Second life: Succession planting extends season for home gardeners
After nibbling on some tasty red cherry tomatoes, Aubrey Dunkin, 8, crouches down to pick the last of the sweet green peas left on a trellis made of string.
In the past, her grandfather, Ralph Dunkin, 65, of Wheeling, W.Va., would have just let that ground go fallow when those peas stopped producing. He planted the peas on St. Patrick’s Day, which is a gardening tradition for many home growers. He has been picking since May.
Peas love cool weather and usually give up in June. This month’s heat has taken its toll on the vines, which are just about ready to call it quits.
“As a kid, I had to weed the garden, I hated the garden,” he says.
It’s evident that’s not the case anymore for himself or his granddaughter as she searches for more treats in the 20-foot-by-35-foot, fenced-in, vegetable garden.
Another planting of basil plants will be put in place of the peas.
Dunkin started experimenting with succession planting by growing three different lettuces from seed last October. ‘Vivian,’ a romaine type and ‘Bibb’ lasted until December, with mixed varieties actually surviving the winter and producing until this June.
“The only month that we did not pick mixed lettuce was February,” he says with pride.
His wife, Terry, bought him a coldframe. It’s basically a small unheated greenhouse that he uses to keep cool weather crops happy for the winter out in the garden. When the sun heats the inside of the coldframe, Dunkin, a retired Lutheran bishop, opens the transparent plastic lids to cool things down.
“We were having homegrown salads in March. That just doesn’t happen,” he says, smiling. “So it was just fun to extend the season.”
This spring, he started more lettuce early and the couple enjoyed the tender leaves in April.
“The salads we have today make our old salads look sick,” Dunkin says with a laugh.
He combines his fresh spring lettuce with the tops of onions and other greens.
This time of the year, he’s planting carrots from seed, basil plants and more onions, some close together to pick as green onions. Dunkin also started seeds indoors; he hopes to have the plants in the ground over the next several weeks. He’s planted mustard, three different lettuces, spinach and more arugula.
The trick, he says, is to look at the seed packets, figure out how long it will take to harvest, as long as there’s enough of the season left get them in the ground.
“It changed my thinking,” he says. “Instead of getting rid of seeds after a season or two, I hang on to them.”
Dunkin has two outdoor compost bins and a vermicomposter that uses worms year-round to make compost. That’s what gives him his green thumb, he says. “It’s just like planting in fertilizer.”
The vegetable garden also is filled with purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, clematis and other plants to encourage the bees.
“I want to make sure I have the pollinators to make things grow,” he says. “I think it’s important.”
Dunkin has come a long way from those days toiling in the garden as a child.
“I like to get in the dirt and play,” he says, smiling. “There’s just a joy of seeing something produced, I just love to do that. It’s a real passion for me now.”
Dunkin is not alone. The trend for succession planting and extending the season is something Kurt Malecki, one of the managers at Best Feeds Garden Centers in Ross, has seen grow.
For the past five years, he’s started carrying new plants for vegetable gardeners this time of the year and continues into the fall.
“We’re bringing in fall plants that will extend the season and do better for production, taste, quality and ease of growing,” he says.
Each year, he’s seen more demand from growers who want to keep on planting through the summer and into fall.
Many of the cool weather plants that have been here since spring have struggled with the heat or have been growing for so long in their containers, they’ve become root bound. Malecki says the new plants are better and will take transplanting easier.
There’s a big cart filled with different lettuce varieties at the nursery, along with spinach and cool crops like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale, as well as a short season Brussels sprout called ‘Franklin,’ which comes to fruition in only 80 days. The sprouts are tastier after a frost, as starches are turned into sugars. Check with your local nursery or garden center to see if they are carrying vegetables to plant now and into fall.
It’s not just plants though, Malecki says. There are lots of seeds like radishes, beets, turnips and even bush green beans that will have time to produce.
Malecki recommends having something in place as the season winds down to protect the tender crops from early frost. Often, a cold snap is followed by a month of warm temperatures. A frame for plastic to be laid over would work. He also likes something called a floating row cover, which is a spun, bound, translucent fabric that will also act as a greenhouse to keep plants safe.
Malecki thinks the increase in late planting gets its genesis from the garden-to-table movement, which allows people to know where their food comes from and how it’s been grown. Local food has a greater appeal than ever.
He has a great tip when replanting to make the new crops thrive:
“Rework the ground,” he advises. “Improve the soil with compost or an organic fertilizer.”
He recommends a good layer of mulch at planting time to keep the soil evenly moist.