Mid-Summer Is Not Too Late To Start A Garden
I've had many people ask me in the middle of summer if it's too late to plant a vegetable garden. Not at all! There are quite a few crops you can plant in July or later, and harvest before winter.
Most of these are fall and winter vegetables (root crops, salad and cooking greens, broccoli, cabbage, etc), but you can still plant a few fast-growing summer crops like green beans, summer squash, and cucumbers – depending on your climate.
This Is How I Discover My Planting Dates:
Find out the date of your area's average first fall frost. Dave's Garden offers a way to look that up by your zip code: Dave's Garden Freeze-Frost Dates
a) If you will be growing a cold-hardy crop, like spinach and broccoli, use the frost-free date.
b) If you will be growing a frost-sensitive crop, like beans or summer squash, count back at least 2 weeks – to allow time for you to harvest a crop before frost.
* Please Note: One thing to keep in mind is that your garden plants will grow slightly slower in the shorter days of autumn. So you will need to allow an extra 1-2 weeks for most of them to mature.
I Calculate It This Way:
My average first frost is around Oct. 10th. Today is July 15th. By counting each week on my calendar, I find there are about 12 weeks x 7 days/week = 84 days or so before frost. Allowing 7-14 days for slower growth, gives enough time to grow crops that normally take 70-77 days to mature.
That would be for cold-hardy crops. You can usually continue harvesting them for a few weeks after the first frost, even if you don't plan to protect them to harvest through the winter. As an example, I can often harvest my snap peas until the temperature drops into the mid-20's. They survive 28 degrees just fine.
You'll need to subtract another 14 days for frost-sensitive plants – giving you about 60 days for maturity. You can still fit in a quick crop of fast-growing summer crops like green beans, summer squash, and cucumbers.
I'll still be planting some vegetables – such as spinach, corn salad, and Japanese turnips – as late as early-mid September, as they can easily be protected in a cold frame and continue growing well into October.
Double-Check the Days to Maturity
Some varieties grow faster than others, so double-check the days to maturity. Also, be aware that you will often find different “days to maturity” for the same variety! If your garden is in a cool climate – like Maine – your plants will often take longer to grow. The same crop planted in Georgia will probably mature faster.
So companies that test and sell seeds usually provide growing information based on their location. A southern seed company may show a faster maturity for the same crop as a northern company – and they may even buy their seed from the same source! They are each telling the truth for their own region.
The Challenges of Planting a Garden in July
It can be difficult to start a garden in July. The heat, dry soil, and insect pests can kill young seedlings very quickly if you don't provide extra protection and care. Here are a few tips for summer plantings:
- Keep the soil moist – even if you have to lightly water it twice a day on very hot days. Make sure the soil is also moist the full depth of your garden bed. Sometimes we forget to water deep enough! I usually water my beds deeply once or twice a week, depending on the weather and what crops are growing.
- Provide partial shade while the seeds are germinating and the plants are young. A very thin layer of grass cuttings on the soil surface helps (so you can still see about 50% of the soil), or using a piece of lattice or shade cloth over your garden bed.
- Keep all weeds under good control at all times.
- Once your plants have germinated, mulch your garden bed. This will keep the soil cooler and moister, and will help control weeds.
- Provide good pest control for your young, delicate seedlings. I often cover the garden bed with very light-weight row cover or window screening, and use an organic slug bait like Sluggo.
- Some people find it easier to start their late crops in seed flats off the ground in partial shade, or under lights in the house. However, most root crops don't transplant well, and should be planted directly in the garden.
Extend Your Growing Season
If you are running out of time to start a particular crop, another option is to extend your growing season – using row cover and cold frames. Row cover (an agricultural fabric) can often extend your growing season by 2 weeks or more, by providing a warm and sheltered location for your plants. Depending on the weight of the fabric, it can also provide 2-6 degrees of frost protection.
Heavy-weight row cover can also allow you to harvest your cold-hardy crops through much of the winter – depending on how cold your climate is. To learn more about using row cover, see my article: Using Row Covers
A good-quality cold frame can extend the growing season for perhaps a month, before the days get short enough to prevent your plants from growing well. You can also harvest quite a few crops from your cold frame through the entire winter – even in Maine! To learn more about using cold frames, see my article: Using Cold Frames
Both these methods work best for smaller plants – up to 2-3 feet tall if you use hoops to cover your plants with row cover, and usually just 12-18 inches for plants inside cold frames.
It's not very practical to protect a trellised crop – though some folks will take the plants off the trellis and lay them on the ground to cover them from frost. I just can't be bothered to do that much work, and I have usually finished harvesting from my trellised crops before frost anyway.
Go Ahead, and Start Your Garden Now!
Despite the challenges of starting a garden this time of year, I love growing fall and winter vegetables. The cold-hardy crops become very sweet when exposed to frost, and I protect many of my late crops so I can harvest them through the entire winter. My winter garden needs little maintenance, and I love harvesting fresh food 12 months a year!
So, whether you are planning a winter garden, or just want to enjoy a few fast-growing summer crops, go ahead and start your garden today!
You, too, can feast year-round from your small backyard!