Second Chances – Sowing After the Solstice

Many people celebrate the summer solstice for it’s astrological significance. As a gardener, I use it as a measure for the success of my efforts so far in the season. This season has some successes and some…other stories (if you know what I mean). Our temperatures have been consistent, consistently high, that is.  This has led to some disappointments and failed experiments in the form of premature bolting of a number of things.

‘Bolting’ is when plants go to seed early. This time of year it is due to temperature stress and photoperiod (that’s a fancy way of saying the changing length of days). When plants bolt they tend to stop producing the parts we eat and turn all their efforts towards making flowers and seeds. Flavors and textures often change as a result of this and render the product disappointing.

We could look at this flowering as the loss of a crop, or we could see it as the lesson it is. Admittedly, it took me a long time to see the potential of this lesson. I grew up in a place, western New York, where things rarely bolted. I now live in a place, Colorado, where careful timing is necessary to get the most out of my garden.

The lesson is this: Some things are just better when planted after the longest day of the year. Why? First, many plants respond to increasing day length leading up to the solstice (there’s that photoperiod idea again) by growing for a short bit then flowering before we’re ready. After the longest day of the year, many plants respond by growing storage structures (the parts we eat) in preparation for surviving winter and flowering next year. Second, temperatures begin to cool as the days get shorter. The days are still long enough to grow nice plants. The soil is warm and promotes quick germination and quick growth, and the temperatures moderate enough to reduce heat stress.

So what does this all mean? It means a second chance to grow “cool season” crops, often with better success than the first time. “Cool season” really means the season in which a given plant ripens its produce. Imagine a broccoli plant. Plant it in the spring and hope that it forms its head before the heat of summer comes along. If you live in a hot place, summer heat usually comes too soon. Imagine the same broccoli planted after the summer solstice. It germinates and grows quickly in the warm soil. When the time comes for the head to form, the temperatures have cooled quite a bit and a large, tight head is allowed to ripen without the heat stress of summer. With a little frost, it becomes sweeter, tastier, and the broccoli we all want to have in our garden.

This same scenario works on a whole host of plants. Planting after the summer solstice allows us a second chance at success with a number of plants.

Head Formers: Lettuce, cabbage, radicchio, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, endive, escarole, and bulb fennel.

Bolting Brassicas: Cauliflower, broccoli, rapini/broccoli raab, rutabagas, turnips, romanesco.

Don’t forget about those things that may not bolt, but definitely perform better when it’s cool.

Cool Customers: Carrots, snow peas, beets, spinach, mustard, kale, kohlrabi, green onions, winter radish, Daikon.

What’s great about most of the items above is that they tolerate some frost. This extends your growing season without any extra effort like frost protection. Although, if you did use frost protection, you could grow even longer. Take a second look at some of your spring choices and give them a second chance this time of year. You may be surprised when your second garden turns out better than the first.

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