I call late summer the third act of the vegetable garden season. This new show begins in mid-August, when gardeners start to look forward to autumn. Even as they enjoy tomatoes, squashes and peppers, visions of lettuce, spinach and broccoli begin to dance in their heads.
This third act can become one of the best of the year. We have the opportunity to replace crops as they play out and put in fresh, good ones through the autumn. This gives a lift to both the garden and the gardeners.
Some of these vegetables can be grown easily from seeds; others are best when set out as young plants bought at garden centers this month and into September.
Perhaps you think you have no space for these new crops. Take a look at your plots for odd spots that are vacant because you didnt plant anything there. Look also for spaces that will become vacant when you pick the last of the summer squash or something else.
Fortunately, the window for planting a fall garden is quite wide, giving you time to wait for odd corners and suitable edges. Meanwhile, take out any crops that are diseased, unproductive or simply not to your taste. Have no guilt about this.
What is waiting for you is a nice array of cool-weather crops that prosper even as the days get cooler and shorter.
One of the nice things about the third act is that the hardest work has been done already. That is, preparing the beds by improving the soil is most often done in late winter or early spring. This is good work, but not something anyone enjoys on a warm-to-hot afternoon in August.
Still, even with your bed prepared, it helps to enrich your soil with compost before planting. Compost works wonders to lighten and improve the quality and drainage of red clay soil.
So with space cleared and fresh enthusiasm, lets look forward to the new palette of fall vegetables. This one is not too aggressive and offers six good additions.
Grow from seed
• Leaf lettuce. Hopefully, you had a good spring crop that lasted until heat hit in early summer. Now is the time to restart the lettuce show. But do it slowly. Plant a small amount every 10 days or so from now until mid-September. Popular varieties include Salad Bowl and Black-Seeded Simpson. Even the youngest leaves can be cut and enjoyed. Cool weather keeps the plants producing. Many gardeners use a light cover over their lettuce beds to keep the plants growing even through the winter.
• Spinach . Another easy crop, it also benefits from staggered sowing from now until late September. Spinach is very hardy and you should have a crop well into winter. Pay attention to spacing once the little plants emerge, and follow recommendations on the seed envelope. Salad Fresh Hybrid and Melody Hybrid make good choices.
• Beets . Best sown by mid-August, beets make a very good fall crop. Seedlings must be thinned to about 2 inches apart. Like all root crops, they are very hardy and should produce in about two months. Chioggia has been a favorite lately because when sliced it shows alternating rings of white and red. But there are plenty of others to choose from on the seed racks.
• Carrots . Sow these seeds now for best results. Carrots require loose soil so they can penetrate deeply. If your soil is lacking, choose shorter varieties such as Danvers Half Long, Nantes Half Long or Caracas. As with beets, you must thin the seedlings to the recommended space for good results.
Buy young plants
• Broccoli. Set out broccoli plants in mid- to late August. Popular varieties include Southern Comet and Romanesco. Plant them about 18 inches apart. They will take the early, light frost that is typical in mid to late autumn.
• Brussels sprouts. An interesting plant and one that improves as the weather gets frostier in November. Jade Cross Hybrid is a popular choice and should be spaced about 20 inches apart. Most varieties of Brussels sprouts mature in about 90 days.