What to plant next?

It’s counterintuitive, to me, to think about planting new vegetables in August, when heat and humidity typically overpower even the most enthusiastic gardeners.

But one of the blessings of gardening in Zone 7b is that it seldom gets so cold (polar vortices notwithstanding), that we can’t work the soil. We don’t get much snow. And root crops and greens can be harvested all winter long, assuming the gardener gets them started and into the ground at the right time.

seed packets of winter vegGreens like lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, collards, mustard greens, and Asian greens can be started now. It’s a bit early for spinach–I expect temperatures to zoom back over 90 at any time, so I’ll wait until after Labor Day to start that crop. Transplants of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage can be set out. Root crops like carrots, turnips, radishes, and beets can be sown as well. Planting those at the feet of taller crops like tomatoes or beans makes good use of restricted space.

And speaking of tomatoes and beans, I still have time to get a final crop of those in, if I have a variety that matures in under 80 days. My average first frost is around October 20.

An important tip I’ve learned in recent years is that after the midway point of the season, it’s critical to add extra days to the time-to-maturity of a given crop, to allow for the increasingly shorter day lengths. The amount of time is a matter of trial and error and observation, but you might start with a week or ten days at this point and make notes from there. So, for example, if I’m looking to get a crop of tomatoes before October 20, I should count back the days-to-maturity from October 10 or 13. Fortunately, my ‘Sophie’s Choice’ tomatoes mature in 55 days, which should be plenty of time. Many varieties of bush beans and cucumbers also mature in under 80 days.

There are many online calendars that can help gardeners find what to plant when.

  • If you’re not sure of your USDA hardiness zone, The Vegetable Garden’s site will help you and then point you to a calendar suited to your area. The site also has links to all US Cooperative Extension websites, where you can further narrow your search and find resources tailor-made for your area.
  • Almanac.com’s planning calendar is a good general guide, but you’ll need to know your first and last average frost dates and be able to take your soil temperature.
  • Extension.org gathers research and best practices from US land-grant colleges via their cooperative extension services.
  • A simple internet search of “month by month” planting calendars may yield additional results, but bear in mind that they may not be appropriate to your gardening area.

For a successful harvest, use guidelines published by your local extension office. The resources are free and extension master gardeners are available to help you.

 

Summer peach salad

It’s a dreary, gray day today, but a visit to the farmers’ market brought all the color my eyes could want.

cherokee purple tomatoes

silver queen corn

I had never seen pink oyster mushrooms before.

pink oyster mushrooms

And hurrah! It’s peach season.

peach pyramid

I’m fixing my favorite salad for lunch. Here’s the recipe.

Salad with Summer Peaches

  • 2 cups leaf lettuce and/or mixed greens
  • 1 ripe peach
  • 1 T roasted pumpkin seeds (unsalted)
  • 1 T dried cranberries
  • 1 T crumbled queso fresco
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 2 Tsp red wine vinegar
  • kosher salt
  • black pepper

Wash the lettuce and greens and tear or cut them into bite-size pieces. Wash and halve the peach, removing the pit, then dice the peach. Add the peach, the pumpkin seeds, the cranberries, and the queso fresco to the greens.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil and red wine vinegar. Add kosher salt and pepper to taste.

Drizzle the greens mixture with the olive oil dressing (you may not use all of the dressing). Mix well but gently, using your hands to ensure a thorough coating.

Enjoy with a piece of crusty bread.

Summer peach salad

Tropical punch: Ground cherries offer strong flavor in a tiny bite.

ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa)

Related to tomatoes, and more closely to tomatilloes, the ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) goes by many names, including ground tomatoes, husk cherries, and cape gooseberries.

The fruits grow under the plant’s large leaves, encased in a thin calyx that dries to a crispy, papery husk. The husk and fruit fall to the ground when they are ripe (hence the name).

husks and fruit

Ground cherries grow encased in calyces that turn brittle when the fruit is ripe.

Large fruits measure about the size of an adult woman’s thumbnail, with a texture resembling a firm grape, and taste strongly of pineapple. I look forward to experimenting with them in cooking, if I can stop eating them by the handful, like popcorn.

In my Zone 7b garden, I transplanted seedlings about one month after the average last frost, or mid-May, and got my first fruits about six weeks later. This plant does like it hot–it seemed to double in size every day the temperature hit 90 degrees or higher.

For those who practice permaculture, this plant seeds itself easily and seems to require no inputs except for hot sunshine and whatever rain may fall. Do allow space for them–halfway through the growing season, mine are five feet tall and wide–or were, before the 8-year-old ran over a few inconvenient stems with a bicycle. The stems are rigid but not woody, a bit like basil in mid-season, and may crack or break under their own weight. Because my space is limited (and shared with bicycles), my plants are now supported with slings of garden twine, tethered to a bamboo pole.  You could perhaps grow lettuce beneath them, or root vegetables, if you wished to implement companion planting.

