Garden Doom...No, Not Really

I wrote this post in 2008, which was one of my worst gardening years ever - I made the insane mistake of setting the deadline for _A Nation of Farmers_ for June 1, which meant I spent most of the planting season in front of my computer. But I knew I wasn't the only one, and I've come to worry a lot less about it - because an awesome fall garden is worth a lot. BTW, not entirely coincidentally, I'm going to teach a 4 week online, asynchronous class on fall gardening during the month of July, beginning Tuesday, July 6. The class will help you either get started or begin to make use of fall gardening and season extension techniques to get more out of your garden. Email me at for more details or to enroll.

I should add that my garden is still not what it should be - we're doing bed-building this year, so they only get planted as fast as the beds get dug and built, and I'm about four beds behind my goals, so that's me, right out there with you.

Ok, you are a terrible person and you are totally doomed. You see, you meant to plant a garden this year (or a bigger garden, or a better garden or something...), you really did. But you were sick in May and then there was a work crisis, and the tiller didn't work, and the guy who was going to bring the horse manure never came and somehow, here it is, the last week of June, and your garden isn't even started, or is only half the size you intended, or three of the beds aren't planted.

Or maybe you did plant it, and the drought or the floods or the locusts or the herds of armadillos destroyed it completely, or weeds the size of Godzilla have sprung up and you are fairly sure there were some carrots in there once, but you can't find them. And here it is, the end of June, and you have no garden, or only half of one, or nothing like what you'd thought you'd have.

And you are thinking... I'm doomed. My family is going to be eating bugs, and not the good kind of bugs, which will all have been harvested by Sharon and her family who are so far ahead of us. No, we're going to be eating the bugs she wouldn't even post recipes for. You are thinking...if I can't even get one stupid little garden planted/can't protect it from disaster, my whole family is going to starve to death...and it will be all my fault. I am bad. I am worthless.

Ok, stop. Guess what. You aren't doomed, and my family is pretty much like yours. You see, there were these sheep, if you'll remember. That took care of the strawberries, the early tomatoes. Then there was this book - do you remember that, the thing that meant that I didn't even start until June? And then there were a host of reasons, some real and some stupid, why half my garden is in cover crops or something else - I could claim it was because of my deep commitment to the soil, but that wouldn't explain why I was crawling around on my knees sticking random unplanted onions in between things...onions, folks.

Do you know when you are supposed to plant onions here? The middle of April. And I was planting them on June 26. Nor would it explain why there are sad looking hot pepper plants looking at me and crying "plant me....for the love of god...plant me...I could fruit still before frost if you'd just get me the hell out of my flat, where I've been since March...!"And if I don't get them planted by the time I go to Boston on Monday morning, they are mostly going on the compost pile.

Am I panicked? Guilty? Nope, (well, a little), but only because I've been here so often that I've gotten pretty comfortable with the reality - all the perfect gardens live in my head, and the truth is, every year's garden is totally messed up. The thing is, I end up eating a lot of food from that messed up garden, and it does get better every year. Or at least every year without sheep in the front yard. And since the disaster is bad, but not that bad yet, we've all got another year of screw ups.

Heck, this sort of thing happens to everyone - and I do mean *EVERYONE* - there are thousands of farmers in the Midwest who due to flooding this year (2008) have absolutely no choice but to say "ok, no corn this year...hmmm...soybeans or do I wait for winter wheat?" That's not to suggest this isn't hard, or scary or painful, or that the consequences of having a bad garden couldn't get a lot tougher than they are. They certainly are for those farmers, and I'm not trying to mock the sheer pain of seeing something you've worked on washed away. But now that we've mourned our follies or nature or whatever, it is time to move on. And it is not too late to produce a good bit of food for most of us, while loftily implying that you meant things to come out this way. (Gardeners are like cats - everything they do is intentional, even when it isn't.) The trick is knowing how.

