Rex’s Tips: Midsummer gardening

Green beans in Rex Jensen's garden, date unknown. | Photo by Rex Jensen, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – The midsummer period is a time when not much can be planted, but if you planted on time you should be harvesting onions, broccoli, carrots, beets, tomatoes, peppers and corn about now. Melons will take a bit longer.

If you didn’t plant in time, don’t worry – in late July and early August you can plant corn and melons again. Green beans can also be planted in early August.

Midsummer is also a time to prepare for the fall garden. You can till, mulch and fertilize areas you’ll be planting in during the fall. You can even set your drip irrigation lines so they are ready to use.  It’s a good practice to plant fall crops in areas where the beets are now harvested, or the potatoes, or other cool weather crops that are now finished. Crop rotation is a fundamentally sound practice. All farmers and gardeners should rotate their crops—it will improve your soil and productivity.

Composting: Summer is the time to be composting. I’m not a big fan of composting in a container, or outside the garden; it smells bad, can attract varmints, cockroaches, and other undesirable critters, and it’s labor intensive. My preference is to compost in the garden. By composting in the garden itself, the material will break down faster, is easier to turn, and you don’t have to handle it again once it’s ready to use. There are a couple of ways to approach this.

1. Leave a small section of your garden unplanted each year and use that section for composting. Dump your grass clippings, table scraps, leaves, pecan shells, and any other organic material on that area and just keep it moist and tilled in. Organic matter will not decompose in dry soil. It needs water, heat, and bacteria. The bacteria are already there, so keep it moist and tilled, and by summer’s end the grass, leaves, and table scraps will be completely decomposed and ready for your fall garden.

2. Another approach is to leave a wide enough distance between your planted rows to get your tiller through and dump your organic matter between your planted rows, then till periodically between your planted rows to keep the decomposition working. There are advantages and risks to this approach, however. Tilling close to existing plants can damage their roots and affect their growth, but the organic matter does shade the soil and keeps the weeds down.

Bacteria need nitrogen to feed on when they are breaking down organic matter. You can accelerate decomposition by sprinkling some nitrogen (or steer, horse or chicken manure) onto the compost. Compost is great for the soil, but it really adds very little nitrogen, if any, to the soil. The nitrogen must come from manure, commercial fertilizer or green manure (tilled in grass, grain, or alfalfa). If you allow grass clippings to dry out before being tilled in you’ll have lost nearly all the nitrogen. Grass clippings should be tilled in as soon as the clippings are dumped on the garden – then the nitrogen is retained.

Composting outside the garden: If you must compost outside your garden, just remember that you must keep it moist and you must turn or till it frequently. When the composted material can no longer be identified, it is ready to be tilled into your garden.

Rule of thumb: Here is a helpful rule of thumb: It takes as long to decompose something as it takes to grow it. A leaf takes only a few weeks to grow to full size, thus it only takes a month or so to decompose leaves. Twigs that took a year or two to grow will take a year or two to decompose. Grass takes a week or two to grow and a week or two to decompose. Corn stalks take 60-90 days to grow and will take 60-90 days to decompose.

What to do with corn stalks: Corn stalks can be a challenge to deal with. They should always be tilled back into the garden, but tillers will not cut up six foot long stalks of corn. The stalks will wrap around the tines—it’s a pain. If corn stalks are allowed to dry out and die while standing, you lose some of the benefit of composting them, so they should be tilled in quickly as well. But how do you do it?

Most home gardeners don’t grow a lot of corn. Two to four rows of corn is the norm.

Here’s what I do: As I harvest the corn (a few ears at a time), I take a large knife with me to both cut off the ends of the ears to help me shuck the ears. Then I cut off the harvested corn stalks at the base and whack them into six to eight inch long pieces and leave them on the ground. Now the tiller can easily handle the corn stalks. You can get them into the ground while it’s hot outside and the stalks will break down quickly. By fall, you will hardly be able to find evidence of the corn stalks. A chipper will make quick work of corn stalks as well.

Do not compost tomatoes: Tomato plants should not be composted into your garden! Pull them out of the ground, throw them in your dumpster, and let the garbage guy take them to the landfill. Tomatoes are disease prone, and tilling them into the soil puts those diseases in the soil too. Just pull out the plants when they’re done and put them in your garbage can.

As I’ve stated before, it’s also wise not to till in cucurbit (cucumber, squash, melons, pumpkins) vines. All other garden plants can and should be tilled in.

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Copyright 2012 St. George News.

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  • Kelli June 6, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Awesome, thanks for the tips! I’ve gotten some onions so far this year, herbs, sweet 100’s, and I’m just now starting to see tiny cucumbers forming on my vine!

  • urbanboy June 6, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    Tips on Midsummer gardening?? It’s just barely early June Lol

  • Kelli June 7, 2012 at 6:48 am

    Oh, and thanks Rex for posting this article now, so that, per the headline, we will know what to do WHEN midsummer comes along. I will definitely be planting some green beans in August, per the advice in your article, which I actually read. LOL…It’s also good to know that you shouldn’t till tomato and cucumber plants back into the soil. I never knew that!

  • Plant Stands June 7, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Good tips about being sure there is nitrogen in the compost and about not tilling tomato and cucumber plants back in…who knew?

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