It may seem crazy, but just as your cherry tomatoes are forming, it’s time to think about winter. But consider the stars of our winter garden: long-season broccoli, cabbage and Brussel’s sprouts. In order to get the sprouts bulging, the cabbage head firming up and the broccoli sending out its shoots, you need to grow a plant that is fairly mature before the onset of winter. That means starting soon.
The main challenge to winter gardening in the height of summer is water. These cool-season stars need to be grown through our warmest months, and they still might be seedlings when a hot spell hits. So, a cool-season gardener must keep the warm-season vacations short.
Here are a few techniques to make this challenge a bit easier to bear:
Start in flats. Rather than sowing directly into the garden bed, sow into pots and plan to transplant. That way you can keep a closer eye on the moisture content of the soil while the seeds are sprouting — a crucial moment.
Another bonus: the plants will be mobile. You can move them to the shade if you need to be gone for an extended period during a sunny period. Better yet, if you’re planning a weekend away, deliver the tray to a neighbor who can keep an eye on them for you.
Plants you start in pots now would be ready for transplanting near the end of July.
Cover them for shade. Floating row cover, the thin, spun-bonded fabric that lets light and water through, serves in summer as an excellent shade cloth. Drape it lightly over the plants and hold down the edges with earth staples or stones as weights.
An extra benefit of this technique is that the FRC will prevent pests from messing with your plants. The cabbage moth cannot land on leaves that have been covered, so it won’t be laying its eggs, which hatch into voracious larvae.
One caution, though: don’t expect the material to solve all your woes. Slugs and snails will still be looking for your tender seedlings, so patrol the area regularly until the plants are big enough to withstand such an assault. FRC will help the soil retain moisture, too, but again, don’t expect it to do all the work. Check regularly under the fabric to see that the plants are staying well-watered.
Use plenty of compost for moisture retention and a bit of fertilization. Digging in some compost before planting will improve the tilth of the soil, and top-dressing with it after the plants have put on some good leaf growth will provide an additional layer of moisture-holding capacity.
Be aware, though, that top-dressing (spreading a modest layer of material on the surface of the soil around the plant) can get crusty in summer application, which would cause water to run off rather than soak in. Cultivate it lightly before watering if it seems to be crusting over; this will allow the water to get through.
Other things to plant now: parsnips, carrots, beets, chard, kohlrabi, collards…an amazing array of choices for fall and winter eating.
Soon it will be time to start a second or third planting of short-season crops, like lettuce and peas, for fall harvest. But for now, as you pinch tomato suckers and anticipate the first blush from a chorus line of cheery cherries, think a bit further ahead, to the tasty cool-season crops you’ll want to put on your holiday dinner table.