One option for most of us to just say "the heck with the summer garden, I'm just going to have a super-amazing fall garden. For us northerners, that starts right quick now. I finish my summer planting on June 30, and then I begin my fall planting on July 1. Sounds crazy, but that's when I need to start cabbages and other late crops by (ok, actually it's usually more like July 7, but it sounds better this way). The thing is, most fall crops need time to mature while days are still long - some things, like spinach and mustard greens can be planted as late as September here, but this far north, most of the fall garden gets planted in July and August. And fall gardens are the best - no bugs, things don't require as much attention since the weeds grow slower, etc...

You can also plant most short season summer crops now - near me it is by no means too late to plant cucumbers, basil, zucchini, green beans, etc... Other than a few beets and carrots for summer enjoyment, I don't even really bother to plant my main crop of most root vegetables until early July - we are so busy in high summer eating tomatoes and eggplant that I don't really want turnips, cabbage or the main crop of carrots until late September - so why rush about madly trying to get them planted when everything else is going in? And some crops, like lettuce and rapini do better in the fall anyway. No worries about the broccoli going to seed at all - just enjoy having a good fall crop.

The other things I plant late are canning vegetables. I used to plant my cukes in late May, when everyone else did. Then I realized something - I don't really love standing over a hot canning kettle in July. Now I can do it for the blueberries - that's their time, and there's no good way around it. But the cucumbers keep coming until why is it I was I melting here again in July? Oh, because I have a giant glut of pickling cukes, and I don't want to waste them. But if I make the glut come when I want it... So now I start my cucumbers in mid (or sometimes late) June and the glut comes in early September when it is cooler, and I don't mind canning as much.

It probably is too late for tomatoes and peppers and eggplant, at least from seed. But what if you have some, or if your local nursery is trying to get rid of its stuff so it can start the Chrysanthemums, and you want to try it. Well, my suggestion is to go for it - pull off any blossoms, plant them deep, and take a shot at it. Or even better, stick them in a nice big pot. Because then, if frost hits before the tomatoes do, you can drag it into the lobby of your building or into your garage for those first few frosty nights, and stretch the tomatoes out a bit. The peppers and eggplants are true perennials, and you might even be able to overwinter them, if you've got conditions, and then brag to everyone about how smart you are and that you've got hot peppers in June.

The other possibility is that you can put in cover crops. Now this is especially good because true serious gardeners know that soil is everything. In fact, serious gardeners believe that the vegetables are mere by-products of the good soil - you pretty much just plant the chard to keep the earthworms happy. So if you tell everyone "Oh, I put 80% of my garden into vetch and oats for green manure this year - I really felt the soil needed it" other gardeners will nod wisely and feel sad and selfish because they don't love their soil enough to forgo pumpkins and parsnips. It helps the effect if you look sad at their selfishness too.

Some of these cover crops actually produce food, too. For example, buckwheat has a delicious salad green, and if you are lazy about cutting it down (which I often am) produces tasty and nutritious seed. It isn't quite as good for your soil after going to seed, but it isn't terrible either, and I won't tell if you don't. Red clover makes a nutritional tea if you harvest the blossoms. Daikon radishes break up soil, and I promise not to tell if you accidentally harvest one or ten and make kimchi or Japanese pickles with them.

You could even experiment - I have some seed potatoes I have not planted this year - I ran out of space in the potato patch, and I had thought I'd allocated all of the rest of my garden to other things. But I've got a spot and I'm curious as to what kind of yield I'll get from potatoes planted at the end of June around here - for those in warmer places, fall is a good time to plant potatoes. And since my potatoes keep best if they are harvested when it is quite cool, this might actually work out well. 'Twill be worth a shot, anyway.

"Experiment" explains anything. Just point to your flooded out plot and look wise and say "This is a test garden, planted to compare how well hybrid corn does in marginal conditions vs. open pollinated." Imply there's a comparative plot "over there somewhere" and that it is all supposed to look that way.

Most of all, remember that you are not doomed. Your next garden will be better, because you will have learned from experience. You have mastered something - next year you will do remarkable things. You will probably make a whole new set of mistakes next year, and come up with a new, creative range of personal excuses. See, you've learned something!

And you needn't worry that my family will get all the good bugs. We'll be right there along with you, trialing recipes for the discards while some other family, who always does it right, eats the locust croquettes with their correctly succession planted arugula, that never bolts before another crop gets put in place. I already hate them, don't you?


