The beginning of September is like a second spring for gardeners. The soil begins to cool and longer nights and more rain make this the perfect time of year to plant trees, shrubs, perennials, vines and bulbs.
In Western Washington the days are often still warm and dry until late September, but nurseries start offering their stock for sale early in the month.
The savvy buyer will purchase plants now or as soon as they go on sale and then keep potted plants well-watered and stored out of the afternoon sun. When digging a hole to add the plant to the landscape, check to see if the soil is dark and slightly damp a few inches below ground. If the soil is dry add a few buckets of water to the planting hole and let this soak in for a few hours or overnight.
Plant at the same level the plant was growing in the pot, firm the soil with your hands around the plant (don’t stomp with your feet) and soak the soil again after planting. A two-inch mulch on top of the soil will help to seal in the moisture. The most important advice of all: water, water, water. The dry summer means anything you plant this fall is going to need extra water as the dry soil will have a tough time holding onto moisture even if we get a few days of rain.
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Q. Can I plant seeds of lettuce in September and harvest salad greens all winter? I had great success with salad greens this spring and early summer, but when the weather became hot the lettuce grew tall and skinny and became bitter. G.J., Tacoma
A. Yes — fall can be the return of your salad days. Planting seeds of beets, lettuce, kale and other greens now will yield fresh salads until a killing frost in November. You can use scissors to cut the seedlings when they are four inches tall and keep harvesting while young and tender for the best flavor. Water the soil well the night before you seed. Then keep new seedlings moist.
Q. I have a question about harvesting kale. Can I just cut the tops off of my many kale plants to shorten the stems of the kale (the kale plants look like they are getting too tall) or must I harvest each leaf one at a time? S.S., Auburn
A. Sorry, you can’t take a shortcut when harvesting kale or you’ll stop the production of new kale leaves. This same advice also applies to mature Swiss chard and other leafy crops. The growing tip is where the next sets of leaves are being stored. Removing the oldest or lowest leaves will keep the plants productive even into the winter months. Keep harvesting this fall because a light frost will not harm kale or chard and a bit of cold even adds a rich nutty flavor. If you don’t have a veggie patch, you can add the colorful foliage of Bright Lights Swiss chard to fall container gardens and enjoy both winter color and winter vitamins.
Q. When it comes to harvesting tomatoes, do they need to be cut from the vine or pulled? Also how do I prevent my large tomatoes from cracking as they turn really ripe. T.L., Bonney Lake
A. Do not pull tomatoes from the vine but grab and twist them instead. Ripe tomatoes are those most likely to crack and split so harvest tomatoes a bit before they are deep red and let them finish ripening indoors so that the rain and sun cannot crack the skin. Keeping tomatoes dry when you water is another way to prevent ripe tomatoes from cracking up.
Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her through her website at binettigarden.com or write to her at P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw WA 98022.
7-9 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 14: Win plants and prizes at “Blooming Bingo,” a benefit for Thurston County Master Gardeners. Marianne Binetti will be the emcee, so you’ll learn garden tips and enjoy some laughs as you gamble for a good cause. The event will be held at the Lacey Community Center 6729 Pacific Ave SE, Lacey. More info at www.mgftc.org. Space is limited.