Cool soil perfect for late planting It's not too late to plant tomatoes, other vegetables


Procrastinators, this is your year! Nature has granted you a small measure of forgiveness. A window of opportunity, as the politicians might call it. There are no excuses now.

Sure, you were too busy, or maybe it was too cold and rainy, to plant your lettuce, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, onion and garlic sets and cabbage.

And you were just about to bag the whole idea of a vegetable garden this year because you've spent every free hour standing in line to buy tickets for the cheap seats at the new ballpark.

Well, now even the cheap seats are just about gone. But the planting season for hot-weather crops is still here.

"This year the soil temperature has been slow to warm," said Dr. Dave Clements, coordinator of the Home and Garden Information Center of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. That means that even though we're past May 15, the traditional date to set out your tomatoes and plant your zucchini, the soil doesn't know it yet.

Here are some home garden favorites that Clement says can still be planted:

Tomatoes -- They do best in well-drained soil and full sun. Transplants set down horizontally with only the top set of leaves above ground will develop an extensive root system from the stem to help withstand drought and stress. Indeterminate varieties, planted 24 to 36 inches apart, need to be caged. Feed regularly with a water-soluble fertilizer, Miracle-Gro or a generic equivalent.

Eggplant -- Plant 18 to 24 inches apart. They like heat and moisture. Small stakes can help support them when they're fruit-laden. Mediterranean cooks love 'em, but so do flea beetles, which can chew thousands of small holes in the leaves like buckshot, weakening and killing the plant. Flea beetles are common around here so, at the first sign of infestation, dust or spray. Fruit should be picked while shiny and are best when small.

Peppers -- Sweet or hot. They are light feeders that like full sun and hot weather. Brittle plants tend to break or fall over if not supported by stakes. Plant 18 inches apart. Pick early fruit to keep plant producing, but let later fruits ripen to red for extra sweetness and vitamin C. Hot varieties get hotter the longer they're left on the plant.

Beans -- Snap beans are just about the easiest thing to grow in the garden other than radishes. Thin bush types to 4 inches apart and make small, successive plantings to keep harvests manageable. They must be picked almost daily. Pole types need structure to climb and are slower producers.

Summer squash -- No matter what the color or shape, these are heavy feeders and take up a lot of space. Plant seeds in mounds 3 feet apart -- six seeds to a mound -- then thin to the sturdiest two plants. Work a lot of organic matter into the soil. They are best when picked small, which also keeps the plant producing. Blossoms make fabulous tempura.

Winter squash are slow growers and the fruit cures on the vine, so they should be planted soon, too. They're space eaters, though, so plant them where their vines can run up to 15 feet, such as near the edge of a bed.

Cucumbers, cantaloupe and watermelon -- all members of the cucurbit family, like squash. They are heavy feeders, so work in compost, manure or other organic material. They need well-drained soil and plenty of room to sprawl out. Give them full sun.

Culinary herbs -- Grow what you cook with. Parsley, sage, basil, dill and thyme all grow well from seed. Oregano and rosemary are best transplanted. Herbs need some sun, but the soil needn't be rich, just well-drained. Keep well-pinched and picked to encourage growth.

The Maryland Cooperative Extension Service Home and Garden Information Center operates a 24-hour hot line, 1-800-342-2507. A horticulturist is available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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