This is a fruit that has made it into my garden’s permanent rotation. I’ll share recipes later in the summer–assuming I can quit snacking.

ground cherries physalis fruits in bowl

Edible groundcovers

Grass is an expensive groundcover. Many homeowners love the calming look of a broad green carpet welcoming them home from work, but to keep their lawns looking their best, they turn to cartloads of chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds, and pesticides to control the grubs and insects that try to coexist in the landscape.

This level of consumption comes with serious costs, both financial and environmental. Turf lawns individually consume 10,000 gallons of water each year, on average, on top of the rainfall they receive.  Unprecedented droughts and the water restrictions that often accompany them make maintaining a large turf lawn impractical and irresponsible. Expensive chemical herbicides and pesticides, whether applied by the homeowner or by a contracted landscape service, are thought to contribute to honeybee colony collapse disorder, which will have huge impacts on food availability and food prices if it isn’t curbed.

Why not try a more sustainable and innovative approach to landscaping this summer? Replace a portion of your lawn with attractive edible groundcovers and shrubs. You’ll have less mowing, more leisure time, and home-grown herbs and berries to enjoy.

Blueberries

Blueberries can be grown throughout much of the United States. In the South or on the west coast, try rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) like ‘Climax’ or ‘Premier’ or Southern highbush varieties like ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘Legacy.’ In the northeast, lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) perform best, and in the Midwest and Pacific northwest, northern highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum; try ‘Bluegold,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Elizabeth’) can provide attractive groundcover and fresh fruit for summertime desserts. Blueberries need acidic soil (contact your county extension service to test your soil’s pH and get advice on correct soil amendments), regular water, and sun to produce the best fruit, although they will produce fruit in partial shade. The leaves turn beautiful shades of scarlet and crimson in the fall.

blueberry leaves

Blueberry leaves covered in frost

Lingonberries

What will grow in the acid soil beneath blueberries? Lingonberries. Hardy in Zones 2-8, lingonberries are a low-growing evergreen shrub related to blueberries and cranberries. They require the same acidic soil as their blueberry brethren, and lingonberries benefit from some shade in hot weather. Plant these low-growing shrubs at the same time as your blueberries, taking care to be gentle with both plants’ brittle roots. Depending on the variety, lingonberries may provide one or two crops per year, typically once in late summer and again in winter. They’re delicious in pancakes, or made into jam or sauces.

Lingonberry 'Koralle'

Lingonberry ‘Koralle’

Thyme

If your climate tends more to the hot, dry, sunny side, replace part of your lawn with low-growing thyme (Thymus sp.). This Mediterranean herb likes full sun, excellent drainage, and low water. Bees and other pollinators love the nectar from thyme flowers, and thymol, a natural compound extracted from thyme, has antimicrobial properties and helps control parasitic mites that stress honeybee populations. Thymus serphyllum, creeping thyme, grows 6 to 12 inches tall and will spread to 1 to 3 feet wide (depending on the cultivar), providing a tough, low-maintenance groundcover. Thymus serphyllum ‘Annie Hall’ is covered by tiny pinkish-lavender flowers. ‘Pink Ripple’ also has pale pink flowers and a lemon scent to the foliage. Culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris), has a more upright habit, but you can keep it compact by shearing off handfuls to use in soups, sauces, salads, marinades, and to flavor meats and seafood on the grill. Variety ‘Silver Queen’ has attractive white edges to the petals. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is also edible, and has (not surprisingly) a bright lemony taste.

Savory

Slightly larger than thyme, but similar in appearance, winter savory (Satureja montana) is another herb that provides great groundcover and requires little input from the gardener. It grows 15 inches tall and wide, but harvesting the stems and leaves keeps the plant compact and thick. Like thyme, it appreciates full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy to Zone 6.

Purslane

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an underused annual herb that tastes faintly of citrus. Its fleshy leaves are rich in Vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids. Popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, it spreads rapidly by seed, which can be good or bad depending on your landscape goals. You may wish to grow it in a container for a year to see how you like it, before planting it out in the landscape. Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge (Euphorbia chamaesyce, prostrate spurge, or Euphorbia maculata, syn. Chamaesyce maculata, spotted spurge), which can irritate skin and eyes and can be poisonous. Buy purslane seeds or plants from a reputable nursery and try the fresh new growth in salads–there are lots of recipes online. If you keep backyard chickens, you can share it with them; you’ll have plenty.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Photo of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) by ZooFari (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ZooFari) via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Try replacing a portion of your resource-hungry lawn with these easy edible ground covers. Your wallet and your wildlife neighbors (not to mention your dinner plate) will be glad you did.

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