University City

Gardening: Celebrate summer solstice with fall planting

June 21 is the longest day in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, and it marks the official beginning of summer. In the garden, it’s a time of squash, green beans and cucumbers, and the tomatoes are almost ready.

The last thing most area gardeners are thinking about now is lettuce, broccoli or greens.

Strange as it may seem, however, those fall crops deserve a place on every gardener’s summer priority list.

Brussels sprouts are a case in point. Many gardeners, especially transplants from up North, prize these tasty mini-cabbages. Unfortunately, their growing calendar for New York or Ohio won’t work here in the Carolina Piedmont.

The good news is that we can still get a decent harvest if we start seeds indoors right now, in mid-June, then transplant seedlings into the garden in a few weeks. With luck, they’ll grow beautifully in the cool of autumn and grace our tables for Thanksgiving and the December holiday season.

This also works for other vegetables that prefer cool weather, including lettuce, broccoli, cabbage and collard greens. Not only do fall-grown cool-season crops grow better, they are tastier, too.

You’ve probably heard the old saying: “Collards taste sweeter after a frost.” Grandma was right. Under cold conditions, collards and its relatives concentrate natural sugars in their sap as a kind of natural antifreeze, and we all benefit at the dinner table.

The trick is to have healthy seedlings ready when we need to set them out in the garden. That means by mid-August for most cool-season crops and as early as late July for Brussels sprouts.

An early start is essential, since the days grow ever shorter in the fall, slowing plant growth. Unfortunately, few nurseries have transplants available until later in the fall, when it is too late.

Stealing a technique from farmers market vegetable growers, home and community gardeners can solve this problem by start their own seedlings indoors now, in midsummer. It is similar to starting tomatoes and peppers indoors in early spring to protect them from the cold.

In this case, however, you are protecting your newly emerging crops from the heat. By taking advantage of air conditioning, gardeners can have healthy fall seedlings ready when needed.

By starting your own seedlings, you also greatly increase variety choices over what you typically find at the big-box store.

I especially like Virginia-based Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, www.southernexposure.com, for its selection of Southern varieties, and local hardware and garden stores, especially Renfrow Hardware in Matthews and Brawley Garden Center in Mooresville.

Many types of lettuce thrive in the southern Piedmont in the fall, including heirlooms such as Buttercrunch. You can best manage lettuce by planting a dozen seeds at a time every week or two, then setting them out after about four weeks growing indoors.

Broccoli and its relatives in the cabbage family typically require six to seven weeks after planting seeds inside, but there is no need to let them get as large as they typically are in garden centers. Dr. David Bradshaw of South Carolina’s Clemson University made this point to me:

“Once you have three or four true leaves, it is time to get cabbage and broccoli in the garden. Younger seedlings often adapt much better and grow faster than larger seedlings.”

Tried-and-true broccoli varieties such as Green Comet and Premium Crop work well.

Heirlooms such as Waltham and DeCicco are OK, but they are less productive here. A good variety for organic growing is Batavia (Packman, the old standard, is becoming hard to find).

Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage does quite well. Senposai, an “Asian collard,” is a prize-winner for Piedmont gardens.

For the adventuresome, try kohlrabi, a wonderfully goofy-looking bulb that grows on top of the ground, with stems reaching out in all directions. In purple and green varieties, they look like little Martians marching down the row, and its taste is delicious.

There are dozens of additional choices from Asian gardens, including Chinese cabbage (Napa) and bok choy.

You can improvise whatever containers you like for indoor seedlings. Even plastic foam egg cartons will work; just make drainage holes in each cell.

Don’t skimp on quality potting soil or ample light, however. I set up a simple light system using inexpensive fluorescent shop lights. A bright window may also do.

The longest day of the year is an ideal excuse to dance all night around a bonfire, expressing thanks for the bounty of nature, committing to caring for our soil and water, and reaffirming efforts to ensure every person, every child and every senior adult enjoys food security.

For gardeners, adding the ritual of planting seeds for fall transplants helps keep things real, translating those nice-sounding slogans into green, tangible and edible action.

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