LATE JUNE IS A wonderful time in the garden. Although the spring blooming extravaganza has ended, your yard is filled out with fresh greenery, and cool breezes fill the air. Your vegetable garden is healthy and robust, and has begun to yield harvests. In fact, things are so pleasant that you’re tempted to throw down your gardening gloves, grab a mojito and lounge the remainder of the summer away.
Not so fast. I won’t begrudge you a mojito or two, but keep your gloves on hand, because it’s time to start planting your fall vegetable garden.
Feels too early for that, does it? Well, let’s talk about what’s happening in your garden today. If you’ve been assertive with spring planting, you might already have pulled bright red radishes from the ground, cut a few heads of butterhead lettuce and plucked the majority of your snap peas from the vine. Over the next few weeks, spring cabbages, cauliflowers and onions will be ready to harvest. In addition to good eating, all of this garden carnage equates to free space in your raised beds — space that can easily be filled with new crops. Crops that will be ready for harvest in late summer or early fall.
So take a closer look, starting with a candid assessment of your current stock of crops. It’s easy to leave bolted or nearly exhausted crops in the ground. You might say, “Well, even though that lettuce is 3 feet tall and so bitter that even my guinea pig refuses to eat it, it might come in handy one of these days.”
Let’s be real. Unless you’re growing crops for seed saving, you need to be brutally honest with yourself about the usability of crops. Clear out bolted greens, remove exhausted pea vines, clear out the stump from your kohlrabi and give yourself the opportunity to start anew.
Obviously, many spots in the garden will still be occupied by summer staples such as beans, tomatoes and squash. However, you might find that up to half of your usable planting space is ready for an extreme makeover. If tended to in a timely fashion, this space will provide you with an entirely new round of late-season garden treats.
Many new gardeners miss the early-summer planting window because they logically assume that “fall crops” are planted in the fall. In contrast to logic, most fall crops are actually planted in summer. This allows them time to grow to maturity before the cooler, shorter days of fall set in. As a bonus, once these plants size up, fall weather often allows them to keep their quality longer and bolt more slowly than summer crops.
While there are dozens of crops that can be planted this time of year, I want to focus on two of my favorites: beets and carrots.
About beets and carrots
Beets and carrots are not closely related species, but their garden culture and management are similar, so I find it helpful to group them together when making a planting plan. Here’s the basic idea:
• While beets can be successfully transplanted into the garden, for most growers, both of these crops are best grown as direct seeded crops.
• Most beets and carrots mature between 50 and 80 days, so plantings from early July will be ready for harvest between late August and late September.
• I recommend harvesting all of your beets and carrots by the end of October. Root crops stored in the ground are targets for hungry insects, and hidden splits or cracks in the roots can lead to fungal attack and rot.
How to plant fall beets and carrots
1. Remove harvested and spent spring crops. Take no prisoners!
2. Loosen the soil where those crops grew. Don’t turn over the soil; just work it with a fork or trowel to remove large root clumps and to ensure it’s loose enough to easily accept water and new roots.
3. Mix a granular balanced organic fertilizer into the soil. Follow the application rate on the box or bag.
4. Smooth out the soil to provide a level and even seed bed.
5. Create a shallow furrow in the soil, and seed your beets or carrots. Make sure to tag the row so you know what you planted and when. Gently cover the seeds with soil (½-inch for beets and ¼-inch for carrots).
6. Hand-water to ensure the area is evenly moist.
7. Keep a close eye on the soil moisture while you wait for the seeds to germinate. Even with an automatic watering system, you might want to hand-water your new crops while they pass through the germination gantlet (seeds are very vulnerable to dehydration while germinating).
8. Once the crops have emerged and have grown two or three sets of leaves, thin them to the appropriate spacing (4 inches for beets and 1 to 2 inches for carrots).
9. Liquid-fertilize your plantings every three weeks until mature.
10. Harvest and enjoy!
If you’re an avid beet or carrot grower, you might already have a crop of roots ready for harvest in July. While true crop rotation in the home garden is difficult, try to sow your fall crops in a different spot than where the same species was planted in spring. This will help reduce pest and disease pressures, and make nutritional deficiencies less likely.
Most varieties of beets and carrots perform well in our climate. Here are a few of my favorites:
Beets: Early Wonder, Chioggia Guardsmark, Touchstone Golden.
Carrots: Scarlet Nantes, Nectar, Napoli, Mokum.
Whether you decide to grow fall root crops (but you definitely should), be sure to get out into the garden and harvest your spring crops. After all, that’s why you planted them in the first place!