A Midsummer Vegetable Garden Checklist

Throughout New England, gardeners in August peer into the flowers of summer squash for cucumber beetles and try to stay ahead of the weeds. We harvest the last of the spring-sown peas and the first of summer’s tomatoes. We drag the hose and spread compost between the garden rows. We renovate the strawberry beds. Gardeners in Zone 5 harvest garlic in early August, a week or two earlier for gardeners in Zones 6 and 7. And many of us will sow seeds of fall crops as vacant spots open up in the summer garden.

Post-harvest Strawberry Bed Renovation

Sending out stolons far beyond its boundaries, this strawberry bed is in need of renovation.

Sending out stolons far beyond its boundaries, this strawberry bed is in need of renovation.

Every year, at the end of the harvest, your bed of June-bearing strawberries must be renovated, an annual bed thinning and renewal process. This is the time to evaluate the bed. Was there a good yield this year? Did the plants grow vigorously without any serious insect or disease problems? If the health of the bed is in decline, make next year its last and plan to start a new bed in the spring.

Renovation begins by pulling all weeds within the row. Then cut off the leaves above the crowns with a mower, weed whacker, or shears, removing them from the garden. The leaves can be buried in the compost pile.

Next, apply an organic fertilizer according to soil test recommendations. This is the main fertilizing time for strawberries and a typical application would be two pounds each of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium per 1000 square feet of bed. Nitrogen can be supplied as blood meal, phosphorous as rock phosphate or bone meal, and potassium as wood ashes or greensand. Premixed organic N-P-K fertilizers can also be purchased at many garden centers. All fertilizer materials should be broadcast over the bed.

After fertilizing, till or spade the sides of the each row, narrowing the row to 10 inches wide. As you do this, you are also incorporating much of the fertilizer just applied and any cut leaves that were not removed from the garden.

Watering is the last step in renovating a strawberry bed.

Watering is the last step in renovating a strawberry bed.

Finish the renovation process by watering thoroughly. For the rest of the summer, weed, weed, weed. In late August or early September, fertilize again at one half the renovation rate. And keep watering; the strawberry plants need one to two inches of water every week for the rest of the growing season.

It is not too late to do this renovation, but act quickly. Plants in the renovated bed need several weeks of growing weather to re-establish.

Remove Flowers from Tomato and Winter Squash Plants

By the time you read this, the probability of any just-pollinated flowers on tomato and winter squash producing ripe fruits before first frost is low. Rather than allow just-formed fruits to sap much-needed energy from fruits that can mature, start removing the blossoms from tomato and winter squash (including pumpkin) plants now in Zone 5, a week or two later in Zones 6 and 7, respectively. Any tomato fruits now on the plants that do not fully ripen before first frost should be able to finish ripening indoors.

Sow Oats in Empty Garden Areas

We prefer oats as a cover crop, sowing them as early as August (2 pounds of seeds per 1,000 square feet) wherever the soil would otherwise remain bare. The seeds quickly sprout and by October the sown beds are covered in a thick green blanket. Roots of the oat plants grow deep into the soil, mining nutrients to feed the growing shoots.

Winter-killed oats make an excellent mulch for spring-sown seeds and transplants.

Winter-killed oats make an excellent mulch for spring-sown seeds and transplants.

Unlike winter rye, oats will winterkill, and you can dig in the mat of dead nutrient-rich leaves as soon as the soil can be worked in spring, then wait two weeks before planting to allow time for decomposition. Or, if you are in a hurry to plant, you can move the mat of dead grass leaves aside to either plant seedlings or sow seeds, and use the oat leaves as a mulch between rows. With either method, the nutrients mined by the leaves in fall will be returned to the root zone of spring crops.

Sow Seeds of Carrots and Spinach for a Late Fall Harvest

Carrot seeds sown in mid-August will produce a crop that can be harvested from late autumn to early winter. The carrot variety Napoli (available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds) is recommended for this late-season crop by experienced growers.

To extend the growing and harvest seasons beyond the first light freezes, cover the bed with a sheet of poly supported by hoops made from 1/4-inch PVC pipes fitted over sections of rebar, securing the sides and ends of the tunnel with boards or stones. The plastic cover, installed after night temperatures approach freezing and opened at the ends on sunny days to ventilate excess heat, should be just above the tops of the plants. In my limited experience growing carrots under poly tunnels, the entire crop should be harvested before daytime temperatures remain below freezing and/or the soil under the tunnel freezes.

This crop of September-sown spinach survived last winter under a poly tunnel.

This crop of September-sown spinach survived last winter under a poly tunnel.

Spinach is another crop that can be sown in late August or early September for harvest well after frost. Again, a poly covering over the bed is necessary to protect against hard freezes. This past winter I was able to carry the seedlings of a September 15 sowing through the winter in a raised bed covered with a single layer of poly. Even with this protection, the seedlings saw many sub-freezing hours, including temperatures near zero. I took the cover off for the first time on April 8 and the seedlings looked and tasted great! They grew well for several weeks, but bolted even earlier than spring-sown spinach, do I still have a lot to learn.

Side-dress Summer Crops with Compost or Well-rotted Manure

Poor fruit set on summer crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and winter squash (including pumpkins) is likely not due to lack of nitrogen but to low night temperatures (below 60º F). To keep mineral nutrient levels optimal, side-dress these crops in mid-August with compost or well-rotted manure.

The list goes on, of course. Before August is over there will be onions to harvest, cure, and store away for winter soups. And there is the daily harvest of cucumbers, summer squash, Sungold tomatoes, pole beans, raspberries, and blueberries. There are the weeds. There is always work to be done in the August garden and, at the end of the day, there is always the garden bench, or the camp chair by the fire pit.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)