Editor’s note: The writer is an organic grower at Food Web Farm, located at Cabarrus County’s Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm in Concord, and is the Southeast test gardener for Organic Gardening Magazine.
There are lots of counterintuitive things about living and gardening in University City.
Here in the Southeast, savvy gardeners repeat the early spring ritual of starting flowers and vegetables during the wilting heat of the Carolina summer. You might think they’ve gone over the edge – from the high temperatures or sweet tea intoxication (or both) – but it actually makes a lot of sense.
By starting fall vegetables now, you’ll be ready to set out healthy plants by mid-to-late August, giving them plenty of time to ripen during the cooler days of autumn. And you’ll be able to pick outstanding varieties, including heirlooms with great flavor, that you’ll never find in the vegetable seedling trays in the big-box garden centers.
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It is equally appealing and fun, with possibly an even bigger payoff financially, to start perennial and biennial flowers from seed in July. A small packet of seed costing a buck or two can pay off next year in a yard filled with beautiful and varied blooms, from asters to yarrow.
In fact, starting perennial flowers from seed in the summer is even easier than starting vegetables now for fall.
According to John Scheepers’ “Kitchen Garden Seeds,” you can sow flower seeds into moist growing mix in pots or flats, then set them outdoors in a sunny protected area, or you can even seed directly into a nursery bed right in the garden. Water and weed as needed, and, by fall, your perennial flower seedlings will be large enough to transplant into their permanent location, or into a nursery bed until early spring.
“Next spring, they’ll quickly take hold, and you’ll have flowers by summer.” Scheepers writes.
You have a wide choice of different kinds of flowers, too. To see a list of perennial and biennial flowers that do well in North Carolina, visit N.C. State University’s reference page at http://bit.ly/v1zoK.
Three good choices for beginners include pinks, coreopsis and red hot poker. Cheddar pinks are a particular favorite of mine, though border pinks, in a variety of colors and with appealing fragrance, are also winners. They are fun to work with, standing up to all the indignities inflicted during transplanting by ham-handed veggie gardeners like me.
Coreopsis (tickseed) includes a couple of fine North Carolina-native species, as well as a horticultural selection, golden sunrise, that’s easy to grow and beautiful in the landscape.
Red hot poker, an old-fashioned “ironclad” plant that’s a favorite of Southern garden expert Felder Rushing, is now available in a number of different colors. It does well even in impossible circumstances, including under blazing sun in miserable soil right next to the driveway.
Getting started with veggies
Starting vegetables takes a tiny bit more effort, at least to get started. A problem with cool-season vegetables is that their seeds will not germinate if the soil temperature is too high. So sowing lettuce outdoors in the garden now may now give very poor results, and cabbage family plants such as broccoli are also a hit-or-miss proposition.
Instead, start them indoors, in the air-conditioned comfort of your home. After the seeds are up and growing, they can either remain indoors under grow lights (at my house, this means the cheapest shop fixture I can find and plain old fluorescent tubes), or in a sheltered place outdoors with bright light.
There are two keys to success: First, and above all, don’t let the soil dry out. Water daily, following the Three Bears approach of not too much, not too little, but just right.
Second, to get the vigorous growth vegetables need, feed your plants regularly using fish emulsion or an alternative. (Miracle-Gro and similar fertilizer products are effective but are not approved for organic farms.) Don’t overdo it; half the recommended amount for houseplants, applied weekly, should do the trick.
Finding the right variety
Good vegetables to start inside include broccoli, warm-season-tolerant lettuce and Swiss chard.
It is often hard to find standard broccoli varieties such as premium crop, and impossible to find organic types such as Waltham, in local garden centers in August. It is easy, however, to find seed packets for these varieties and more online or at Renfrow Hardware, which remains the area’s best local seed source (it also has an excellent selection of flower seeds).
Heat-tolerant lettuces such as Reine de glaces (Batavia type), Jericho or Parris Island romaine, and good old black-seeded Simpson are all good choices. Wait until a bit later in the year, however, to start gourmet lettuce heirlooms that bolt in the heat, such as Troutback.
Swiss chard is a trouble-free, colorful, nutritious and tasty crop – I don’t know why more people don’t grow it. At the farmer’s market, there’s a lot of clamoring for kale, which tastes pretty nasty right now if you can find it. Meanwhile, chard is tender, sweet and freshly available.
I’m growing a rainbow selection called Aurora mix from the commercial seed company Osborne’s Seeds. In contrast to the rest of my heat-beaten fields, the chard bed is a vegetable fandango with bright banners waving.
Botanically, Swiss chard is really a beet, and you can also start beets now to set out early. They transplant easily, breaking the rule about never transplanting root crops. Most farmers and gardeners, however, probably will wait to direct-seed beets in August.
One final thought about starting seeds indoors or in a seedbed in a corner of the garden: Especially in small gardens, space is often at a premium. Right now, every inch is filled with lovely tomatoes and squash; but in six weeks they’ll ready to pull out, victims of heat, bugs and blights. If you start transplant now, you’ll be ready to plant right away to get a jump on fall.
Finally, a garden hint: Stay hydrated when working in this heat. You have to water your plants in this weather; don’t forget to water yourself as well.
Also, try to work early or late, not during the heat of the day.