Come summer, I survey my vegetable garden with mixe emotions. The reason? Half of the plants there are lush and green; the rest are decayed and brown.
I force myself to examine them (ugh) all.
One end of the garden is ripe with hope. The tomatoes and peppers prosper, their branches heavy with swelling fruit. The bush beans are racing toward the table. And within the month, we expect to be buried beneath an avalanche of zucchini.
The other end of the garden smells of death. Here lies the rotting debris of recent harvests, from the pungent stumps of broccoli ++ plants to the lofty spires of now-bitter lettuce, gone to seed long ago in the searing heat.
Clearly, the food garden provides stark contrasts. Half the patch is a teeming green jungle; the rest resembles Death Valley.
It won't stay that way for long. The dead zone's days are numbered. I have a plan to resuscitate my garden-turned-graveyard:
1. Remove the ugly reminders of spring, from the cauliflower cadavers to the withered pea vines.
2. Fertilize and cultivate the depleted soil.
3. Plant more crops that will mature before the first fall frost.
This technique, called succession planting, allows gardeners to double or even triple their annual harvests in the same growing space. All it requires is a basic knowledge of the whims of warm and cool-weather plants.
Despite the method's efficient use of the soil, many gardeners do not subscribe to succession planting. Some of them don't realize that many veggies can still be planted in midsummer, or even fall. For instance, I've gathered lima beans on Halloween, and cucumbers at Thanksgiving.
Some gardeners plant their beds vigorously in spring, but lose interest once that harvest is over and the weather turns hot. It's summer, remember? Vacation trips beckon. Those weeds look awfully tall. So people forget about the gaps in the garden, which, if plugged, would provide treats for their tummies until frost.
Pity. Gardens needn't die in July, when it's so easy to keep them alive.
There are other advantages to succession planting. Sometimes you dodge the bugs. For instance, planting squash in midsummer may fool the squash vine borer, who will probably get tired of waiting for your plants and stalk off to nibble on a neighbor's crop instead.
Succession planting also gives bumbling gardeners like me a second, third or even fourth chance at raising the same crop. This is great for a gardener's morale. One summer I took three cracks at growing bush beans in the same row, without success. The first seeds rotted in cold soil. Cutworms ate the second planting, and Mexican bean beetles devoured the third. But I persevered and finally managed a healthy harvest -- on Halloween. They were the best beans I ever ate.
(Hint: Beans planted in midsummer should be sown 2 inches deep -- twice the depth of earlier plantings, to protect the seeds from the baking sun.)
Carrots planted now should mature by late fall. I've even known folks who planted corn as late as July, though they worked from transplants they had started indoors weeks earlier. Success was theirs: The family was eating fresh corn in late October, and was the envy of the neighborhood.
Certain veggies are best sown in August, so as not to mature in hot weather. This list of cool-season crops includes beets, broccoli, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, collards, garlic, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, peas, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, Swiss chard and turnips.
Some of these plants are available in market packs in spring. A growing number of garden centers now carry vegetable transplants for fall. But if broccoli and cabbage seedlings are unavailable commercially in your area, try growing your own plants from seed. Sow them now, either indoors under plant lights or outdoors in a special seedbed that is shaded from the afternoon sun.
Keep summer seedlings well watered and monitor closely for signs of insect damage. Should the wrong bugs bumble into your "secret" garden, they could destroy the vulnerable young ,, plants.
To ward off predators, I've hung a "No Vacancy" sign in the garden. Not that I think they'll obey it. The sign is more a reminder that the vegetable patch is always buzzing with activity. There are no gaps in my garden. I feel pretty good about that.