Late Summer Garden Chores for the Midwest Gardener
Now is the perfect time for a number of late summer projects. Even though the weeds are not growing as fast as they had been all summer and some plants seem to be dying back, there are still a number of vegetable seeds you can start for a late fall harvest. There is some fertilizing that can be done. Now is the perfect time to divide some perennials that have finished blooming for the year. And with the weather cooling you now have the chance to do some larger projects.
Approximate time from seed to first harvest
about 1 month
about 1 month
about 6 weeks
about 6 weeks
about 2 months
Radish, Lettuce, Arugula and Turnips
Fast sprouting and fast maturing vegetables love this time of the year. Now is the time to plant radish, lettuce, arugula and turnips to name a few of the fast sprouting seed you can safely plant and harvest yet this year. I find that my lettuce and fast growing leaf cabbage grow best and taste best when planted and harvested in the fall. They are a wonderful addition to compliment any meal. The flavor of many of these vegetables only improves with the cool weather.
I like to plant both in soil as well as in containers late in the summer. The soil stays warm well into late fall. The earth takes considerably longer to cool down than the air. It does this because it is denser than air. It also is able to grab and hold on to late season light as cover vegetation fails. This opens up more soil to the effects of light hitting and warming the ground. Even if a short period of cold weather happens you can still cover your small crop of veggies with a tarp overnight to protect the plants from the frost. Just be sure to put in some supports so the tarp does not rest directly on top of the plants. These plants are capable of sustaining frost. They will suffer damage if they freeze.
Containers provide a better option for small amounts of veggies. I have been moving to container gardening the older I get. For me I think the biggest reason is that I do not have to weed as often. I can also utilize fertilizing strategies better because I don’t have as many to care for. I reuse old containers as well as old screened soil. I remove old growth and put old soil back in so that there is still at least 2 inches of space left. I put virgin potting mix on top. The 2 inches of new potting media (notice I don’t say soil because most blends don’t include any real soil.) guarantees no viable seed is close enough to the surface to sprout. Only my vegetable seed will sprout. And because I fertilize with a nice micro nutrient I find that reusing old soil is very economical as well as providing a good home for a new batch or roots.
The size of the container can be smaller too when planting a fall vegetable crop. I have planted lettuce and radish in 2 gallon containers and was able to harvest several meals over several weeks harvest time. Remember these are small containers so to get the best plants you must limit the number of seed per container. Have no fear if you get a few too many seeds in your container. You can always pull out the extra when very small and make a gourmet tender lettuce salad when thinning the seedlings. What a treat. You will have enough soil and room to whittle your crop down to 3 or 4 beautiful plants.
I do try and use at least a 5 gallon container for most fall vegetables but you can grow almost all of these in a container as small as a 2 gallon size. The beauty of gardening in containers, in addition to the weed thing, is that you can move them next to the foundation of the house and gain an extra few weeks to your growing season. If you place a bale of straw to corral the containers next to the foundation and the cover with a clear plastic film you can easily have some of these tasty home grown vegetables well into the beginning of winter. There was one unusually mild winter where fall vegetables were easily available all winter!
Now is the perfect time to fertilize. What you say?!?!? It’s true. This is the time of the year when most plant activity is below ground. Daffodils are beginning their growing season at this time. They are sending down roots to prepare the waiting bloom and growth. In fact all of your spring bulbs like crocus and tulip are sending down numerous roots. My mom has always maintained that the best time to fertilize hellebore is after Halloween and before Christmas. I usually fertilize my hellebore the middle of November to a rousing bloom late winter to applaud my work. Since you are encouraging root growth this will mean that you will want to make sure the fertilizer you use is where the middle and last number in the N-P-K percentage are a lot higher than the first number. The first number is for nitrogen. This encourages foliage growth. The P is for phosphorous which is good for root growth and GREAT for bloom. The K is for potassium. Potassium is best for root growth but is also needed for bloom too. I have found that many of the fall grass/lawn fertilizers work best. I buy one that does not contain herbicides or pesticides. Neither of these is welcome in my garden beds. The only time I vary from this is for the hellebore. They stay green all winter. I usually save some of my summer blooming fertilizers for these. The moderate amount of nitrogen will encourage the foliage throughout the winter.
Pond Building and Other Big Projects
Pond building and new garden bed projects can now be started. The weather is still pretty warm. There are not as many weeds to pull. Mowing is starting to slow down as well. Leaves have yet to fall so there is a bit of time on your hands. Building that new raised bed in the vegetable garden or digging a new pond or laying a new retaining wall with a small garden ledge at the top are just a few projects that can be started. Building supply stores are usually interested to hear proposals for lower prices on material as well. They don’t want to sit on product that is not selling. Most people think about these projects in the spring so these supplies are in demand at that time and not now. It is a tendency you need to fight. You need to retrain your thinking to create and build these special features in the late summer when you can work comfortably and get the materials for a lower price. In fact, I think you will find that if you need to hire help that you will get better rates since these people are winding down for the season.
And, lastly, don’t forget that most of your perennials are also sending down new roots for next year. This is a great time to move and divide most of your favorites. In addition to being able to work in more comfortable less humid conditions your plants will benefit from the extra attention, a new well worked space to send down roots easily and the cooler soil holds water longer. You and your plants will be very happy you took the time now to make them more comfortable. Go ahead and sit for a few hours when you realize you have a chance to catch your breath. Just don’t go into hibernation. Get yourself up and get these projects done now. Put on the extra weight later.