Guest series by Danielle Smith of Garden Like a Mother
Welcome to late August, the magical time of year for Midwestern gardeners when our gardens explode and finally start to produce the long-awaited fruiting crops we’ve been craving since winter.
Aside from a bounty of zucchinis, tomatoes, and cucumbers, this part of the summer offers gardeners a natural checkpoint to assess the growing season so far and make adjustments. For this month’s blog post, I wanted to offer a few of my top recommendations for things that you can do right now to make the rest of the gardening season go smoothly and successfully!
PULL SPENT OR STRUGGLING PLANTS (OR DON’T)…
The end of summer in the Midwest tends to be the point in the growing season when the heat gets to be too much for the cool loving plants we started in the spring. For instance, if you grew peas, they have probably started looking less healthy and produce significantly less peapods than they did earlier in the year. This is just a natural, inevitable outcome of their lifecycle, as they just do not tolerate heat. It is best to remove these crops when they are no longer doing well and re-use the garden space for new plants.
Some cool season crops, such as cilantro and lettuce have likely responded to the heat by bolting, which means they have turned bitter and sent up tall stalks which will eventually produce seed. Many gardeners will pull plants once they bolt in order to free up room for new plants, however you may also decide to leave them to set seed. The flowers are great for attracting pollinators and one plant can produce hundreds of seeds that you can save and use again next year.
PAY ATTENTION TO WARNING SIGNS
This is the time of year when you want to be regularly assessing your plants for signs of water stress, nutrient deficiency, pest infestation, or disease. Issues that are caught early are much more likely to be successfully fixed without lasting damage than things that are allowed to progress longer.
The things that I keep an eye out in my garden include:
- Yellowing, browning, or otherwise discolored leaves
- Curling, wilting, or crispy leaves
- Holes in leaves
- Insects or eggs on stems or leaves*
- Misshapen or discolored fruits
Now there is no possible way I could cover all of the potential issues your plants could be experiencing and the recommended fixes based on the signs you see in this blog post. So I’m not going to even try to attempt to explain here what any given warning sign might mean. My point here is to encourage you to regularly look for warning signs and then do further research if you find them. Based on what the issue is and how far along it has progressed, you can either try to solve the problem or you can decide to pull the plant and free up the space to try again with a new plant.
*I need to make one important note here- the vast majority of insects in your garden are REALLY GOOD TO HAVE AROUND. Beneficial insects help pollinate plants, eat bad bugs, or otherwise serve an important role in your local ecosystem. Do not assume that because you find a bug on a plant that it needs to go. Make sure to do your research to identify what an insect is and only take action to get rid of it if you know it is a bad bug (and then make sure to use organic pest management methods to avoid accidentally harming the good guys). Here is one rule of thumb that usually works– you can usually tell that a bug is one of the bad ones if you find a large amount of the same bug on a plant. The good guys tend not to take over a plant.
MAKE SURE YOU ARE HARVESTING PROPERLY
This is the point of the year when gardeners can start to get overwhelmed by the large amount of produce they have available to harvest in their gardens. It’s important that you stay on top of harvesting because a) you want to be able to eat the food when it’s at its peak flavor and texture and b) not harvesting from your plant enough can actually reduce a plant’s overall lifespan or yield.
To help stay on top of harvesting, here are three quick tips:
- Walk through your garden every day. You would be shocked at how quickly a zucchini or cucumber can grow, seemingly overnight from a small nub to a perfect sized fruit. Going through your garden quickly everyday rather than once a week makes sure that you don’t end up with overgrown fruit that is tough or bitter.
- Utilize your freezer. Whenever I find myself getting overwhelmed with how much produce I have on hand, I just throw it in the freezer. For example, when you have an abundance of basil and you are feeling productive, you can make a batch of pesto and freeze it in bags or ice cube trays. Or if you want an even easier option, just wash and dry whole basil leaves on a towel and then freeze in a baggie and use during the winter to make pesto or flavor sauces. Tomatoes and peppers can be frozen sliced or whole for winter stews. Zucchini can be shredded and frozen for zucchini bread.
- Focus on easy preparation methods. One of the biggest benefits of growing your own produce is that the flavor is amazing, and that means that you generally don’t really need to do much for it to taste great. Most homegrown produce tastes great raw (even right off the vine) or cooked simply with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Don’t overthink it!
FILL IN EMPTY SPACES WITH NEW PLANTS
If you have empty space in your garden, either because you pulled a plant or because you never got around to planting*, you still have time to start growing any crop that has a days to harvest equal or less than the total days left in your growing season.
Want help figuring out how long you have left in your growing season? Here is how:
Step 1: Figure out your First Average Frost Date. Here in the Midwest, this typically falls between September 1 and October 15. If you don’t know the average first fall frost date for you area, you can look it up here.
Step 2: Figure out how many days you have left in your growing season by figuring out how many days exist between now and your first average frost date.
Pro Tip: Use a Julian Calendar to do this calculation easily. This is honestly one of the handiest tools I have in my garden planning kit and helps me do all of my garden date calculations with ease.
An example: The first average frost date for my area is 10/5. As of 8/27, I would have 39 days left in the growing season.
Believe it or not, at this point in the summer, there are still a few crops you can start growing from seed. Try your hand at sowing lettuces and other greens (mustard greens, chard, spinach, kale, or arugula) or radishes. These crops have very short growing periods and will be ready for harvest in 30-45 days (before frost hits). Some greens, such as kale and chard will even withstand light frost well and continue growing past the first frost while temperatures stay mild.
I hope these tips help you figure out how to best spend your time in the garden during this fun late summer period!
Above all else, make sure you remember to enjoy your garden and celebrate the successes that you have had this year. Take time for slow strolls past your plants. Notice the beautiful details of your plants and appreciate the wonder of nature. Soak up all of the sunshine and warmth while we have it– winter will be here before you know it and along with it dreams of next summer’s bounty!
My name is Danielle Smith, and I help busy women grow beautiful and productive edible gardens at home by simplifying gardening knowledge and teaching systems and routines that make gardening low-maintenance and more successful.
Many women want to grow a garden at home. They know that gardening is a rewarding and fulfilling hobby that can help them destress, slow down, and unlock greater health and happiness. But how do you learn to grow a garden while juggling everything else in life? And do you actually make gardening fit into a busy life?
If you are interested in learning how to have the garden of your dreams that improves your life rather than becoming yet another stressful thing on your plate, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more how I can help.