It’s summer and gardens around the country are already bursting with home-grown fruits and vegetables. Still, it’s not too early to think about bringing in the harvest—especially in places with short growing seasons. “Ninety days is what I’ve got to work with,” says Pat Munts, Spokane-based author of The Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.
Pat is also the Small Farms and Acreage Coordinator for the Washington State University Extension. So she has developed strategies that allow gardeners east of the Cascade Mountains to maximize their truncated season. Here are some of her favorites.
Choose the Right Varieties – Read the fine print on seed packets and plant labels. Maturity rates for the same type of vegetable may differ. Peppers can range from 55 to 120 days from planting out, so Pat advises, “Read the tag first and you’ll plant accordingly.”
Don’t Push Plants – Don’t rush warm-season veggies into cold ground. A short-season gardener’s best tool is a soil thermometer. Crops like eggplant and squash need soil that is close to 60 degrees. Pat suggests warming soil with black plastic, or better yet, a new plastic called Solar Mulch, which absorbs infrared. She says, “I took my soil from 60 to 70 degrees in ten days.”
Meet Plants’ Needs – “No plant can produce well if it’s stunted,” Pat says. “Make sure you fertilize and water regularly.” Try an organic fertilizer with numbers like 3-5-4. Some have additional mycorrhizals for a health boost. A thick organic mulch retains soil moisture and evenly spaced water delivery helps avoid diseases like blossom-end rot on tomatoes.
Organize Frost Protection Now – Hustling around for floating row covers or old quilts when temperatures are predicted to drop that night is no fun. Gather your materials now. “In short seasons,” Pat says, “the night temperatures start to drop even when the days are warm, so temporary coverage can get vegetables to ripen.” Where the growing time is even shorter and nights routinely go below 55 degrees, Pat says, “Folks simply grow their warm-season vegetables in greenhouses or tall poly tunnels.”
Harvest with Care – If a hard frost is predicted, Pat advises picking and storing indoors so produce like green peppers and tomatoes can still turn red. But be careful. “A little bit of damage to the skin can rot them quickly,” Pat says. Another way to go—pull out a whole tomato vine, hang it in a frost-free place, and the fruit will continue to ripen. “The leaves make a mess in your garage,” says Pat, “but it works.”