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By darwinsdog (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

Thank you for yet another great post, Sharon! Lots of ideas on how to explain the enormous mess we call our garden. (Ok, we only moved here 2 months ago and have so far been busy with reconstructions, so this year we actually have an excuse.)
I don't think I've ever commented, but we've been following your posts and blog thanks to my scienceblogs-reader husband. I must say I'm not easy to impress nor quick to admire, but I've come to look at you guys as some sort of role-model when it comes to farming. I really hope we can accomplish some of what you do in the future. (Incidentally, we also live in Hungary, like another one of your readers as I saw in the sansfridge-post.) Thank you for the inspiration!

Make me laugh out loud! I love it, and it's so true. We're ALL behind in one way or another. Some of us in every way.

I'm going to polish up my sad look for the selfishness of gardeners who don't love their soil enough to pumpkins and parsnips. That one's priceless!

Bless you!

This has been the Year of the Duck, but a few days ago I planted a few carrots and beets. And the lacinato kale that I planted last year and overwintered has dozens of seed pods looking close to ready . . . I was thinking I could just plant some . . . . Each year I aim to add some perennials so that something will be producing in spite of the detours.

So glad to know that I might be able to get some cucumbers in! Last year was the first year I ever successfully grew them (one plant - I was feeling pessimistic). Boothby's blonde.

Thanks again, Sharon. I needed this one.

Also wonderful advice, and a good read as usual, for those of us who beat ourselves up over failures in non-garden-related endeavors. Thank you.

Raye, your kale seeds might do just fine, but just fyi, I once did the same thing - planted the kale right after harvest, and found that it didn't germinate well. Some seeds do better after a resting period that mimics winter or something, and I wondered if that was it. Not willing to swear that's true of all kale seed, though.


Amusingly, this has been one of the very few years I've been basically on time with the summer stuff. Of course, where I live in CA, the time constraint isn't about the length of the season, it's about getting things basically established before it's way too hot and dry for any tiny little seedling to possibly survive unless you're willing to water it 18 times a day. Your fall garden is our winter garden, so that has to wait until early October or so.

Usually, I'd be right about now saying, crap, I only just got the soil ready and it's going to be 100+ degrees tomorrow! Instead, we managed to build some lovely raised beds in wee early spring -- garden of my dreams, really -- and get everything ready to get summer stuff in on time.

Where it then sat and waited for the weather to warm up, because we had a weird, cold, wet late spring this year. My peppers are only now spending more energy on growing than on begging for earmuffs.

It's always something! But hell, the constant adaptation is half the fun, I think. If I ever have a year where I'm simultaneously on the ball with everything, the weather is perfect, the dogs don't decide to trample half of my starts, and everything goes absolutely according to plan, I may retire from gardening at the pinnacle of my garden experience.

I am printing out this post to read next time I feel like crying about it all...

Thanks for reprinting this very reassuring post. It got so hot so fast here in north Texas that even though I got tomatoes in on time (last year I was busy having heart surgery and had an actual excuse for screwing up), they're now just tomato bushes because it's been over 95 degrees for a month and no fruit has set.

But you're right. Bed-building will proceed apace, and I can actually look forward to a crop of heirlooms in the fall. Unless, of course, winter descends too early. Maybe it's time to focus on peppers, which aren't nearly so picky about temperatures.

I love this post. This was the year I actually, finally, got my act together in March and started tons of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, lemon basil ... It was beautiful, man.
And then it rained for four months, and work was frantically busy, my husband sprained his ankle, I was taking weekend and evening classes, my mom had surgery and I took time off to go help her ... But Finally, finally, this weekend I had what I had been longing for: A Whole Weekend to work in the garden! Even if it Was the end of June! And the very very first thing that I did ... was to fall down while running with the dog, and crack a rib. Gah!
Ah, well. My garden is a comedy of errors. Thanks to the kindness of a friend who dug out one of the raised beds for me, most of the tomatoes and half the parsely are now in ... Oh, and I planted three sprouted potatoes, in a pot.
The rest, well, uh, I am experimenting, to see just how late you can plant a summer garden here. Yeah, that's it. I'm experimenting.