The journey to a spectacular fall garden begins now, in the heat of summer.
By starting lettuce, broccoli and other seedlings indoors in June and July, you will be ready to go when fall planting time arrives in August. Even better, this is one cool and easy job, a pleasant counterpoint to all those hot outdoor weeding, watering and picking chores.
The process is basically the same as starting seeds on a windowsill in the early spring. Instead of protecting the baby plants from freezes, though, you are taking advantage of your home air conditioner to keep them cool and happy.
By growing seeds inside, you get much better germination than in hot garden soil, and the cooler conditions encourage sturdy seedlings. You can select exactly the varieties you want, ones that thrive here. Most important, your seedlings will be young and eager to grow, not gnarled veterans of the garden center shelves.
You don’t need anything fancy. Recycled yogurt containers, old ice cube trays, and “pots” made from newspapers all work, as do commercially available plastic seed trays. Fill with a good quality potting soil, preferably one that is not full of chunky bark shreds. Local hydroponics stores and independent nurseries (such as McLeod Organics on N.C. 73 in Huntersville, and Renfrow Hardware in Matthews) are good places to find these supplies.
Fill your containers with moist potting soil, sow your seed sparsely, and lightly cover it. The easiest way, though heartless, is to sow a few seeds in each cell, then thin to the one strongest plant after germination and a few days of growth. Keep the seeds under bright light – I use a shop light, but a bright window will do fine – and water daily.
About a week before you plan to plant, begin hardening off the seedlings by taking them outdoors to a shady spot. I use our covered porch. Don’t put seedlings directly in the midday sun, or they will fry.
Caring for the seedlings is easy, and great fun for kids, who can watch the magical process of seed becoming a plant right up close in a Dixie cup. Maybe the biggest risk factor is summer vacation. You can’t just leave for that week at Sunset Beach and forget the seedlings; they won’t make it without watering.
We supplement our dog-sitter’s salary with a horticultural stipend. You will want to train your plant person to not over-water. A little bit every day is what’s needed, not a heavy flood after a week of neglect (there’s a good life lesson in this.)
Fertilization is not absolutely necessary but gives better results. Organic gardeners can use dilute fish emulsion or mix a small amount of complete organic fertilizer such as Espoma Garden-Tone (3-4-4) into the potting mix. Those who are chemically dependent can use a soluble such as Miracle-Gro (15-30-15.)
Fall vegetables need enough time to mature before our first frost, roughly around Halloween. Therefore, the best time to transplant (and sow root crops) is early August.
Cabbage family seedlings need about five weeks before transplanting. Standouts include Asian cabbage (Napa), broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale and Brussels sprouts. Though still unfamiliar, I'm a fan of kohlrabi, a sweet crunchy treat great for eating raw, with or without a good dip. On broccoli, select types with round high domes, which resist bacterial rots, a fall risk.
Fall is the right season for Brussels sprouts. Since Brussels sprouts can withstand temperatures down to 20 degrees, they will thrive once they get through the summer heat. With luck, they'll be ready just in time for Thanksgiving.
Lettuce seedlings only need three or four weeks before transplanting, so you can start them in early July. Because salad is a staple at our house, we start a few lettuce plants every couple of weeks until September.
Spinach and Swiss chard, both members of the beet family, are special cases. Like lettuce, spinach does not germinate well in warm soil, and it hates hot weather. I usually start some spinach when I sow lettuce seedlings, but also direct seed spinach in the garden in early September. Swiss chard is easier to grow and resists heat better, and works well from transplants or seed.
Tomato bug: A new pest
A new bug has just shown up in North Carolina. N.C. State Cooperative Extension Service Sustainable Farming Agent Debbie Roos spotted the pest near Pittsboro. Named the tomato bug, it can damage tomato plants, but it also may be a predator of other pests. To find out more, visit Roo’ excellent Growing Small Farms website: http://growingsmallfarms.ces.ncsu.edu/2015/06/tomato-bug.
Don Boekelheide is a freelance writer. Have a story for Don? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Online sources for fall vegetable seeds:
Asian seed varieties: www.evergreenseeds.com
Southeastern-adapted varieties: www.southernexposure.com
Heirlooms (old fashioned varieties): www.seedsavers.org
Wide variety, from a reliable seed cooperative: www.fedcoseeds.com
There are many other excellent seed sources. Locally, McLeod Organics and Renfrow Hardware carry good selections.
Asian cabbage (Napa): Wong bok, Qingdao 65, Taiwan express. (Note: There are lots of wonderful Asian vegetables that thrive in Charlotte; check the Evergreen Seed and other sites for ideas. Sometimes, Asian markets, such as the ones at Tryon and Sugar Creek, carry seed.
Broccoli: Belstar and fiesta (both organic seeds); Arcadia, gypsy, green magic, and Waltham 29 (a small bud type.) Calabrese-types are closest to the original Italian broccoli. A new All America Selection winner for 2015 is Artwork, another small bud type that looks promising.
Brussels sprouts: Long Island is the standard, Jade cross, diablo. Hestia is a AAS winner in 2015.
Cabbage: Pretty much all of varieties prefer fall conditions. Danish ball head types do well in the fall, so do savoy types, and red cabbages, such as mammoth red rock and ruby perfection.
Collards: Champion is a reliable standard; senposai, an Asian hybrid vegetable resembling a sweet, fast-growing collard, is popular.
Kale: Redbor and winterbor are excellent. Foodie-fav tuscano (dinosaur kale) works well enough, but doesn’t taste better and is less vigorous.
Lettuce: There is a bewildering variety of lettuce out there. I like the Batavia types (Nevada, magenta); butterhead types such as Nancy; cold-resistant types including reine de glace (ice queen), winter density, and brown golding.
Spinach: Spinach is also direct seeded in September. Good varieties include tyee, Olympia, space and bloomsdale long standing.
Others: Swiss chard: Rainbow is easy to find and reliable, also pretty in the landscape. Kohlrabi: Kongo is a very good green type.