by Peter Heffelfinger
It’s July. You think your garden is all set for the summer: the tomatoes are blossoming and setting fruit, first potatoes are about to be dug, broccoli is heading up, and the pea vines are reaching the top of the trellis after their long spring run. Early lettuce is gone, onions are starting to bulb up, and the rhubarb has finally eased off its bounty of thick stems posing as red, but very tart, fruit. But it is also time to think of fall and winter vegetables in the midst of the hot summer sun that has finally arrived. A basic part of year-round gardening is that there is always something to plant each month, especially for long-term crops that will mature six months in the future, two seasons later on. Enjoy the present sun and heat, but prepare for the rain and cold.
Hopefully, one has already started the Brussels sprouts, which need a long midyear run to develop their tall columns of mini-cabbages that will last all winter. If not, get starts in now and keep them well watered during the heat that has become the norm in our relatively cool locale. At least the threat of the cabbage root maggot fly, which kills young brassica starts in April and May, should be over by now. If you are in doubt, protect under row cover for a few weeks. Long-developing crops such as parsnips should also be put in, taking care to keep the seedbed moist since the seeds take a long time to sprout. I lay cardboard directly on the row, keeping it soaked for up to 10 days before the tiny sprouts appear. Like its relative the parsleys, parsnips take their time appearing above soil. Red cabbage, which takes 100 days to mature, should go in as well. As a long-lasting alternative to green cabbage, the intense color of red cabbage makes it an attractive vegetable to kraut or ferment. Purple kimchi, anyone?
Fall and winter leek starts should be in by now, for a continuous supply, as well as Japanese winter hardy scallions that will stand up to our level of cold. Finally, to successfully plant long-term over-wintering carrots, make sure they are covered securely from Day One with floating row cover. The white material will once again protect versus wireworm fly maggots that cause brown, rotten rings in the mature carrot. A variety such as Merida from Territorial Seed Company is extraordinarily sweet and much appreciated in the depths of winter.
On the flip side, plant short-term summer crops every 3 weeks or so: radishes, which should also be covered with floating row cover versus root maggot flies; cilantro, which goes to seed seemingly at the first sign of extended daylight and summer temperatures; and heat-resistant lettuce, such as romaine. I am trying an endive from Joe’s Gardens this year, Maraichere, presumably a French variety derived from the 19th century market gardens of the Marais District in Paris. The seed packet instructions say to lay a plate over the plant for three days before harvest to blanch and tenderize the tops. Get rid of the chlorophyll a bit, much like the technique for blanching white asparagus by mounding up soil around the emerging stalks.
Also, I plant lots of dill, for the pickling cukes just beginning to flower. I have taken to doing cucumbers on 7 foot tall trellises in my grow tunnel: they can be started much earlier in the hot environment. With vertical vines, the dangling cukes grow straight, are easy to pick, and are suspended above the reach of rodents. Be prepared though for the vines to reach the roof of your hothouse by mid-August, along with the cherry tomatoes that also will top out. Either snip the growing tips or get creative with string or wire to re-direct the stems laterally. However, heliotropism, the urge for plants to seek the sun, always wins out.
Late June and early July is garlic harvest time. Growing garlic this past winter was a struggle, with lots of rain in February, causing flooding from the nearby Samish River. Fortunately the waters did not reach my beds. Then bouts of sun in May prematurely dried out the clay soil of the Skagit Flats. Lots of watering was needed to keep the garlic green and the soil from turning into concrete. Last fall I also planted over 200 Dutch yellow shallot sets as another onion crop that stores well in winter. The May sun prompted the shallots to shoot up tiny seed stalks early, which had to be snipped off to allow the bulbs to size up. The green shoots with conical white tips were very attractive as miniature scallions for salads and soups, or as fresh mini-stalks on the hors d’oeuvres plate.
The scapes (curlicue seed-stalks) of hard-neck garlic are the first sign that the bulbs below ground are maturing. Over a period of several weeks, make sure you promptly remove all the scapes, even the small ones just emerging. The bulbs will fill out better once the plant is not making flowers. As a welcome precursor to the main garlic crop, the milder tasting scapes can be grilled, sautéed in a stir-fry, steamed on top of fish, or cut up and blanched for freezing.
Earlier this spring, and well before scapes would appear, some of my stored garlic finally began to turn soft. After much peeling, I pureed the good cloves in a food processor with a bit of salt and olive oil, and then froze the homemade garlic paste in ice-cube trays. The paste does not have the already diminished bite of long-stored cloves, but is an easy way to keep the garlic flavor flowing in the kitchen while waiting for the new crop. Melt the cubes in a fry pan with a bit of oil at the start of any stovetop recipe or add to any soup. Rectangular garlic!
To harvest garlic, wait for the top five leaves to turn brown from the tips to at most halfway down the leaves, while the main stalk is still flexible. You want to start the curing process with five solid layers of leaf skin over the bulbs. Peel off the single outermost leaf skin right after harvest to get rid of any soil that might cause mold. Then hang the bulbs to cure for 2-3 weeks in a well ventilated, shady space such as a barn or garage. The bulbs need to cure for proper storage and the remaining leaf skins should start to dry out.
When the plants are dry but still pliable, clean the garlic by starting at the top of the stalks and peeling the leaf sheaths down to the roots of the bulbs. Carefully remove one or two skin layers; leave at least two, unbroken white (or purple streaked) skins to safely cover the garlic head. Then cut off the roots using garden shears; an old soft toothbrush makes an ideal cleanup tool, especially to get any stubborn dirt around the root stub. Make sure there are no cuts in the ‘papers’, or any exposed garlic flesh, which would allow mold to develop. Discard any heads that are entirely moldy or any individual cloves that are either damaged or showing signs of mold.
Cut off the top stalks, leaving 2-3 inches of exposed stem to pull out any remaining interior moisture; store the bulbs in large brown paper grocery bags filled only half-full to prevent heat build-up. Roll the bag tops tight and keep on shelves in a cool space such as an attached garage and away from heat. Stored garlic should last until early spring. And of course make sure to separate out the best heads for planting in the fall. Finally, enjoy fresh, pungent garlic, which is, as they say, “a kick in the head.”
Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.