As a high school teacher, we used to joke that the three best months of the year were June, July, and August. When I switched careers, I soon realized that this was especially true for market gardeners.
Though it’s not the most relaxing time of the year, the months around high summer are certainly the most rewarding. Crops germinate with ease as overnight temperatures seldom dip below 15°C (59°F). And with almost sixteen hours of daylight, plants grow amazingly fast.
During this time of year there is no time for a break. I always remind farm workers hoping for a summer holiday that one hour of work in July or August is as productive as a week or two in the spring and fall.
Here on the West Coast, and in other temperate regions of the world, we’ve been conditioned to believe that our gardens must be planted by June or we’d miss out on a plentiful harvest. But it’s within a ninety-day period starting from June first that most of our work of planting and seeding is done.
Our emphasis in the spring and fall should be on fast maturing greens, turnips and radishes. But in the three months around the summer solstice, our attention switches to high-calorie crops that store well and will nourish us from September to April—a span of eight months.
Let’s look at some of the crops that require special attention through the hottest period of the year.
Early June is a great time to seed squash and pumpkins. I prefer to direct sow cucurbits in favour of transplanting them. They always seem to suffer quite badly from transplant shock. We seed them on mounds made of well-rotted compost and give them ample space and lots of water.
Protect them from slugs and give them the additional heat they need in the early going by covering them with a large mason jar. Gardeners with small plots may wish to grow squash up a sturdy trellis to save space. By August, I pinch late flowers and new stems to encourage fruit development.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew even though they’re not considered a storage crop. These produce abundantly on our farm and require very little care. I’ve grown them successfully up a chain-link fence and they provide an interesting talking piece when friends visit in late summer. I’m always amazed at how fast and sudden they begin to size up in August. We can hardly wait for them to ripen and provide us with the sugary juiciness we need to boost our energy on hot days.
It’s easy to discern when cantaloupe and honeydew are ready for harvest. They’ll exude an irresistibly sweet smell and will brighten up as they approach maturity. They’re ripe when they freely let go of the vine. Watermelon in our area ripens as the days begin to cool in early to mid-September. Wait until their bellies show a bright orangey yellowing before you harvest them. There are few greater disappointments than stabbing your knife into an unripe watermelon.
In my region, zone 7, we start our hardy winter cabbages in early June. Timing is crucial here. They’re transplanted around four weeks later in early July. If you start too late in the season, you’ll get all leaf and no head.
Days to maturity for slow maturing brassicas like Brussels sprouts and storage cabbage is around 120 days. From a Canada Day planting – July 1st for our friends south of the border – they’ll have spent ninety days in the ground by the end of September when they begin to form a head. They’ll need all of October and November to produce solid heads when the days are cool and short and count as half.
In well drained soils, mature cabbages can withstand temperatures as low as -15°C (5°F) if they’re wind-protected.
We thin parsnips to around six inches apart with rows one foot apart. They need lots of room and consistent moisture during germination! We seed parsnips just before the summer solstice. This gives us a fully mature root by the time we get our first significant frost in November. A solid frost greatly enhances taste. I personally think we’re showing great disrespect to this albino root by eating it before it’s at its peak flavour.
Our latest sowing for carrots is the thirtieth week of the year, but if you’re after a high yielding crop, seed them a week or two earlier. This is especially true for growers who have soft soil where your carrots can grow deep.
It can be a real struggle germinating carrots during the heat of summer and I know why. A small seed, dropped near the surface dries out very quickly. And during the germination period of at least ten days, the carrot cannot dry out or its life will be snuffed out.
In the summer we water up to ten times in short bursts during the heat of the day to keep the surface consistently moist. In your home garden, cover a newly seeded carrot bed with moistened cardboard. After a week, check under the cardboard daily for germination. When the first green shoots appear, remove the cardboard. Keep your carrots moist but not saturated through the rest of the growing season.
Spinach and Arugula
We successfully grow spinach and arugula on our market garden right through the summer. Frequent watering helps moderate the temperature and slows bolting. But as a home gardener, I’d probably pass on growing these crops through the heat of summer when romaine and butter lettuces might be preferred and are easier to grow.
Once the days begin to cool in August, sow arugula and spinach weekly until mid September for a continuous harvest well into the winter. It’s not unusual for these hardy greens to overwinter in temperate climates and they’re a welcome nutrient boost in early spring when they push up fresh leaves.
I mention them here because they’re a great consideration when you’re trying to fill gaps in your garden around the staple crops. This will also allow you to maintain a living cover for your garden through the winter.
If your winter temperature stays above -15°C (5°F), you can overwinter a variety of foods. Cauliflower is one of my favourite cold-tolerant crops. From a July planting we harvest massive white heads in April at the same time most gardeners in our area are just planting their new cauliflower. Purple sprouting broccoli is equally hardy and matures even earlier.
We’ve also had success with overwintered onions. A late summer seeding can produce full size onions in early June just around the time that our winter supply is exhausted.
Leeks, a close cousin of the onion, are by far the hardiest of all our overwintering crops and can be harvested right through the winter and well into May when they’ll begin to bolt. If you don’t get around to eating them all, allow a few to go to seed. Their large globular flowers are stunning and will attract a host of beneficials to your garden. If you use an open pollinating variety, you can also save the seed.
When our gardens are full of overwintering crops, there is far less urgency to begin seeding and planting in early spring. You’ve done the hard work the previous season when the conditions were favourable and in late winter and early spring you reap the rewards.
I’ve met gardeners in a complete panic if they didn’t have their garden planted by the May long weekend. But even if you didn’t do anything in your garden until mid-June, you’d still be in an excellent position to produce food for the upcoming fall, winter and coming spring. From a food-security standpoint, our gardens require the greatest attention during the hottest months of the year, and we scarcely have time to escape for an afternoon beach retreat.
If you’re hoping to produce an abundant harvest, join our gardening course where we cover everything you need to know about succession planting for an abundant fall and winter harvest.
Other crops that we cover in our gardening course include endive, celery, celeriac, radicchio, spinach, tomatoes, beans, overwinter onions, overwinter cauliflower, garlic, and much more.
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