Sow fall’s seeds in the heat of summer
By Angie Jabine
Photos by Shawn Linehan
Beginning gardeners often prepare and plant their beds in June, filling them with tomatoes, corn and squash, Master Gardener Tim Lanfri has noticed. There’s nothing wrong with that—after all, the incomparable taste of just-picked tomatoes and sweet corn is why most of us garden in the first place, and as for squash, there’s no cure for a black thumb like the satisfaction of harvesting this most forgiving of all crops.
But here’s the thing. Thanks to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the West Coast is blessed with a maritime climate that protects us from weather extremes and dramatic temperature swings. Unlike most other parts of the country, gardeners in the Willamette Valley can plant cool-weather crops at the height of summer and harvest them in the fall or the following spring.
Summertime on Tim Lanfri’s backyard farm is a scene out of Eden. On a late June day, most of the beds are overflowing with asparagus, potatoes, garlic scapes, fava beans, broccoli and a whole array of salad greens and braising greens. The corn is knee high, the squash vines are flowering and, under a cloud of anti-bird netting, luscious marionberries and raspberries are busily ripening. But there are also some just-planted beds where the first leaves of lettuce, kale and carrots have only now popped above the soil.
The way Lanfri sees it, if you’re going to the considerable effort of creating garden beds, improving your soil, and weeding, mulching, and watering your plants, why not get the most you can get out of your garden space? If your garden has plenty of space and sunshine, go ahead and plant the tomatoes, squash and corn, says Lanfri—but set aside a bed where you can direct-sow the seeds of quick-growing greens such as lettuce, spinach and mustard greens in July. You’ll be able to harvest them in September or October along with your tomatoes and squash.
You can also plant broccoli, beet, kale and carrot seeds in July and August. Read the “days to maturity” information that you’ll find in catalogs and on seed packets to determine when you can expect to harvest them. Lanfri counts backward from October 15 to determine when to plant. Some varieties will also overwinter and provide fresh produce in the early spring when most home gardens are bare. Kale, for instance, when planted in August, will be mature in October but still young and healthy, making it a good candidate to survive through the winter and put on new growth in early spring. Its leaves respond to cool, late-winter temperatures with a sweet, nutty flavor.
Directly sowing the seeds of cool-climate crops in July and August is both cheaper and easier than buying or growing seedlings that must be transplanted into the ground, and it’s less stressful for the plants. The caveat is that the soil must be kept continually moist while the seeds are germinating or it can quickly form a crust hard enough to keep delicate seedlings from popping up. Lanfri’s solution is to dig shallow furrows, scatter the seeds inside the furrows and cover them very lightly with potting soil. He also lays a black shade cloth on top of the seed bed and leaves it there (when he’s not watering, inspecting for pests or thinning the seedlings) until the plants’ leaves are beginning to crowd the cloth.
For all his success as a year-round gardener, Lanfri cultivates a sense of humility about growing food for his table. After all, there is so much to learn about plants and their needs, and only so many seasons in a lifetime in which to learn. Even when you do everything right, he notes, nature always has some tricks up her sleeve. Regional expertise on every conceivable gardening issue, from pests to soil pH, can be found in books, on the Web and from agricultural extension offices—but there’s nothing quite like learning by growing.
Angie Jabine is a Portland writer and gardener. No matter what, she always plants basil.
Summer Gardening Tips
Be water wise
Newcomers to the Pacific “Northwet” are invariably surprised to learn just how little rain actually falls here between July and September. To keep your garden growing and your water bills low, put plants with similar water needs together (such as eggplants and squash, both water hogs); water infrequently but deeply to encourage roots to reach downward; use mulch to retain moisture and suppress water-thieving weeds; and water early in the day to minimize water loss through evaporation.
Home-grown sage, oregano, rosemary and other herbs not only enhance your cooking, their flowers also attract beneficial insects such as bees (first-class pollinators) and ladybugs (aphid eaters), which is why Lanfri suggests growing them near your vegetables. He also suggests letting at least some of your produce live out its full lifespan. The purple blossoms of chives, or mustard with its yellow sprays, are as cheerful as any flower, and they also attract friendly bugs.
Help the heat-seekers
It takes extra effort to grow semitropical eggplants, cantaloupes or peppers in the Willamette Valley. To have a fighting chance, they need warm soil and eight hours of sunlight every day. Plant healthy seedlings (preferably already beginning to flower) in black plastic pots or in the ground by early June and don’t crowd them (their foliage will create cool shade). Coddle them with plastic-covered hoops, Walls-O-Water or floating row covers until July’s heat kicks in.
Know your pests
Get to know your garden interlopers at every stage of their development. Really look at your plants, especially when they’re vulnerable seedlings; pests can do major damage within days. The type of damage will indicate whether you’re dealing with slugs, aphids, cutworms or that master of disguise, the green tomato hornworm, which can decimate your tomatoes on its way to becoming a spotted hawkmoth.