It might be difficult to think about the cool temperatures and brisk air of autumn while in the midst of sweltering summer heat, but now is the time to begin preparing your garden for fall.
"Fall is a really good time to go for a vegetable garden," horticulturist and pest management specialist Debby Smith Fiola said. "Get that fall garden going by Labor Day, and you'll be harvesting into October."
She added that a fall harvest often has a greater yield than a spring harvest of the same crops.
"It's tougher to get your plants established when youre planting for the fall, but then you wont have the bugs, the heat or the dryness," Smith Fiola said.
Planning for fall
Master Gardeners Chuck Koeneke and Linda Burns explained that there are different growing seasons between spring and fall, and different crops are suited to different seasons.
Cool-weather crops can be planted from late March through the month of April and again from mid-July to early August, and warm-weather crops are planted in May and June.
"You're starting to plant now, so when your warm weather plants are done, your cool weather plants will already be started," Koeneke said. "Once the high heat is over, you can replant Swiss chard, kale and lettuce."
"Other crops that can be planted now include spinach, asparagus, peas, parsnips and carrots," Burns said.
Smith Fiola suggested broccoli, leeks, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers and green beans. She also advises gardeners to look for the early-maturing varieties of green beans and cucumbers.
Koeneke said planning is necessary because some warm-weather plants, such as tomatoes, will last until the first frost.
To prepare your garden for planting the fall crops, you must maintain it during the heat of the summer. Burns described simple steps for garden maintenance that include keeping it watered and clear of dead plant debris.
"The garden needs about one inch of rain per week," Burns said.
She said some people keep a rain gauge in their garden to check the rain level and others watch the soil and water when it gets dry.
Burns said it is also important to remove dead plants (both vegetables and flowers) from the garden, and suggested that the dead plant matter be used to create compost.
"As long as nothing in your garden is diseased, it can be used in compost," Burns said. "All summer long, you're making compost."
"Compost should be mixed into the soil before planting seeds for cool-weather vegetables," Smith Fiola said.
"Maintenance is also important once seeds have been planted," she said.
"It's so hot, you have to be careful to get your seeds to germinate."
Smith Fiola suggests shading the area where cool-weather crops have been planted until the plants begin to mature.
Koeneke said planning is also necessary to create a successful crop rotation. A successful crop rotation takes into account plants that benefit each other as well as their nutrient needs. For example, Koeneke said he is planning to plant his carrots and radishes together because the radishes will benefit the carrots.
"Radishes grow faster and break up the soil, making it easier for the carrots to grow," he said.
He suggests following heavy feeder warm-weather vegetables with light feeder cool-weather vegetables. He said heavy feeders include tomatoes, sweet peppers and broccoli.
"(Heavy feeders) require more nutrients," he said. "Spinach and lettuce don't draw as many nutrients out of the ground."
For a healthy garden, Koeneke said it is also important to put nutrients back into the soil. A nitrogen-fixing plant, such as peas, takes nitrogen from the air and puts it into the soil.
Know your plants
"There are certain pairs (of plants) that either attract beneficial bugs or repel unwanted bugs," he said.
The combination of basil and tomatoes is one such example. There are also practical culinary considerations when planning a garden.
"You want to be sure you start your cilantro, because your tomatoes are going to be ripe, and you're going to want to make salsa," Smith Fiola said.
In a vegetable garden, late summer is the time to be planting and preparing for cool-weather crops, but in a perennial flower garden it is the time to prepare for winter, and even next years growing season.
"I don't do a whole lot of planting in the fall," Burns said. She focuses on preparing her flower beds for the next years growing season, she said.
"Fall is a great time to start a new bed, either vegetable or a flower bed, and get it ready to go for the next spring," she said. "(The) work of building and digging goes much faster in cooler weather."
The care of perennials varies, so it is best to consult a reputable resource to learn the recommended care of a specific plant.
Smith Fiola suggests gardeners call the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center if they have questions about plant care.
"There are so many different plants, and they each have their own little rules," she said.