My not so early Early Girls.

For years, I’ve had a standing goal of being able to harvest fresh tomatoes by the 4th of July. But despite having planted my first eight plants in early May, I didn’t make it this year. Too many cool, overcast days have resulted in a fine crop of still very green tomatoes.

Indeed, our warmest, sunniest days are yet to come. And that’s a good thing if you haven’t put in your summer vegetables yet. There’s still time to play catch-up. Then once we do get a daily dose of sunshine and warm temperatures, any freshly planted vegetables will take off.

The trick for planting this late, however, is to buy robust plants that are already up and growing in 4-inch containers. That size jump-starts by at least a month any of the same veggies sown from seed.

The exception is corn, which is quick to sprout and always best grown from seed. You can also get away with sowing a few vegetables that sprout from big seeds, such as beans, melons and summer squash. Pumpkins from seed are okay, too, although they’re one of the longer-day crops and may not mature until Thanksgiving, rather than Halloween.

Getting Started

Cisneros tomatillos in bloom.

In general, summer vegetables need at least six to eight hours of daily sunlight. But since you’re making up for lost time, plant your new vegetables where they’ll receive eight hours or more of sun each day.

Prepare the bed by digging down a foot and working in a couple of inches worth of soil conditioner or well-aged, medium-textured compost. Break up any dirt clods.

When you’re done, the soil should sift easily through your fingers and smell fresh. Loose soil is important: it translates to good drainage, and enables roots to spread faster, ensuring more vigorous and productive plants.

Upright Growers

Heirloom Stupice tomatoes just getting started.

Tomatoes are among the few plants that you can bury the bottom part of the stem on purpose, to encourage extra roots and a healthier plant. Dig a rather deep hole, then cover the first few sets of branches and leaves. New roots will emerge from each joint where the branches meet the stem.

Tomatoes — as well as cucumbers and tomatillos — have trouble standing up, so use cages or stakes to support their floppy branches, keep their fruit off the ground and conserve valuable growing space. Space your plants so that there will be at least 6 inches between the top rims of the cages, or about 2 and a half to 3 feet apart.

A not yet golden Golden Bell pepper.

Shorter eggplants and peppers are content to stand on their own. They form pretty little bushes with glossy fruit and can be spaced 18 to 24 inches apart.

Plant any of these upright growers in rows or blocks, then shape basins around individual plants or the group. Add a half-inch to inch-thick layer of compost in the basin, then fill it to the brim with water and let it soak in.

Millionaire Japanese eggplant just begging to bloom.

At the outset, water daily or whenever the top half inch of soil dries out. As the expanding canopies of leaves begin to shade the soil beneath, taper off watering to whenever the top inch of soil dries out, which will probably be about once a week.

Water in the morning, so that the plants start out refreshed. Don’t worry if their leaves droop in the afternoon, then firm up in the evening. New plants, with smaller root masses, often do that. But if they don’t rebound, or stay wilted until the next morning, water more frequently.

in addition to leaching nutrients into the soil, that mulch in the watering basins helps retain moisture, reduces weeds and moderates the soil temperature. That’s important because shallow roots are vulnerable to temperature swings in the top layer of soil.


Young zucchini, poised to take off.

Cantaloupe, honeydew, pumpkins, summer squash, watermelon and zucchini all take up considerable space, often sending trailing vines and giant leaves 4 to 6 feet in every direction. There’s no need to prepare that much soil, since their roots will be concentrated in a much smaller area.

Instead, dig down a foot in a circle about the size of a trash can lid. Amend it with 3 to 4 inches worth of soil conditioner or well-aged, medium-textured compost. Mound the center 3 to 4 inches high. Then shape a basin around the perimeter.

If you are growing a sprawler as a transplant, its 4-inch container is likely to include several vines. Keep the cluster intact, and plant it in the center of the mound. Or if you’re sowing from big seeds, bury five or six seeds an inch or so apart at whatever depth is advised on the packet.

Sprinkle a half-inch thick layer of compost over the mound, then give it a good soak. Continue watering just as you would for the upright growers.

Rows and Blocks

Beans grow well planted in rows, while corn is best in blocks.

If you’re growing bush beans from containers, plant them just as you would eggplants and peppers, spaced about 18 to 24 inches apart, and surrounded by watering basins.

For bush or pole beans from seed, start by forming rows of flat-topped ridges 2 to 3 inches tall and 4 to 6 inches wide, lined by furrows 3 to 4 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches wide.

Sow the beans 3 to 6 inches apart and again, as with your other vegetables, mulch them with a thin layer of compost. Sprinkle the ridges and flood the furrows daily early on, then taper off as the plants fill in. In the meantime, for bush beans, thin the seedlings to 18 inches apart once the little plants have sprouted a couple of sets of leaves.

For pole beans, install a trellis at the outset. A simple method is to pound in a 2″x2″ redwood stake every 6 to 8 feet, then run twine between the stakes. I’ve stretched bird netting between stakes, but it becomes a tangled mess at the end of the season. Much easier to handle is an old 4’x8′ wood trellis that I set horizontally, on end, in the bed.

Regardless of your system, thin your pole bean seedlings to about 6 inches apart once they’ve sprouted a couple of sets of leaves, and guide their advancing tendrils up the trellis.

Early Bon Jour bicolor corn with full silks.

Ridges and furrows work for corn, too. Level ground, surrounded by a basin, is fine as well.

However, rather than a single, long row, corn should be planted in a block or several short rows. This is because corn self-pollinates: tassels on top drop pollen on silks below. The process is enhanced — and you get more ears — if the stalks are clustered together.

Sow your corn kernels 3 to 4 inches apart. When the stalks are a few inches high, thin them to 9 to 12 inches apart. Any closer stilts the crop. Even still, most stalks produce only two or three plump ears apiece.

It Takes All Kinds – Most of the Time

A truly green Green Bell pepper.

With most summer vegetables, you can plant an assortment of varieties. For instance, it’s fine to grow an heirloom Stupice tomato alongside a modern hybrid, such as Early Girl, or a Serrano pepper next to a bell pepper.

But don’t try it with corn. If the pollen from the tassels of one type of corn drifts onto the silks of another type, the result can be a starchy, tasteless ear. If you absolutely must grow more than one type of corn, keep the blocks on opposite sides of your yard. Or start your corn earlier next year, so that you can grow several waves that tassel 3 to 4 weeks apart.

Seeds of Wisdom

When starting your summer vegetables this late in the season, look for short-day varieties that mature fast. By buying plants in containers, you may already see blossoms or small fruit forming.

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