Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
It feels like we got an extra dose of the dog days of summer this year. Sometimes our enthusiasm for gardening wanes a bit when faced with days and days of hot humid weather. I am no exception.
On a typical day when I'm out watering plants after work, I get pretty sweaty. That is an understatement considering my 11 year old neighbor asked why I had taken a shower already one hot afternoon as I was watering my plants.
Unfortunately, I hadn't taken a shower-- it was just too hot to be doing anything remotely resembling work in the garden that day. As much as I love my garden, this time of year I think it's tough to be a gardener.
If you are a flower gardener, you are faced with endless chores of watering and deadheading. Vegetable gardeners are waiting anxiously for signs of the first ripe tomato or melon. Both groups are hoping the Japanese beetles don't eat absolutely everything in the garden.
Generally speaking, we aren't planting many new things in the garden this time of year. We're just in a pattern of watching and waiting. But it is possible, if you consider that fall really is a whole other season in which to garden. We are not limited to spring and summer.
If you want to have a fall garden, the time to act is now, and your window of opportunity will close soon. If you are a vegetable gardener, mid-July through about mid-August is the time to sow cool weather crops like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Personally, I prefer these vegetables when they are grown in the fall. As the nights get cool, their flavor gets sweeter. A light frost actually helps release sugars from the cells in the plant, which makes them taste sweeter.
Other cool season crops you can plant as we move towards fall are lettuce, turnips, collards, carrots, peas, radish, and spinach. All will tolerate cool fall temperatures well. Green beans, though considered a warm season crop, may be planted for fall harvest since they mature quickly. Most varieties of green beans mature in 50 to 60 days, so as long as you get your seeds planted by mid-August, you should be able to harvest beans before frost.
It is also possible to extend your vegetable gardening season by using floating row cover and cold frames with cool season crops. Both will help hold in the day's heat during chilly fall nights.
Some of you will remember the "salad table" I have written about in past columns. This table height growing container does a great job of growing various greens. The first year we used it, my husband and I weren't ready to give up fresh lettuce as soon as freezing temperatures came.
In its first incarnation, my husband built a wooden frame that we covered with a clear sheet of plastic. It looked like a little tent that fit over the top of the salad table. He attached it to the salad table with hinges along the long side. This made it easy to harvest our lettuce, but also to provide ventilation when the table heated up on sunny days.
The little tent worked great for extending our lettuce growing season. We had fresh lettuce on our Thanksgiving table, and it wasn't until January that we had to surrender to the cold weather. We had the table planted and ready to go again in March thanks to the tent. We removed the tent for the summer.
The original tent was destroyed in a storm last year. It was ripped off and twisted into an unidentifiable tangle of plastic and wood. The new version of the tent is built using the flexible plastic tubing used to run hot water through heated floors. It is rigid enough to act as a frame, but flexible enough to be bent into half circles to form the backbone of the tent. The whole thing is covered again in plastic. I know we are just asking for trouble again. But we only lost one tent in 5 years, and it extends our season so much. It's worth the risk in my opinion.
Fall gardening also includes flower gardens. Just a few pansies, mums, asters, snapdragons or ornamental kale will help brighten up the garden after a long hot summer. And many will keep flowering even after light frost. I even had a pansy surprise me with a flower during a brief "warm up" one winter!
This is also the time to plan your spring bulbs. It seems early to be thinking about planting spring bulbs, but now is the time to take advantage of early bird specials. Several catalogs have arrived at my house already advertising everything from free bulbs to significant discounts if orders are placed before a particular date.
Fall is also a great time to plant perennials. The soil is already warm, unlike the cold clammy soil in spring. The garden is in a "mature" state, so you can see if you really have the room you think you do for a particular plant. I am just as guilty as anyone in cramming too many plants into too small a space. It's easy to think you have more room than you do when the garden is just waking in the spring.
The key in getting fall planted perennials to survive the winter is timing and mulch. The plant's roots need to grow and establish sufficiently before winter sets in. Though the ground doesn't typically freeze in this area until December or January, the cold temperatures slow plant growth, including roots.
The safest advice to follow is to plant your perennials no later than September. That way, temperatures are still warm enough to promote good root growth before cold weather hits.
Another point to remember in planting fall perennials is mulch. They need a little extra mulch for the winter, applied in late October or November. Just be sure to remove it in the spring.
I learned my lesson several years ago when I refused to follow my own advice, partly because I found a great deal on some perennials. I didn't plant them until early October. The other piece of advice I ignored was mulching the plants well. We have problems with voles moving into our flower beds and eating our perennials in the winter, and extra mulch is like an engraved invitation to the vole community.
Well, I think I learned my lesson, at least for now. Only two plants out of six survived the winter. The next year I finished all my fall planting just a few weeks sooner, in September, and didn't have a problem with anything surviving the winter. Some of what I planted were the things that had not done well the previous year, proving to me that timing is everything in fall planted perennials.