McGyvering the garden: Late summer tips and tricks for the veggie patch

Always harvest basil by cutting the tops off the plants to avoid tough, leathery leaves. Photo: Guinevere Higgins Always harvest basil by cutting the tops off the plants to avoid tough, leathery leaves. Photo: Guinevere Higgins

Come late summer, many gardeners are about ready to throw in the towel. Squash bugs have decimated the melons and cucumbers, drought has baked the soil, and a quick week at the beach has left things nearly unrecognizable.

But this summer has been truly unusual. Ample rain and cool temperatures have made gardening easier, and though some things remain the same—the omnipresent mosquitoes, early blight on the tomatoes, abundant weeds—it’s been a truly atypical growing season. So, while Mother Nature obliges us, here are a few tips and tricks to keep the summer garden productive, while making way for fall plantings.

Cut back your basil

By late summer basil can turn tough and leathery, but this phenomenon is easily preventable. Always harvest the tops of basil plants by cutting the main stem right above a node—the point where two new buds form. These buds will grow into two new central stems with lush green growth.

Removing the most mature flower buds from the plant also prevents it from setting seed, which causes the leaves to become nearly inedible.

The best part? Basil thrives in cool fall temperatures. If you cut it back now, you’ll be rewarded with tender harvests right up until frost.

The green bean test

How do you know if your beans are fresh? Press them up against your T-shirt. If they stick, they’re good for sautéing, steaming, or eating raw. If not, they’re past their prime and better off in the compost heap or for stewing or braising. This trick is perhaps most useful at the supermarket or farmer’s market when you don’t know when the beans were picked.

Plant a quick cover crop

As you remove spent crops sewn in spring and early summer, consider planting a buckwheat cover crop. It germinates quickly and out-competes weed seeds, and also shades the soil, feeds soil microorganisms, and has blossoms that provide excellent fodder for bees. When you’re ready to re-plant for fall, simply cultivate the buckwheat into the soil, or pull it out and add it to the compost pile.

Get a soil test

Late summer is an ideal time to have your soil tested, allowing you to identify nutrient deficiencies and bring things back into balance in time for fall or spring planting. And even if you don’t get a soil test, it’s never a bad idea to work in a little compost as you prepare for your next plantings.

Baby your fall plantings 

Now is the time to plan your fall garden, but until the weather turns reliably cool, remember that your little seedlings need protection from heat and pests. Consider seeding or transplanting fall crops—lettuce, greens, leeks, beets, carrots, broccoli, cabbages, etc.—into areas partially shaded by summer plants, and keep them well watered to ensure that the soil stays cool. Cover them with row cover so they don’t get munched.

And keep an eye out for white cabbage moths and their voracious offspring, cabbage worms. They will decimate brassica crops like kale, broccoli, and arugula, so be prepared to pick them off by hand.—Guinevere Higgins

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 the Center for a New American Dream.