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Summer in a Southern Garden

Abbreviated piece by The Man in Overalls, Nathan Ballentine, 2018

If you're anything like me, you're actively looking for excuses to avoid going outside this time of year. Here's the good news: If your garden looks a little worse for wear, it's okay. Really. Mine does too. As much as I aim for- and largely achieve- a productive & beautifully manicured raised bed food garden year round, June, July and August are tough. The green beans have largely faltered; most tomatoes have succumbed to the late season blight (or simply stopped setting fruit once the nights got too warm); potatoes have grown, withered, and been dug up; cucumber vines - if not already dead- are yellowing fast; and the squash and zucchini have likely been overcome by the squash vine borers. On the upside, it's not your fault nor does it mean you're a lousy food gardener. It's just... that time of year.

1. Let's talk weeds.The #1 thing you always want to prevent with weeds is them "going to seed," which is gardener-speak for flowering, growing, drying, and scattering their seeds "all over creation." When that happens, one weed turns into 100 or 1000 or 10,000! So, when you see flowers on weeds, pull them up. If you don't have time for that, at least chop off the top so they don't flower and "set seed" this week. (But be warned, they'll be back trying next week). Also on the topic of weeds, the smaller you pull them, the easier it is. It takes less time to pull 10 baby weeds (or "cultivate," i.e., cut the roots with a weeding knife or butter knife just under the surface) than it does to pull 1 "big boy" weed.

2. Cleanup: just pull it (or chop it). All those leftover bean plants, lingering pest-ridden kale stalks, moldy cucumber vines... just pull them out. If you still have a cherry tomato or pepper or eggplant or, strangely, a squash vine that's still half healthy and producing, fine: prune off the dead branches, leave (or reposition - as needed) the portion remaining, but everything else: just chop it up fine to compost into the soil or, if there's any concern about, say, unsightliness or disease, pull it out; take it to your "back-40," compost it, whatever. Tip: I usually use pruners to cut off plants at the base, so I can leave the root balls in place. This is beneficial for the soil & makes the job easier and much less messy.

3. Topdress: If you're harvesting & removing plant matter from your garden beds, you're indirectly removing nutrients from the soil. To maintain your garden's yield over time, you'll need to give back to your soil by topdressing with a couple inches of something like my Magic Mix.

4. Replant: though it's not tomato season, there are a few veggies that will take the heat- thrive in fact: sweet potatoes, okra, basil and if you can track down baby starts: eggplant and peppers. You can also plant amaranth, aka calaloo because it is, for many purposes, a weed pure and simple, but it's also one of the only annual green leafy vegetables known to old timers that thrives in the scorching heat.

5. Let's talk timing. In an ideal world, we would have done our major spring-to-summer crop transition in June. Fall is just around the corner, so here's the trick: grow your late summer crops until mid September/October. Then, even if they're still growing & producing, go ahead and transition to fall. If you don't replant then, you'll be late with the cool season, which will make you late with spring.

The test of a food gardener is July and August, so if you can make it through and if you're not already a member, welcome to the real food gardener club!

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