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Think cool (veggies) during hot Dog Days of Summer

Start seeds for fall, winter favorites for transplanting after Labor Day

Chard and other cool-season favorites can be started from seed now for transplanting after Labor Day.

Chard and other cool-season favorites can be started from seed now for transplanting after Labor Day. Debbie Arrington

What can a gardener do during the hottest days of summer? Think about fall – and plant cool-season vegetables.

These autumn-loving greens and winter favorites may not go into the ground when it’s triple-digits outside, but they’re very comfortable starting life on your kitchen counter or in a sunny window.

The Dog Days of Summer – July 3 through Aug. 11 this year – correspond with Sacramento’s historically warmest weeks. “Dog Days” get their nickname from the ancient Greeks; this period marks when Sirius, the “Dog Star,” rises in the skies above the Northern Hemisphere. They knew when they saw that very bright star, it was going to get hot.

As we retreat indoors to air conditioning, it’s an opportunity to look over our seed inventory and start a new crop of little lettuces, broccoli, cabbages or peas.

Here’s advice from the UCCE master gardeners of Placer County, as shared by their master gardener neighbors in El Dorado County:

“Although it seems counter-intuitive, the Dog Days – particularly the latter part, i.e. now – is a good time to start seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, and Brussels sprouts for the fall garden. You can plant the seeds in pots or flats, or they can be sown in a sheltered place in the garden.

“With the warm soil temperatures, the seeds sprout quickly,” add the master gardeners. “Keep them watered and you'll have young plants to transplant after Labor Day. This is a HUGE savings as the cost of transplants at nurseries has sky rocketed in recent years. Plus, your plants are likely to be more vigorous and healthier than those raised for mass production, with a greater choice in varieties.”

Due to increased interest in home vegetable gardening, seed for some popular varieties has been selling out. Order early.

“In addition (to planting), it's a good time to look over seed packets and purchase cool season veggie seeds if needed so you can be prepared,” say the master gardeners. “And ordering seed packets is a good ‘garden activity’ to do on a hot summer day.”

What are some cool-season crops that can be started now? All the brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, etc.), greens (chard, spinach, leaf lettuce, head lettuce, etc.), root vegetables (radishes, turnips, carrots, beets, rutabagas, onions, etc.), and peas.

“Don't forget to order a few cool season flowers as well!” say the master gardeners. “These include sweet peas, violas, stock, cornflowers, and others, along with native California wildflowers like California poppies. Native wildflowers grow quite happily amongst the kale and radishes in a cool-season veggie garden!”

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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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