The most fundamental way to keep your garden productive all season is to keep planting. But planting summer replacements for spring crops sounds easier than it is! Just as the spring planting season is complicated by cold, summer planting is often aggravated by dry conditions, high temperatures, and searing sun.
Over the years I’ve picked up a number of simple yet nifty tips to help get veggies up in a hurry when summer is working against you. Many of these techniques are crop-specific, so I’ll list them that way, in the order you might use them in your garden. This week I’ll cover veggies that often are planted in July from direct-sown seeds. In my next blog I’ll address transplanting fall vegetables into hot summer soil.
Growing Fall Beans and Cucurbits
Shall we begin with beans? In many climates there is still time to grow a fast crop of bush snap beans, which germinate best for me when I plant them in V-shaped furrows about 3 inches (8 cm) deep. Using the hose turned on at low pressure, I flood the bottom of the furrow, sow dry seeds on the mud, and then cover with one inch (3cm) of soil. After another light watering, I place boards over the planted runs, which are held aloft by the sides of the furrows. A few days later, when the first seeds germinate, I remove the boards.
This method promotes strong germination of bean seeds by maintaining steady soil moisture and temperature. And, because the soil between the planted rows usually stays dry, not many weeds grow there. Here I should mention that seed soaking is bad for beans. Bean seeds can be injured by soaking for only a few hours in water, because oxygen starvation in a flooded environment damages the embryos. It’s much better to plant dry bean seeds into a well-moistened furrow or bed.
Seed soaking does improve the germination of peas and members of the cucumber family that are planted in warm soil. Soaking seeds of cucumber, melon and squash overnight is a very old practice indeed. Over 2000 years ago Theophrastis wrote of soaking seeds of cucumber in milk, but water is quite sufficient. I always try to slip in small summer plantings of squash and cucumbers, which come up in two to three days when the seeds are plumped up with water before they go into the ground. To counteract baking sun, I often cover each seeded spot with an upturned flowerpot or small cardboard box for a couple of days, or until the sprouts push through to the surface. I go ahead and spread a mulch (usually grass clippings) while the pots are present, because they keep the mulch off the little seedlings.
Nurse Crops for Summer Plantings
I have previously written on the benefits of buckwheat, but forgot to mention its value as a nurse crop for beets, carrots, and other vegetables that are direct-seeded in hot weather. When sown between rows of buckwheat, germinating seeds are sheltered from the sun and face little competition from weeds. The buckwheat is gradually pulled out, leaving behind a well-established stand of new fall veggies. You also can set out seedlings amongst a nurse crop of buckwheat or bush beans (another good summertime nurse crop). In my opinion, empty beds that are awaiting seedlings of cabbage family crops are crying out for a nurse crop of buckwheat.
Years ago, when I was struggling to get carrot seeds to germinate in the middle of summer, an experienced friend said "No problem, just water the bed five times a day." I don’t have time for that, and I’ve found that a sun-blocking blanket works better anyway. After seeding carrots in space vacated by peas, I water well and cover the bed with a double thickness of burlap, but any type of thick cloth will do. Thus covered, beds seeded with carrots, rutabagas and other crops that need a head start stay cool and moist with only once daily watering.
By Barbara Pleasant