The changing seasons are always bittersweet for me and so are the progressions of my garden throughout the year. Now that the warming temperatures of June are here, the greens that I enjoyed in early spring are beginning to bolt and become bitter. It is with mixed feelings that I rip those plants out to make room for warm season crops. Now is the time I direct-seed things such as beans, squash, and okra. I nick the hard seed coat of okra before planting to ensure optimal germination—a lesson that I learned the hard way. Since Solanaceous crops such as, tomato, pepper, and eggplant, require a long growing season, I started those indoors in late winter. If you missed the window on starting these from seed, no worries, you can buy healthy starts from a local garden center or nursery.
To curb my cravings for fresh greens this time of year, I plant Malabar (Basella alba) or New Zealand (Tetragonia tetragonioides) summer spinach. Although not true spinaches (a.k.a. Spinacea oleracea), these plants relish in the heat and their nutrient rich leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. Your salads need not be deprived either as June is a fine time to sow succession plantings of heat-tolerant lettuces such as Italienischer or Jericho. As temperatures rise, I like to plant lettuce in the shady micro-climate underneath tall or trellised plants. Adding mulch around your lettuce and other plants is also helpful this time of year to moderate soil temperatures and conserve moisture. It doesn’t hurt that mulch also suppresses weeds!
With new crops in the ground, also comes a new array of weeds and pests to contend with and every gardener has their own unique foes. Currently, I am battling numerous weeds in my beds, including yellow nut sedge (Cyperus esculentus). This exotic invasive sedge has triangular stems, bright green leaves and reproduces by below ground stems (rhizomes) and tubers that can overwinter to regrow the following year. Left alone, yellow nut sedge can quickly form dense colonies that compete with your veggies. Without bombarding my garden with chemicals, I wait until after a rain or watering to remove yellow nut sedge by hand. Rather than pulling to remove, cultivate around the plant with a trowel or weeding knife to ensure you get all of the rhizome and tubers. I use the same technique for removing mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) and Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), both of which spread via rhizomes.
Now is the time to get on top of the weeds before they become well established, making them more difficult to remove, or heaven forbid flower and set seed.
As with weed control, it is best to vigilantly scout for pests in the garden and deal with them before their populations build up. Yes, this is easier said than done. This year, I am convinced that flea beetles found my eggplant starts within minutes of me planting them. A common pest on Solanaceous crops, flea beetle damage can be recognized by the small round holes they create in leaves. If damage is severe enough, the plants will die. Flea beetles get their name from the fact that, like fleas, they jump when disturbed. This makes squishing the beetles— one my favorite organic pest controls—not a good option.
Ideally, you will thwart flea beetles before they attack. Crop rotation helps prevent a build-up of flea beetle (and many other pests) populations in the soil. You can also try planting under row covers or applying foliar sprays of garlic or hot pepper solution to deter flea beetles. Since flea beetles are most prevalent from early-mid spring, you can also delay planting of Solanaceous crops as long as possible to avoid significant damage. If flea beetles are already on your plants, try applying neem oil or an organic insecticide containing soil bacterium called spinosad. Other common pests to be scouting for in June include slugs, cucumber beetles, squash bugs and squash vine borers.
Of course, not every so called weed or pest is a nuisance to have around. In my garden, I eat many winter annuals that appear in late winter/early spring; plants like chickweed and lamb’s quarters. Some of the summer annuals make delicious additions to your dinner plate as well. Try wild purslane (Portulaca oleracea) as a tangy addition to your salads. You can find wild purslane growing in just about any type of soil, but in my garden I find it in the poor, compacted soils along the edges of my beds. Just look for a plant that radiates from a single taproot with rounded succulent leaves, red fleshy stems and yellow flowers. If your foraging adventure for wild purslane leaves you empty handed, you can plant golden purslane, a cultivated variety with bright yellow green leaves packed with omega-3-fatty acids.
For a gardener, this time of year is always filled with excitement about the upcoming harvests and trepidation about the myriad of issues we have to overcome in order to get those harvests. I know that dichotomy, however, is what makes gardening such an interesting hobby and why I keep doing it year after year. With the first day of summer quickly approaching on June 20th, I can almost taste the tomato sandwiches now!