The rainy, mild spring has finally given way to summer temperatures. We’re still enjoying tender spring lettuces, peas, carrots, and greens, but as the mercury climbs, they won’t last long. This short season will soon turn into the early summer doldrums in the garden—our arugula long since bolted, and our tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are not yet producing. But there’s still plenty to do!
If you planted a fall crop of garlic, you may be wondering when it’s time to harvest and make more room in your garden for summer vegetables. By this time, you should have clipped off the scapes, or flower stalks, of hardneck garlic varieties—they are great sautéed or pureed into a mild garlic pesto.
The standard rule of thumb is to harvest garlic when the plants have five brown leaves. Harvest by digging carefully with a spading fork—you don’t want to yank up the tops and leave the head in the ground.
Garlic may be eaten immediately out of the garden, but to ensure that your bounty will keep for months, lay the harvested heads, tops and all, on a sturdy screen or other perforated tray to allow air to circulate. Place the trays in a warm, covered spot and allow to “cure” for two to three weeks. The outer skins will dry and harden, protecting the delicate cloves within.
Once the garlic has cured, you may cut off the roots and tops (or braid softneck varieties) and store them in a cool, dark place. Be sure to save the biggest and best looking heads to replant next fall.
As spring plantings rotate out of the garden and open up space, amend newly exposed soil with a few shovelfuls of compost, and consider planting short-lived summer crops like bush beans, heat-tolerant lettuces (try Jericho, a delicious Romaine bred to withstand hot Israeli summers), or cucumbers.
These crops can all be planted in succession. That is, seeded or transplanted over the course of several weeks, rather than all at once, for a staggered harvest. In my own garden, I planted two different kinds of cucumbers in mid-May, and two more varieties just this past weekend. With any luck I’ll have a nice long cuke season, without feeling overwhelmed by one big harvest.
Tomatoes are thriving now, which begs two classic questions: What is the best way to support tomato plants? And should you prune them?
For the former question, my preferred method is to erect a sturdy trellis—heavy gauge cattle panel and rebar stakes being the ideal materials—and tie plants to it, almost in a pleached or espaliered fashion. The trellis can be reused in subsequent seasons for peas, melons, cucumbers or vining squash. The next best option is a sturdy wooden stake or metal T-post, to which each individual plant can be tied. Metal cages can work, too, but I’ve found that they tend to require auxiliary staking to stay upright.
For the latter question, I am a big believer in pruning out axillary shoots and lower leaves of indeterminate tomato plants —not only will your plants produce less foliage (think: more fruits), but there will be less chance of soil-borne pathogens splashing onto low-growing leaves. And with less bushy plants, it’ll be easier to keep your plants upright regardless of what style of support you use.
Guinevere Higgins is owner of Blue Ridge Backyard Harvest, which provides consultation, design, and installations for home-scale edible gardens. When she’s not gardening, she works in fundraising for City Schoolyard Garden and the Center for a New American Dream.