When early spring rolls around, the urge to put some seeds in the ground is almost irresistible, even for the most casual of gardeners. By high summer in the middle of the growing season, that urge will have largely worn off. However, this is a highly productive time for your vegetable garden, and you can get a lot more veggies from your garden space with a round of August plantings. Here's what you need to know and which plants you should be putting in.
The beauty of late plantings
Early spring is the traditional time to plant most things, especially for short-season gardeners, because it gives the most time for your plants to grow and mature. It isn't necessarily ideal, though, because in spring, the soil is cold and the weather is uncertain. One late frost or sudden downpour can obliterate all of your carefully nurtured transplants or wash away entire beds of seeds.
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A second planting in late summer makes a lot of sense. The soil is warm, and conditions favor rapid growth, so your seedlings will require at most a bit of shade, some watering and diligent weeding until they're well established. In return, you'll be rewarded with a big increase in your vegetable garden's productivity and will enjoy fresh veggies right up until the soil freezes.
Choosing what varieties to plant in August in your climate
Most planting guides offer broad advice based on your USDA hardiness zone (those are easy to look up if you don't know your own). That works, but a better option is to work from the conditions in your own specific area. There are two dates you'll need to know: the typical frost date and the corresponding date for when your ground freezes (you can get these from your local extension service).
Now, look at the time to maturity on your seeds. If it's mid-August and your first frost will come in mid-October, that means you have 60 days or so for frost-sensitive plants. If you get a hard freeze in mid-November, you have up to 90 days for cold-tolerant crops.
You can stretch those time frames and extend your growing season by giving your plants some added protection. You don’t need a greenhouse (though if you have one, that’s great). Cloches, cold frames and row covers—even something as simple as a sheet placed over your veggies at night and removed in the morning—will keep your harvest going.
So, what are the best things to plant in August for a late summer harvest? There are actually so many that we've divided them into seven categories rather than naming individual plants.
1. Delicate salad greens
Many of the most popular greens in your salad bowl don't fare well in the midsummer heat. Lettuces, mesclun mix and spinach are all cool-season crops, meaning they'll produce well during relatively cool weather but then quickly bolt (go to seed and become bitter) in the heat. Replanting them in August means they'll just be hitting their stride as the weather begins to cool, giving you a long and productive harvest (and plenty of salads) for months to come. With quick-growing varieties, you could even do plantings in mid and late August.
2. Sturdy, cold-tolerant greens
Salad greens aren't your only leafy option for a fall garden. Sturdier greens, including kale, Swiss chard, collards and many Asian greens, are all well suited for midsummer planting. You can harvest them at the baby greens stage to add variety to your salads or let them grow to their full size and eat them steamed or stir-fried (or blanch and freeze them for winter meals). Most of these greens will survive through a few frosts, and some varieties of kale can hold out almost until winter.
3. The Brassica family
The entire cabbage family of vegetables works beautifully as fall crops. Aside from cabbage itself, the family includes kale (which we've already mentioned), broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. Not only do they tolerate cool weather but some, like cauliflower, need it to be at their best.
The only catch is that your harvest times for these are generally counted as days from transplant, so you'll need to start some extra seedlings next spring after you've finished your main planting. Most of these plants will shrug off a hard frost or two (it actually makes them sweeter), and some varieties, like the aptly named January King cabbage, can literally be harvested from under the snow.
4. Peas and beans
Peas are a quintessential cool-season vegetable like spinach. They do best in early spring and then fade in the summer's heat. Replanting them in August means you'll have fresh peas again around the end of September, though in cooler climates, it's prudent to plant quick-maturing edible pod varieties. In the case of beans, opt for bush rather than pole varieties. Bush beans mature early and set heavily, which is ideal for late plantings.
Peas and beans are “nitrogen fixers,” meaning they help enrich the soil for next spring. You can even treat them as a cover crop: Let the frost kill them and then till them into the soil next spring before you plant.
5. Root vegetables
Root vegetables are some of the most durable of all late-season crops. Plant beets, turnips and large radish varieties (daikon and "watermelon radish," for example) and you'll get to enjoy their tops as cooked greens and then harvest the young and tender roots as the season ends. Normal red radishes grow in as little as three weeks and bring color and crunch to your salads.
Plant early varieties of carrots and harvest them for immediate consumption throughout the autumn. They'll survive a frost or two, and you can dig them from the cold soil even after the tops have died.
Alternatively, plant parsnips and long-maturing varieties of carrots with the deliberate intention of overwintering them. They’re typically grown as annuals, but carrots and parsnips are really biennials, and wintering in the ground is literally in their DNA.
You’ll need to mulch them heavily in cold climates (straw and shredded leaves are good choices), but in spring, they’ll be among your earliest crops. Just be aware that you need to harvest them in early spring; otherwise, they’ll go to seed, and the roots will be of poor quality.
You may groan and roll your eyes at the thought of having more zucchini, but cucurbits, such as summer squashes and cucumbers, actually work well as a midsummer planting. Zucchini and similar summer squashes grow quickly and produce lavishly, and if you plant them now, your new vines will produce when the old ones are spent. The same holds true for cucumbers. In the month of August, you'll want to plant fast-growing varieties, and like the brassicas, it's best to start from transplants.
7. Tasty herbs
While some herbs (mint, thyme) are perennials and will come back year after year, most are grown as annuals. Fast-growing herbs, including dill and cilantro, are ideal for planting in midsummer, partly because of their rapid growth and partly because, like lettuces, they run to seed quickly in the late summer heat. Other herbs, including parsley and basil, will also germinate quickly in the warm summer soil, giving you a welcome second round of fresh flavors.
Leeks are more onionlike than herbal but also bring a hint of flavor to your autumn cookery. Transplant them into relatively deep holes (bury them to about two-thirds of their length) and then mound more soil around them as they grow. That’s called ‘blanching,” and it helps create those signature long, white, flavorful stalks.