Well, summer sure came with gusto last month. Things are finally heating up, and I’ve noticed my watermelons vining in exuberant celebration. Be sure to send your gardening questions, to be answered next month, to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to ward off summer bugs
It’s so hot and buggy, I don’t really like being in my garden right now, but it needs a lot of love. What do I do?
We are human animals, and gardening can be difficult because of heat, bugs, sun and general skin irritation from soil and plants. There’s no need to give up or get discouraged by these realities; just get prepared. Also, there’s no need for heroism. It’s worth the time, effort and potentially dorky appearance to take care of your body so gardening can feel comfortable and sustainable.
My first piece of advice is to garden in the mornings and evenings, and do something indoors or in the shade during the heat of the day. Sometimes you have to work out in the noonday sun; if that’s the case, plan a dip in a river, a shower or a run through the sprinkler right afterward to cool down. Bring cold water or another chilly beverage with you, preferably in an insulated container so it stays cool as you work.
What you wear in the garden has a big impact on comfort. I rarely enter the garden without a sun hat, even in the winter. There are many kinds from which to choose, and it’s worth trying a few to see what’s comfortable. Baseball caps are quick and easy and can be stored without getting smooshed, but they don’t shade your shoulders or neck. Wide-brimmed straw hats provide maximum shade but can be cumbersome in windy conditions and need to be hung up. Doughnut-shaped hats are great for buns or ponytails because they provide more airflow through the doughnut hole.
If you look at agricultural fields in some parts of the world, you will see people covering themselves completely no matter the temperature. Lightweight cotton fabric protects us from sunburn, abrasion by plants and heat. I love getting inexpensive flowy or flowery button-up cotton shirts from thrift stores, so I don’t feel bad when they get dirty and ripped. On really hot days you can dunk your long-sleeve shirt in water, wring it out slightly, and then put it back on for a low-tech air conditioner effect. Covering up with loose clothing is my favorite way to deter biting bugs, but sometimes bug spray is helpful, especially for ankles and wrists.
In her book The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe talks about bringing a folding cot out to the field when she’s harvesting potatoes. I love this idea! If we hope to be gardening into our 60s and beyond, like Deppe, we need to pace ourselves and make sure to rest. Designing a bench or swing in a shady spot is one great way to incorporate a rest space. Or lie down in a garden path for a moment and watch the clouds go by.
Too late to plant?
I’ve got some space opening up in my garden where I harvest beets, carrots and cabbage. Can I plant anything in their place, or is it too late?
Midsummer is actually the perfect time to sow seeds for many fall and winter crops. These veggies get started while it’s still hot and finish their cycles when the weather gets cool. Fall gardening can be easier and less stressful than in the spring and summer. Crops that wither in summer’s heat can thrive and grow sweeter as temperatures dip.
I’m sorry to break this news, but it is too late to start tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers, squash or eggplants. Botanically, these are fruits, and they need warm temperatures to ripen.
The best vegetables for fall gardening are greens and root crops. Dozens of tasty and nourishing greens, herbs and root crops brighten fall and winter tables. Some of these will need to be planted soon, but others can wait until mid to late August or September. If your recently vacated beds are going to hang out empty for a while, I suggest covering them with straw, dry leaves or another kind of mulch to protect the soil and prevent weeds. Then when you’re ready to sow or transplant fall crops into them, they’ll be ready to go.
Here are some fall crops to try that should be sown in pots or flats now: chicory, radicchio, kale, collards, broccoli, cabbage, and kohlrabi. Carrots, turnips and winter peas (field peas, great for a cover crop and for tasty pea shoots) can be sown now but need to be kept well-watered. Fall root crops germinate much more quickly in warm summer soils.
Other vegetables that can be sown a little later are: arugula, Asian greens, cilantro, radishes, mustard greens, lettuce, pea greens (can be sown as late as early September) and garlic in October and sometimes in November.
To get more in-depth information and video-based instruction on fall gardening, check out Wild Abundance’s free course: Summer Planting for Fall and Winter Harvests.
Demise of tomato plants
The lower leaves of my tomato plants are turning yellowish and then brown and black and curling up. What’s going on and what can I do?
Oh, the beloved tomato — so very sunny and generous and so prone to disease. The best way to diagnose plant diseases is to contact representatives of your local cooperative extension offices for assistance. They can help figure out the problem and assist you in sending a sample to the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic in Raleigh, if necessary. I live in northern Buncombe County and generally go to the Madison County office, but every county in North Carolina has an extension office.
I will wager a guess that you’re dealing with tomato late blight, though it’s a little early in the season for it to be in full swing. Late blight is caused by the oomycete pathogen Phytophthora infestans (P. infestans), which lives in soil, splashes onto plant leaves and thrives in warm, moist conditions. This plant sickness is best known for causing the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, which killed over a million people and caused another million to leave the country. Potatoes and tomatoes are cousins in the botanical family Solanaceae, so blight can get them both.
For late blight, my best strategy is to cut off infected leaves and compost them at the edge of the garden or farther. Be sure to wash your hands and any tools you use in warm soapy water and/or alcohol after discarding infected leaves, so you don’t spread the blight.
Prophylactic approaches include planting late-blight-resistant varieties (I like West Virginia 63), making sure your tomatoes are spaced and located for good airflow, trellising or otherwise supporting plants so they’re off the ground, mulching heavily to avoid soil contact, growing tomatoes in a hoop house or greenhouse and spraying with copper throughout the growing season. If you choose to use a spray, be sure you’ve got one for tomatoes and read the directions carefully. While copper products are approved for use in organic growing, they can be toxic if overapplied.