By late summer, the vegetable patch has lost its punch. Tired-looking crops call it quits. The beans look bedraggled, the peppers are pooped and the tomatoes seem plumb tuckered out.
The garden has run out of gas. What's a gardener to do, start anew?
Exactly. And August is the time to do it.
Banish worn-out plants to the compost pile. Why waste time gazing at spent summer crops when you could be planting a fall garden? Jack Frost is two months off, leaving plenty of time to sow and reap fast-growing veggies such as lettuce, radishes, spinach, turnips and beets. Nature willing, late plantings of peas, Swiss chard, carrots and Chinese cabbage should also produce a harvest come fall.
And save room for kale, that hardy mainstay whose frilly leaves are sweetened by frost. Kale survives temperatures as low as 10 degrees, serving up tasty greens for about six weeks past the first October chill.
Though the fall garden can extend the growing season and put fresh victuals on the Thanksgiving table, it has never been as popular as spring and summer plantings with weekend gardeners. Come August, there's little interest in turning soil and sowing seed. Been there, done that -- twice in the past few months.
Many gardeners feel this is no time to putter about outside. Temperatures are high, incentives low. Why bother? What the back yard can't produce, roadside stands provide.
By autumn, however, those stands are peddling only gourds and Indian corn, and the vegetable trail leads straight to the supermarket.
It needn't. With careful planning, one can harvest another whole season of goodies.
Many of these fall crops are repeaters from spring, plants that grow best in cool climes. There is one major difference: The seasons are reversed. Fall lettuces and radishes are racing toward frost, not away from it, a challenge that baffles many gardeners.
It shouldn't. To estimate the best planting time for fall veggies, check the days-to-harvest number on the seed packet and count backward from the first frost date in your area (mid-October hereabout). Then add another week, to account for the shorter, cooler days of autumn.
Some lettuces mature from seed in just 50 days, given plenty of moisture. Plant fast-maturing loose-leaf varieties, or European winter lettuces developed for colder climates. Sow seed thickly -- germination suffers in hot weather -- and thin all but the healthiest plants.
Raise winter radishes -- the large Chinese or daikon types. Mulch well and water liberally during hot spells, to keep radishes from becoming hot and woody. Prepare them like turnips, or dice and add to stir-fry recipes.
Fall turnips are grown for both roots and greens. The foliage will grow long after frost (turnip tops can tolerate 25-degree nights). For roots, try quick-growing Purple Top White Globe; for greens, plant slow-growing varieties like Seven Top or Charlestowne. As with kale, turnip's flavor is improved by light frost.
Like other fall crops, kale needs a good loam rich in nitrogen and calcium for fast, sturdy growth. Keep soil damp and fertilize young plants with blood meal or composted manure. Wait until frost to gather kale -- cold weather changes the leaves' starches to sugar -- and pick from the middle of the plant. The tough, outer leaves are old and tasteless; the tender new shoots (inside) need more time to mature.
Spinach sown now will produce a double harvest, this year and next. Plants established in fall will winter in the garden and return with gusto in March, yielding greens three to four weeks before regular spring plantings. Sow any of the hardy Bloomsdale types, water thoroughly and place boards over the seed rows to keep the hot sun at bay. Remove boards after germination.
When the ground freezes, cover spinach plants with 1 foot of straw mulch. Remove mulch in early spring.
Some vegetable varieties seem tailored for fall. For carrots, choose Touchon or Royal Chantenay. Cover seedbed with burlap until seedlings appear. Carrots can be left in the ground in winter and dug up as needed. Among beet growers, Detroit Dark Red is a favorite. Water beets regularly and mulch, to maintain adequate moisture.
Study seed packets carefully before making selections. Some types of Swiss chard can be harvested less than two months after seeds have been planted. Protected plants have been known to produce greens well into November.
Peas are a gamble. Typically, mature plants bear lightly in fall, and are vulnerable to frost. By growing snow peas, gardeners can harvest plants quickly, before the pods fill out.
A shortcut for cabbage fans: Chinese cabbage, the tall, cylindrical, nonheading vegetable, matures rapidly in rich soil. Pick only the outer leaves -- they're great in salads and stir-fry dishes -- and plants will keep producing. Chinese cabbage is hardy to 20 degrees.
Should a hard frost come early, cover tender crops with pails, pots and plastic jugs -- anything to ward off the cold. Watering plants at dusk also helps stave off frost.
The fall garden needs coddling, yes, but consider the payback: good food, great exercise, few weeds to deal with and fewer insects. By October, most bugs have turned in for the year.
Pub Date: 8/04/96