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Gardening Columns

A Late Start to the Summer Garden

First published on on June 18, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

Are the plants in your vegetable garden growing as slowly as they are in mine? It's been a challenging spring if you're a tomato or pepper plant, or the gardener trying to grow them. We can be thankful for the plentiful rain, considering how much of the nation is in drought. But the late frosts, cool and cloudy days, wind, thunderstorms, and hail are another story. 

Crops that like cool weather are growing fine, but in addition to greens and cole crops, most of us gardeners look forward to the heat-lovers like beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. And in my garden, these plants seem in a state of suspended animation -- not dying, but not growing much either. 

Fortunately, the long days of summer are upon us and there's still plenty of time to plant, grow, and harvest. If your plants were damaged by the crazy weather or you just didn't get around to planting everything, it's not too late to dig in.

Here are some tips to help you get your garden growing.

Look for fast-maturing varieties. Read seed packets and plant labels to find varieties that reach maturity in the least amount of time. Bush varieties of beans, cukes, and summer squash usually produce earlier than their vining or "pole" cousins. Determinate varieties of tomatoes produce earlier than indeterminate ones.

Start with plants. Purchase transplants for eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes -- plants grown from seed now won't have a chance to mature. Although cucumbers, melons, and squash should have time to mature when started from seed now, you'll get an earlier harvest if you start with some plants, too. 

Hold off on the organic mulch. Organic mulches, like shredded bark and straw, are great for suppressing weeds and conserving moisture, but they also insulate soil to keep it cool. This insulation is great in the heat of summer but right now you want the sun to warm the soil as much as possible. Wait to mulch heat-lovers until they're really taking off. Some gardeners mulch with black or red plastic sheeting to warm soil and inhibit weeds.

Grow in containers. Peppers and eggplant, in particular, grow well in containers because the sun warms the soil. Grow heat-loving basil in a container, too. 

Grow in raised beds. Even simple, flat-topped mounds of soil speed growth by allowing soil to heat up more quickly and drain faster, and the soil tends to be looser and less compacted. 

Maximize Growth 
Although we always want to maximize healthy growth with good cultural techniques, it's especially important when we've gotten a late start. Amend soil before planting with compost, and make sure plants receive adequate water and nutrients during the growing season. Keep beds weeded to reduce competition for light, nutrients, and water. Trellis vining plants to increase air circulation and expose more foliage to the sunlight. 

You can use row covers to increase the heat around plants (and exclude pests like flea beetles). However, you'll need to remove them when plants that require insect pollination, like squash, begin flowering. Even if you don't use row covers this summer, consider having them ready when the cool weather of autumn arrives.


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