Cultivating a Bountiful Mid-Summer Garden
Beginning this spring Eliza Milio became this page’s junior staff writer. Funded through a fellowship from The Safina Center, Milio worked as an organic farmer in California through some of the toughest conditions the planet could throw at a young grower. She’ll be writing here about the intersection of climate and agriculture on a regular basis. Here is her third post.
In Midsummer it’s easy to forget that successfully growing food is all about thinking ahead. Who isn’t lulled into complacency by the beautiful chaos of the garden in July? Plants are growing almost as fast as the human eye can see. Late sunsets and warm summer air has us outdoor dining, finally eating what we’ve worked so hard to grow. Tables, fridges, and mouths are full of the last of the spring bounty and the first of the summer crops. But there is also a transition in process.
Consistently high temperatures signal to spring crops that their season is coming to a close. Just as the weather provides signals to plants, plants provide signals for us to observe and learn from. You might witness spinach leaves becoming pointy when they were once rounded. Heads of lettuce may protrude upwards (otherwise known as bolting), and leaves may take on a bitter flavor. Pea plants may wilt on the vines, leaves turning brown. Mustard greens may shoot up bright yellow flowers. These are all signs that these plants are no longer focusing on production and that their time in your garden may be coming to an end.
The biggest error you can make during this window is to hold onto plants too long that have already run their course.
One of the best lessons I learned from commercially farming is “knowing when to call it.” In other words, understanding the multiple factors that do or don’t justify the existence of plants in what should be seen as highly valuable space in your garden. Knowing when to cut your losses is key. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than clearing out old plants. Once I witness the signals of plants senescing, I do a final “glean” of whatever remains edible, then pull out and compost the leftover plant material.
Midsummer gardening is a time of awe and abundance, but it’s also a time for…