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Winding Down a Difficult Season

August 5, 2012

The extreme drought in my area has made gardening difficult this year, but I still have to clean up the mess and prepare for next season.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Extension Service.
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Despite the severe drought covering two-thirds of the country, we still have vegetables to harvest, perennials to deadhead and clean-up chores to do so that gardens thrive next spring. 

Hopefully, Evelyn Garriss’ report on an El Nino shaping up will give gardeners great hope for future flowers and smiles.  And, rain!

My tomato crop is sparse this summer.  Intense heat, no rain and hot nights significantly reduced blossom set.  Tomato and sweet pepper pollen goes sterile when nights are above 75F and daytime temperatures soar above 90F.  What fruits have set did so during the occasional “cool” spell with nights in the 60’s.  I estimate my harvest is only about 25 percent of normal.  Tomatoes are smaller than usual, too, with thick, tough skins.  But, fruit flavor is outstanding.  Heat builds sugars and other compounds that give tomatoes their nuanced flavors.  However, the same extreme heat sucks all the moisture out of the flesh and tomatoes are shriveling on the vines.  I’m picking them green, as soon as a hint of color appears, and letting them ripen indoors to prevent desiccation.  Sweet peppers have heat, and the harvest is scant.  Cucumbers were a total disaster.  No blooms set, and vines browned quickly, despite several plantings.

If I don't pick tomatoes green and ripen them indoors, they lose all moisture in the intense heat and shrivel.  The heat makes the skins thick and tough, too.

Looking forward to fall crops, I’m freezing seeds and cooling soil.  Salad greens can be tricky to start, because garden soil is too hot.  The same with radishes and sugar snap peas.  My raised veggie beds were 89F when I inserted a soil thermometer this morning.  And, that’s with six inches of straw mulch. I put another six inches of straw on the bed where I’ll plant salad radishes and peas, and I’ll freeze seeds for at least two weeks.  This tricks an internal mechanism that allows seeds to germinate in warm ground.  Seeds can also be started indoors in flats where it’s cool and transplanted into the garden about ten days after germination.   I’ll water daily, unless the El Nino rains show up.   I plant many lettuces in large pots and window boxes, too, and place them in the shade to keep soil temperatures down. 

You can chill soil in containers before planting frozen lettuce seeds to insure germination in this torrid late summer.

Be sure to choose winter or cold-hardy lettuce varieties that take temperatures down into the 20’s with little or no protection.  If you are planting seeds at the end of August, an early October cold snap isn’t unusual.  Any Batavian, Romaine, butterhead lettuce like Spotted Trout and Boston, Black Seed Simpson, Oakleaf looseleaf and Baby’s Leaf spinach are good choices.  When the thermometer dips below freezing, lay an old bed sheet or floating row cover directly over the greens for added protection. 

Sierra Batavian head lettuce is an excellent fall choice to plant.  Not only does it tolerate heat, but it's cold-hardy, too.

Next blog I’ll cover the second half of the topic, including harvesting veggies for storage early, flower tactics and what to buy for next spring now.

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Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.

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Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including Amazon.com.


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i also herd if you add sugar

By tristan

i also herd if you add sugar water on your tomato plant it will make them bigger and riper

Thanks so much for your

By Karen in Michigan

Thanks so much for your insights! I knew there was a reason I was not as interested in planting this summer. I do have some tomatoes that haven't set yet--some blossoms but who knows. I did plant some bush beans and they are flowering now; they may have a chance. Thanks again and I look forward to your next post!

Here in the upper Columbia

By BC Gardener

Here in the upper Columbia River valley of British Columbia we had a VERY wet and cool June with the cool temps extending into July. Once we finally got summer weather, the garden did well. All of the cool crops (brocolli, cabbage, peas, lettuce) were fantastic. I have to admit I plant my tomatoes in a large greenhouse and this year tried cukes as well. Even put in a couple of winter squash plants. Our nights are cool even in the middle of summer, so these plants need the added protection and extension of season to bear fruit. Have lots of green tomatoes so far and huge cukes. Squash look like something out of Jurassic Park. Gardening is a perpetual experiment.Will try the seed freezing for lettuce.

So jealous! There's always

By Doreen G. Howard

So jealous! There's always next year--the gardener's motto.

Thanks to you, I know why my

By Janelle in Nebraska

Thanks to you, I know why my tomatoes barely set on, peppers either but they seem to be recovering somewhat. Sweet corn did well but it was tough to keep water to everything. I hardly mowed the lawn this summer. Heat and drought; not a great summer.

Thank you! I didn't know

By Sil in Corea

Thank you! I didn't know about freezing seeds to make them "think" winter has passed. It makes sense.

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