University City

August is the time for fall vegetables

The Great Debt Debate over the past few weeks has been about as inspiring as a fire ant up your britches, but I believe the antics in Washington have sparked greater interest in food gardening.

Partly it's economics. Growing your own vegetables boosts the family bottom line and thus helps avoid default. We're all worried about that these days.

Partly it's therapy. Your blood pressure stays lower when you're outside gardening, instead of watching the TV news.

The timing is auspicious. August is a prime month for vegetable gardening in the University City. I know, I know, veggie gardening in August sounds as loopy as those Washington debt discussions. It's so hot and humid right now. Why not just run over to the Newell Farmer's Market on Saturday? They have bushels of red, ripe tomatoes and plenty more.

Here's the deal. August food gardening is an exercise in planning ahead, for the days when the tomatoes and okra are long gone. Crops like lettuce, broccoli, carrots and more grow beautifully here in our mild autumn weather. In the fall, it is silly for us to pay top dollar to import these crops from places like Mexico and California.

To pull this off, we've got to get started in the mid-August heat. I just get up a little earlier than usual and garden a bit in the morning, when it is still relatively cool and pleasant. Later this fall, it gets much easier. The time to start is about Aug. 15, continuing through the end of the month for most crops.

In the meantime, you need to create some space in your garden. Start by cleaning out any summer crops that are past their prime. You might be surprised how much room you've got. You can also successfully grow many fall crops in large containers.

To prepare your soil, add an inch or two of good compost, worked into the top 8-12 inches. A complete organic fertilizer, such as Espoma Garden Tone or Scott's Organics, is a sensible idea for insuring healthy plants and high yields.

Watering is vital to success. Water daily at first to keep your seedbed moist and your transplants watered until they are up and growing vigorously on their own. Then, back off to an inch of water per week (rain counts), with only one or two weekly waterings.

In the Southeast, crowding plants invites diseases. Space broccoli and cabbage transplants at least 18 inches apart, and thin your lettuce and carrots heartlessly if you want crops worth eating.

Lettuce is especially good for fall. Growing your own saves money, plus you can grow varieties you like best. Leaf lettuces are easier to grow and more nutritious than iceberg head types. Buttercrunch, red sails and Parris Island cos (romaine) are all good choices, but there are dozens and dozens of varieties to choose from. You can direct seed lettuce, but if soil temperatures are too high, it won't germinate.

The alternative is to start seeds inside, under lights or in a very sunny window, or to buy transplants from a local grower.

Most University City gardeners buy broccoli as transplants, and the same goes for cabbage, cauliflower, collards and Brussels sprouts.

Look for young plants with four to six true leaves, not big woody seedlings that have been sitting in the nursery for weeks. Brussels sprouts take a long time, so get them in just as soon as you can.

Carrots are the queen of the root vegetables, but all roots do well here in the fall, including turnips, beets and radishes. Radishes are fun and quick to grow; my favorite is the gigantic, mild Asian type called a daikon. For carrots, choose a Nantes or Danvers type if, like most of us, you have heavy clay soil. Detroit Red beets do very well here.

Speaking of beets, there is a kind of beet grown just for leaves that is as pretty, nutritious and easy to grow as anything in the garden. It's called Swiss chard. Bright Lights variety is so attractive that you'll get raves if you plant it in your fall flower beds with the mums. Equally appealing is the red variety Charlotte, sure to become a local favorite.

Leafy veggies are the way to get maximum nutrition from minimum space. Besides chard, there's the traditional Southern favorite, collard greens, which is usually transplanted, like broccoli. You can direct seed other leafies, such as spinach, kale and mustard greens, through the middle of September. Kale is attractive, nutritious, and tough enough to handle the cold until Thanksgiving and beyond. That makes it a mainstay in meeting one of my prime personal fall gardening goals: To serve something fresh from the garden on the family table for Thanksgiving.

In this year of the Great Debt Debate, I hope to be out there in the garden harvesting big bunches of dinosaur kale (aptly enough), distracting myself just about the time the Debt Debate is scheduled for round two.

Maybe they'll never understand balance in Washington, but at least we'll have a balanced diet on our table, thanks to our fall garden.