Those who caught the vegetable gardening bug that swept the nation this spring need not weep when the last tomato is harvested. The second season of vegetable gardening begins - now.

Seeds for cold-weather crops will be available at garden centers by the first of August, if they are not there already. And seedlings - an easy shortcut for vegetable gardeners - are not far behind.

Broccoli, cauliflower, beets, turnip greens, chard, cabbages, carrots and peas, not to mention another round of lettuce and spinach, are the most popular fall crops. Not only can they survive a frost, they taste better for it.

"The fall may be the better time for anything in the cabbage family," said Gene Sumi, education coordinator at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville. "They are actually going to taste better when they get hit by a frost because the low temperature brings the sugar out.

"And fall is another chance for people who love lettuce and spinach."

Homestead, like other home and garden centers, is preparing for a significant uptick in sales for fall vegetables.

Carrie Engel of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville said she has ordered 20 percent to 25 percent more fall crops, especially lettuces, spinach and broccoli, because of April sales. "We sold more greens than we ever have before."

Burpee Home Gardens reports that garden centers in its Dallas test market ordered nearly the same number of plants for the fall vegetable and herb gardening season as they did for spring.

"Dallas represents a warmer zone with a longer gardening season, but still illustrates a trend that retail garden centers have recognized and are capitalizing on - fall gardening is more popular," said Burpee representative Jessie Atchison.

Fall crops come with their own set of issues, however.

Gardeners can "free sow," simply scattering seeds in a way that isn't possible in the cold and wet of early spring. But drought and insects are a problem in the fall. And critters still devour seedlings, just as they do in the spring.

"Insects are a problem," said Engel. "The best thing to use are translucent row covers to protect against them."

Gardeners should start planning now for their fall crops. Here is some advice:

* Clear the garden of spent plants, composting any material that shows no signs of disease. Test the soil to make sure the ph level is still above 6.0. If not, add hydrated lime, which will work quickly for the fall crops.

* Add more compost and dig it in. Any portion of the garden that will not be planted with fall crops should be covered with hay, black plastic or a cover crop of rye grass.

* Even if you did not have a vegetable garden this spring, consider planting in the bald spots that appear in the perennial gardens in the fall. The south side of your yard will have the best sun during the shortening days of fall.

* Seeds for fall crops of broccoli and cauliflower should be sown in containers now. Likewise, late crops of squash, beans and cucumbers can be directly sown now, according to the University of Maryland Extension Service.

* If you are starting seeds in containers, you won't need to provide an artificial heat and light source. But too little moisture and daytime temperatures that are too high can be a problem. It makes sense to nurture seedlings in a stable environment.

* Although you can start seeds in containers any time now, some crops may require you to wait to free sow until after Labor Day. That way, temperatures will have moderated by the time the plants are mature, said Sumi. The same is true for planting seedlings. In any case, read the packages directions for fall planting carefully.

* The old wives' tale is true: Don't harvest until after the first frost. The vegetables will taste sweeter, Sumi said.

* And finally, planting fall vegetable crops holds the promise of a wonderfully fresh Thanksgiving feast.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad