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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cooling Down the Summer Garden: An Organic Gardening Segment

Air Date: Week of

Late summer is the perfect time to plan ahead for the next few seasons harvest. While the tomatoes are ripening on the vine, it's a great time to purchase and plant winter vegetable seeds. Living on Earth's organic gardening advisor Evelyn Tully Costa explains.


CURWOOD: It's high summer across most of the United States. The blend of sun, heat, and water gives rise to lush, ripe fruits and vegetables. So as we sit back in the humid haze under a shady tree with our mint-flavored ice tea, the last thing we're thinking about is winter. But then there's Evelyn Tully Costa, and she's here, back in the Green Garden Spot, to explain why colder weather should be foremost in our minds. Hi there, Evelyn.

TULLY COSTA: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, it's hot, everything's green. I like to hang out in the shade and in fact something cool and frosty isn't totally out of the question, but that's not what you're talking about, is it?

TULLY COSTA: What I'm thinking about is forgotten gardens. I'm thinking about gardens that are simply overlooked once the summer starts winding down and people start to forget about their gardens. I'm talking about fall, winter, and spring crops, which can be planted now. Remember what I said about gardening being like a big circle?


TULLY COSTA: A circle that is surrounded by the seasons and one that can be jumped into at any point. So with a little extra seeding right now, many food crops can be started in August, September, and October, for harvesting throughout the fall, the winter, and even into the early spring.

CURWOOD: Hmm. So in other words, you're saying that the growing season never has to stop, and we're going to get fresh organic food in season all year long, huh?

TULLY COSTA: Right. If you think of this type of gardening as being 4 overlapping crops that more or less echo the seasons depending on where you live. So I thought we would start with the crops that most people are familiar with, the summer warm-season crops. These are the most common and they include corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, and these last until the first frosts.

CURWOOD: Right, they're dead finished when it gets cold.

TULLY COSTA: Yeah, it polishes them off. So the next season is the fall season, and these vegetables include kale, turnips, mustard, broccoli, lettuce, and cabbage. They do really well during cool fall days, and they can withstand light frosts.

CURWOOD: Really? The lettuce can handle some frost?

TULLY COSTA: Yep. In fact, some of the sugar content of certain vegetables is enhanced by the frost. Now, over-wintering crops are kale, spinach, onions, parsley, beets, turnips, carrots, and cold frame-grown lettuce that can be dug or picked as you need them. And then this brings us kind of to full circle, to the most common cold season crops that most people are familiar with and that's early spring. And a winter garden -- you're going to love this part, Steve -- is very easy to take care of. There are no bugs and there are no weeds to deal with.

CURWOOD: No weeds? Does that mean I don't have to mulch anything, either?

TULLY COSTA: No, it doesn't mean that, Steven (laughs). It's not that carefree.


TULLY COSTA: Mulching actually helps you -- actually, mulching actually does a great job of blanketing the ground during the cold winter months, and that stabilizes the soil temperature. Now this helps prevent damage from frost and freezing.

CURWOOD: All right. Now, let's say I want to go ahead with this, this fall crop. I could get a few seeds out shortly, if I could think that really in October I'd have a fresh salad, huh?

TULLY COSTA: Okay. Well, do you like arugula?

CURWOOD: Yeah, it's pretty spicy but it really makes a salad jump around.

TULLY COSTA: Okay. You should plant arugula seeds into the soil at weekly intervals starting in August and continue this right through September.

CURWOOD: Weekly intervals, huh?

TULLY COSTA: Well that's so you can harvest it on a weekly basis and so it doesn't grow, so you don't have 200 heads of fully-grown arugula. You can stagger the growth. Now you can do this and harvest it fall, winter, and even spring, depending on the severity of your winters. And you might have to cover these crops with a cold frame or a tent, which is a really easy way to keep fresh salads going all year long.

CURWOOD: Now, can you describe for me what will be a good cold frame? I've seen some sort of elaborate ones, but I don't want to do that.

TULLY COSTA: Okay. Well, first of all, let's just talk about what a cold frame does. A cold frame is like a miniature greenhouse. Now in this case, let's keep it simple, you can put a clear piece of plastic, like a plastic tent, directly over the rows of your lettuce or whatever it is you're growing, and this absorbs sunlight during the day and it holds in heat at night. Now, this type of extending the seasons is becoming increasingly popular among kitchen gardeners. It's also really important to adhere that buying your own seeds is about the surest way of getting these so-called off-season gardens going. Most nurseries don't carry seedlings or seeds for fall gardening, for fall and winter gardening, but that might change, too, if you mention what you're interested in to your local garden shop.

CURWOOD: Huh. But it doesn't sound all that hard to do. I'm just wondering, though, are there any resources I can get with, you know, some charts and some tips on the various vegetables that might work in this off-season, as you call it?

TULLY COSTA: Well, one catalogue that I thought was really amazing and packed with information was the Territorial Seed Company's catalogue. And they're in Cottage Grove, Oregon. They just put out their winter seed catalogue and it's got really handy charts and it's filled with cultivation hints and tips. Now, another resource would be Solar Gardening, by Leandra Poisson, and that's put out by Chelsea Green Publishing. So those are just some of the resources that you can get your hands on.

CURWOOD: And can save a little money here, because have you seen the price of organic lettuce in the middle of winter?

TULLY COSTA: (Laughs) Well, yeah. I mean, if you're willing to do the work, it's worth it.

CURWOOD: (Laugh) Okay, so what you're telling me is that the gardening never stops. I guess I have to put down my mint ice tea and get back to work putting in some seeds here. Thanks a million, Evelyn. Next time, huh?

TULLY COSTA: Right. Well, good luck, Steve, and bye bye.



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