If your neighbors are crowing about their first sun-ripened tomatoes and you’re still looking at a bare patch of dirt, don’t despair.
There’s still time to plant some summer vegetables.
Fortunately, many of our hottest days are in August and September, and sometimes into October. That late heat should come just when your fledgling crops need it the most.
However, you should know a few things going in.
This is not the ideal time to plant. Offerings at local nurseries are bound to be slim. Your harvests aren’t likely to be as prolific. And it’s too late in the season to start seeds of some crops, including tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. You’ll need to buy those in 4-inch or gallon containers.
But you can still plant beans, corn, cucumbers, melons and zucchini from seed. The good news is that those crops tend to sprout faster and grow faster with warmer days and nights.
Whatever you choose, look for varieties that ripen early.
Summer vegetables need at least six hours of direct sunlight a day, with the hottest, sunniest location in your yard being best.
Provide impeccable soil. It should be rich in organic material and drain reasonably fast.
Mulch around the base of each plant to help retain moisture, and plan to water frequently. This may be as often as once or twice a day in the early going. As your little plants grow taller and send out leaves that shade their roots, you can back off on the watering. But if you go away on vacation, make arrangements for someone to come in daily to make sure that your seedlings don’t dry out.
Beans grow two ways: as bushes and vines. While both are quick to produce, bush types are typically a few days earlier, with the first long, dangling beans ready for harvest in less than two months.
One of the best traditional green beans is Blue Lake, a stringless variety that comes as a bush or a vine. Other fast-bearing bush types include the heirloom Early Bush Italian, ready in 50 days, and two yellows, Eureka in 55 days and Gold Mine in 60 days. Purple Queen is nearly black when it ripens at 52 days. But it’s green on the inside and turns entirely green with cooking.
Corn grows best with heat. If you can, plant yours on the south side of a white wall or next to an asphalt driveway to capture the extra bounce of sunlight or lingering warmth.
Sow the seeds in a block rather than a row. That way you’ll increase the likelihood that when the male flowers fall off the tassels, they’ll land on the female flowers on the silks below.
Look for early-bearing or cool-climate sweet corn, such as Early Sunglow, ready in 63 days, or Northern Xtra-Sweet, ready in 67 days.
Also, this late in the season, know that your stalks probably won’t grow as tall or produce as many ears as they might have if you had planted them earlier. But the corn itself should still taste as sweet.
Cucumbers are quick, from seed or transplants. Baby pickles lead the pack, since they’re picked when the fruits are small. Alibi bears petite, 1 to 2-inch gherkin fruits that are ready in just 45 days. Picklebush, which bears 4-inch cukes, is ready in 52 days. And Salad Bush Hybrid bears 8-inch long, smooth dark-green cukes in 57 days. The All-America Winner also resists powdery mildew, leaf spot and cucumber mosaic virus.
Regardless of the type or size, just about any cucumber grows well in a barrel or large pot. Baby pickles tend to stand on their own. The larger plants send out longer vines that need support from cages or stakes.
Eggplant, Peppers and Tomatillos
It’s too late to start these heat-loving vegetables from seed. Instead, buy transplants and give them a spot in the garden that stays warm at night.
Peppers in particular appreciate that night-time heat. Even if the sun beats down all day, they may sulk if temperatures drop below 60 degrees over night.
Also balance good drainage with nearly constant moisture. Avoid letting the soil dry out or crust up between waterings.
Regardless of when you plant them, watermelons, cantaloupes and the like are tricky to grow on the coast because they take so long to ripen. In addition, they may stop growing if temperatures drop below 70 degrees.
This time of year, temperature shouldn’t be an issue. But still select a melon that ripens rapidly. Even then, success is iffy and you’re looking at a harvest in late September or early October, with each fruit about the size of a grapefruit. For example, Sweet ‘n Early bears oblong, 4 x 5-inch fruit that’s ready in 75 days, while the heirloom Early SIlverline bears smaller, 3 x 4-inch fruit that’s ready in 76 days.
Forget tomatoes from seed. But there should still be some interesting transplants available at local garden centers. I picked up an indeterminate type last week called San Francisco Fog. The label said it would set fruit well in cool, damp, coastal regions.
Regardless of what you find, look for healthy growth on top. If a plant is leggy or scraggly underneath, bury it deeper than you otherwise would. Tomatoes are one of the few plants that will send out new roots from buried stems.
Use cages or stakes. Determinate types that are supposed to stand alone may collapse under the weight of their fruit. Indeterminate, vining types absolutely require support.
Zucchini and Summer Squash
These may be the fastest and most adaptable of all of the summer vegetables. Buy them in 4-inch pots and they may already be bearing their first flowers. From seed, expect a delay of about two-weeks.
If you’re crimped for space, plant your squash between rows of corn, like the Indians did.
Harvest your zucchini early and often to hold it in check. Butterstick bears prolifically, with the first zukes ready in 50 days. Burpee’s Ball Mix features an assortment of round zucchinis that are ready in just 40 days.
If the abundance of zucchini scares you, other summer squashes, such as crookneck and scallop, don’t bear quite as heavily. But they’re still ready for harvest in about the same amount of time.
How Many Days?
The number of days noted on a seed packet or in a seed catalog represents the time that it takes for a new transplant to produce its first ripe fruit.
If you’ve planted your seeds directly in the ground, know that the number does not account for the time from sowing until the first couple of sets of leaves appear, which can add at last another week or two until the time to harvest.
Seeds of Wisdom
If your cucumbers, melons or zucchini show signs of powdery mildew, spray the leaves with a strong jet of water first thing in the morning to knock off the mildew spores. The leaves will then have all day to dry.
Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.