4 things to do to get the most out of your late summer garden
If there was ever a time that Southern California vegetable gardens are least ready for an Instagram closeup, it’s late summer. Plants that were once green and healthy seemingly throw in the towel amid triple-digit temperatures and turn brown and crispy — and it’s not just the plants that are worn out.
“Plants tire,” said Scott Daigre, owner of massive roving tomato plant sale Tomatomania. “But more than that, I think gardeners tire.”
Daigre said this is the time of year that many gardeners have had enough. After more than six months of fervently tending to tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn and other plants, people want a break. They want to turn their attention to other things, and they want to get out of the heat. Gardens end up looking worse as a result. It’s just what happens.
But experts say there are ways for gardeners to get their excitement back and make the most of late summer. Some of the ways to get your garden groove back include tearing up what looks bad; revitalizing the plants that still have a fighting chance; and planning for the cooler months that are on the horizon.
1. Freshen things up
Don’t be afraid to take what Daigre calls a “hard edit” to your garden space.
“Remove what looks done, because that’s going to refresh the garden just right there,” he said.He added that tomatoes that are completely brown, corn stalks that have already been de-eared and squash plants that have gotten overgrown and woody are prime candidates for removal.
Another way to get your garden looking great again? Compost. Daigre recommends putting down a fresh new layer of compost because it will not only help the plants that you currently have in your garden, but also help next season’s plants.
He said that there are several options for procuring compost, including garden stores, city composting events or by making your own. Gardeners who start a compost pile now can have it ready ahead of next year’s spring planting, he said.
2. Take a little off the top
Some plants may just need some trimming.
Daigre said it’s not a bad idea to trim up herbs that may have become woody and a little too long by this point in the season.
He recommended that if you have a plant, such as a tomato, that is putting out new growth, trim anything that looks bad and see what you’re left with. If the plant doesn’t look too rough after its haircut, it may be worth keeping around for a bit longer.
For tomatoes, Daigre suggested a switch back to the high nitrogen fertilizer used earlier in the season to amplify new green growth. Once the plant starts to flower again, switch to a fertilizer is higher in phosphorus to encourage fruiting.
“If new growth has happened, if you can encourage that, that’s going to be your most immediate fruit,” he said. “And that’s what you want.”
Of course, if you have plants that are still lush and green and gorgeous at this stage in the summer, leave them in the ground and let them do their thing.
3. Go shopping
Gardeners who have cleared away the yucky-looking stuff now have space for new plants. And the good news is that tomato season doesn’t have to be over just because fall is around the corner.
Justin McKeever, a plant specialist at H&H Nursery in Lakewood, said plants such as tomatoes and peppers can take 80-100 days to produce, and since many parts of Southern California stay warm through November, there’s time for one last bumper crop.
McKeever said some safe bets are late season winter tomatoes, which are often determinate varieties that have been bred in cooler climates. They are used to producing a quick burst of tomatoes all at once in a short amount of time. Some examples of those that line specialty nursery shelves this time of the year include Oregon Spring, Glacier and Siberia.
McKeever said that although the tomatoes are from colder climates, those places still have warm days so the tomatoes can be heat tolerant but also cold tolerant.
“When the nights start cooling down, they’re still going to be able to set fruit and you’re not going to get issues with blossom drop and stuff like that,” he said.
Peppers that are good for growing in the late summer include a lot of the traditional varieties such as jalapeños, Anaheim peppers and bell peppers.
4. Break out the Uggs, Pumpkin Spice Latte and some cooler weather plants
Now is also the time when gardeners can gently tiptoe into getting their fall gardens planted with some leafy greens and root crops, Daigre said.
He said chards and spinach are capable of withstanding September and October heat and can be planted now. People who are worried that their leafy greens will get too much sun can plant them on the east side of their tomato plants to keep them protected, Daigre said.
Daigre said that beets, a relative of chards, can be planted as well as radishes (the latter are notoriously fast growing).
Gardeners who are not sure about a fall garden because they don’t know whether they’ll have enough sun might try a cover crop such as peas, beans and certain kinds of grains that add nitrogen to the soil. There are a wide variety of cover crop mixes that have seeds for a variety of nitrogen-fixing plants in the same packet.
And looking ahead to the future may be one of the best things during a particularly tough time that takes its toll on plants and gardeners, Daigre said.
“You know what? Let’s give ourselves a break,” he said. “Concentrate on what we can move forward with, and that will be great.”