in the summer. However warm soil temperatures promote rapid germination. One way to help hold moisture in seedbeds is to use a light mulch of straw or grass clippings. The mulch should be pulled back once seedlings emerge. Also watering should be less frequent but more thorough wetting of at least the top eight inches of soil once seedlings emerge.
Some vegetables for a late season garden are beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, snap beans and summer squash. These can be planted until July 20 here in central Illinois. Check seed packets for the days until harvest. Our average date of first frost is October 20, which gives us at least 100 days for crops that tolerate light frosts.
Cabbage can be direct seeded into the garden. Broccoli and cauliflower should be started as transplants. Not all garden centers will carry late season transplants or you may have to start your own now.
Other late season vegetables are kohlrabi, leaf lettuce, mustard and turnips. Leaf lettuce, mustard and spinach can be planted as late as September 5 in central Illinois.
Some crops such as cabbage, broccoli, kale and root crops can be left in the garden until the weather becomes quite cold. In the fall beets, carrots, parsnips and turnips can be mulched with straw or leaves, left in the garden and harvested throughout the winter until the ground freezes.
Don't stop planting just because spring has passed. You can still be enjoying fresh produce as you are digging out your football sweaters.