Holiday weather blues? Don’t despair, plant!

It was the best of weather, it was the worst of weather.

Memorial Day Weekend in Seattle will bring up brooding Dickensian thoughts. What should herald the start of summer here often disappoints. When all you want to do is take your kids hiking, go to a music festival, wheel off on a nice long bike ride, or simply just host a BBQ, you have to look to the skies, and judge the depth of the grey.

Why, then, would I start this post so optimistically? The best of weather, by what standards? Well, my Brussels sprouts love it.

Brussels sprouts seedlings

These Brussels sprouts, sown on May 7, got potted up to 4″ pots this week, and will be ready for the garden by mid-June.

At this stage of the year—what I call mid-spring in my catalog of mini-seasons—I am engaged in a garden tug-of-war. Part of me wants to grow the fattest red tomato on the block, so juicy it drips down my shirt. I want big pepper plants heavy with spicy pods. Some years, I even yearn for a stand of corn.

But my muscles yank me back to cool-season crops too, and possibly more to reality. Mid-spring is a time for struggle on the part of my tomato plants, and the peppers can stay under cover or fight for their survival. But it’s a glorious time of growth for cool-season vegetables. They celebrate this dreary holiday weekend weather like twirling hippies at a Phish concert.

And now, when you’re focused solely on getting those hot crops of summer in the ground, let the cool breezes of a maritime spring clue you in: time to give those long-season vegetables of next winter some love.

Tomatoes and Peppers in Greenhouse shelves

The tomatoes are getting leggy, and the peppers aren’t getting any younger in their pots. But the greenhouse shelves work great!

Here’s a quick list of what to sow now in pots for planting out in June and July:

  • Purple sprouting broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage (winter)
  • Parsnips

And here are some things to plant directly in the garden in mid-July for fall and winter eating:

  • Collards
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Kohlrabi
  • Rutabaga
  • Turnip

There are many other, shorter-season veggies that can be sown later in the summer and into the fall for fall and winter eating, but for right now, instead of trying to jump-start summer, skip over it and look to fall. Put on a Dead record and rave on with your brassicas.

Final presentation at City People’s

Many Seattle gardeners are mourning the impending loss of City People’s Garden Store on Madison, which got the land sold out from under it for the inevitable mixed-use development. It was the first nursery I used when I moved to Seattle in the mid-1980s, and I still hold it fondly in my mind. When it closes at the end of this year, it will be a major loss for city gardeners. I will miss it.

I’ve been giving a series of edible gardening talks there for years, and my last talk is coming up next weekend. On Sunday, June 5 at 11 a.m. I’ll do a seminar on starting long-season vegetables. Hope you can join me, support the store with some purchases and give City People’s a proper send-off.

What to Plant Now for Winter Harvest

It may seem crazy, but just as your cherry tomatoes are forming, it’s time to think about winter. seedlngs un traysBut 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.

Beyond the Leaf: Other Fall-planted Vegetables

If you’ve gotten some lettuce, mustards and specialty greens like corn salad

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and arugula in the ground, good for you. But there’s still time to put out some other vegetables that will feed you this fall, into the winter, or next spring.

A couple of cabbages can still be planted. Start Early Jersey Wakefield or other overwintering types within the next week, and look for a crop next April. You might still find Savoy varieties as starts in the

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nurseries, and those can be transplanted now.

Cabbages

Cabbages in March

Same with Chinese cabbage, napa

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or choi types. If this leafy Brassica takes hold and gets some size before our fall rains begin, you could be eating it this winter. If these plants are still very small by mid-October, give them an extra winter boost by covering them with a cloche.

Radishes can be started through mid September too. Short-season ones like Cherry Belle will give you roots for your Thanksgiving table. If you’ve planted winter varieties like Daikon and Black Spanish, which go in the ground late July or August, they should size up by late fall. All types will hold in the ground for harvest through mid-winter.

You can even start beets and turnips now for two crops: grow some for the greens, which you’ll be sautéing as Thanksgiving nears, and grow a row that you’ll cover for winter and harvest as small roots early in the spring. For beet greens, try Early Wonder Tall Top, and for overwintering, grow Lutz or Winterkeeper; for turnip greens, try Purple Top. Keep them under floating row cover to protect against the cabbage maggot, as the adult fly will still be depositing its eggs at the base of baby plants until our first frost.

Beet greens

Golden and Early Wonder Tall Top beets

It’s a bit late to start carrots, but in a warm, raised bed (covered in floating row cover) they would still germinate, and if they get a couple of sets of leaves on them before winter, you could keep them under a cloche for a delectable early spring crop of baby carrots. Try Merida or Yaya. There is not much coming out of the garden in early spring that is sweeter.