High summer is here! Gardens are full of color even though this spring’s drought, the haze of wildfires and the recent heat wave have affected wildlife and plants, as well as humans. In the middle of escalating climate crises, this season’s exuberant blooms provide some comfort. I have also seen monarch butterflies floating gracefully through town, scores of bees and other pollinators making their rounds, and birds preparing their young for independence. Still, this summer feels different. The news of record temperatures from across the nation and around the planet is frightening.
In the face of this, gardeners are resilient and hopeful for better times. We believe we can act even in our own backyards to help turn the tide for a better tomorrow. We plant seeds and tend our gardens hoping they will provide food and beauty for us and a habitat for the wildlife we depend on. Nothing has changed in this sense, so let’s look at some tips for growing and cooking your own food from a bountiful garden.
What are you growing?
The secret to creating a productive vegetable garden is continuous planting. Don’t wait until you harvest to replant; keep planting new generations of veggies. If you want lettuce on your table every week, plant a new batch every two weeks. Most important, plant as abundantly as your garden space allows. When you grow your own food, you are planning your meals a few weeks ahead of time. In late summer, keep planting summer lettuce, radishes, cilantro, and bush beans. Begin developing your seedlings for the end of summer and the fall. Starting in August and September, plant cold-tolerant plants like kale, beets, and collard greens.
Protecting your mini-farm
The gardener’s cry of despair: “Who ate my plants?!” Nothing is more discouraging than seeing your garden veggies thriving one day and the next day finding your harvest decimated. Taking steps to protect your garden will help you avoid this unpleasant surprise. In our suburban environment, we coexist with many critters who enjoy fresh produce as much as we do – deer, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels and groundhogs, among others. Keeping them away from your garden can be challenging, but there are some measures that could help you save most of your garden bounty for yourself.
Rabbits can be discouraged from munching in your garden by a two-foot fence around the beds. A fenced yard can reduce the risk of visits by voracious groundhogs, but be on guard around the perimeter; groundhogs are diligent diggers. They may already reside in your yard, and you don’t even know you have a tenant living rent-free. If you do find a tell-tale hole, an eviction process needs to be put in place. Disagreeable smells – such as from ammonia or human hair—in the burrow usually suffice to convince these tenants to seek lodging elsewhere. Deer can be excluded with a high fence (eight feet tall).
Groundhogs, deer and other problem mammals detest the scent of mint and oregano, so planting these herbs around your garden beds can act as repellants while also flavoring your food. However, both plants are aggressive spreaders, so it’s best to plant them in pots. Some other companion plants, such as marigolds and parsley, can help repel insect pests. Protect your cabbage family greens from white cabbage butterfly caterpillars with fabric or use “Bt” (Bacillus thuringiesis), a naturally occurring soil-borne bacteria used for the organic control of insect pests.
What’s for Dinner?
Despite the heat, summer’s abundance of fresh seasonal vegetables can make it a season of celebration, especially when that abundance comes from your yard. This is the perfect time to harvest beans, radishes, carrots, lettuce, turnips, tomatoes, kale, collard greens, basil, and other herbs. In addition to preparing delicious salads, what can you cook with your late summer harvest? Here are two ideas:
Braised Kale and Tomatoes
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Half a cup of finely chopped sweet red pepper
1 yellow onion, chopped.
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bunches of kale (enough to feed two people), stems removed, rinsed well in warm water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Two roughly chopped peeled tomatoes
Chopped cilantro to taste
Use a large pan. Add two tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions and sauté them until soft (about 4-5 minutes). Add all the other ingredients, including the remaining olive oil, stir to combine, and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the kale is very tender. Add the chopped cilantro in the last three minutes.
You can use whatever veggies you have in your garden for this recipe. Harvest tomatoes and lettuce for two or more people, along with one cucumber, two radishes, two leaves of Swiss chard or whatever tender green is available in your garden.
½ pound of tomatoes
2 leaves of Swiss chard
½ medium size cucumber
2 teaspoons of lemon juice or vinegar
2 teaspoons of honey
Olive oil to taste
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Chop the tomatoes, rinse the lettuce and other vegetables and slice the cucumber and the radishes. Stem the Swiss chard and cut it into small pieces. Combine the vegetables in a large bowl. Add sea salt and black pepper to taste, along with two teaspoons of lemon juice or vinegar, two teaspoons of honey and your favorite olive oil and mix all the ingredients. If you have nasturtiums, add some leaves and flowers for decoration.
Nothing is more rewarding than growing your own food. Keep planting and cooking! Happy growing summer season!
Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.