LONGTIME GARDENER AND FIRST-TIMERS went all out in this craziest of years, bringing the expression “victory garden” back into the headlines. We all planted in spring like mad—in fact, so much so that seed companies were swamped, and even ran out. But planting season is not over, not even up North where I garden. For late-summer-into-fall harvest and even beyond into winter, I’ve asked year-round vegetable grower Niki Jabbour to coach us in the next steps of succession sowing, and in smart tactics for plant protection, too, to stretch the season.
Niki Jabbour is author of three books so far: “The Year-round Vegetable Gardener” plus “Groundbreaking Food Gardens” (affiliate links) and “Veggie Garden Remix.” She’s also a contributor to the blog SavvyGardening.com. She creates the award-winning radio program, “The Weekend Gardener,” which is heard throughout Eastern Canada, and she gardens with a vengeance in Nova Scotia. So, if Niki can do it people, so can we.
Read along as you listen to the July 13, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Comment in the box at the bottom of the page for a chance to win a copy of her book “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener.”
fall vegetable garden, with niki jabbour
Margaret: Are you having any rain, and are you having heat? What’s going on up there? Just so we have the temperature. [Laughter.]
Niki: Yeah. It’s been weird. We had early, early heat, which is kind of unusual for Nova Scotia, and then it morphed to cool. But we had about six weeks where I had maybe not even a quarter-inch of rain and I had to deep water a lot, but last night, the heavens opened. We got probably an inch and a bit of rain, massive thunderstorms. So, I feel like we’re getting back to balanced. It’s getting nice and hot again, so it’s a perfect time to get out in the garden.
Margaret: Good, good, good. Well, I’m waiting for that heavens-to-open thunder thing over here, myself.
Niki: Fingers crossed.
Margaret: Yeah. So, I bet you’re madly taking advantage of every square inch of your garden that becomes available as things are harvested. I sort of picture you up there, if she sees a square foot or 2 square feet or a linear foot come available, she tucks something in madly. So, are you into multiple successions already up there?
Niki: Oh, yeah. I mean, in some beds I’m probably in our third succession crop and I think that’s a pretty accurate description of me right now. [Laughter.] I was eyeing some of the lettuce earlier today going, “I think you’re to bolt so I’m going to harvest you today or tomorrow,” and then in goes some carrots and some beets. And of course, I’m also thinking ahead for later in the season, too.
So yeah, there’s no empty space in my food garden right now. It’s a very looking very lush, even if everything isn’t quite in full production yet, at least it looks very green.
Margaret: Yeah. When do you get your first tomato?
Niki: You know, well, I’m a cheater because I have a poly-tunnel now. It’s Year 2 for my poly-tunnel, so I will probably get my first tomato in about two weeks. but usually, it’s the last week in July, first week in August when the Sun Golds start to roll in. So, I’m hoping mid- to late July.
Margaret: O.K. So, before we dig in deeper to sort of tactics and which crops and so forth, I want to just say to everybody out loud, both of us are Northern gardeners, of course. And in other regions, the timing of all of this wisdom that you’re going to share is different. And I’m going to give a link with the transcript of this show to state-by-state, region-by-region calendars and charts and so forth, so that people in other areas can adapt this, get a little guidance to adapt this, so I’ll do that with the transcript.
And also that we’re going to have a book give away of your earlier hit book, “The Year-round Vegetable Gardener,” and the subhead of that is, “How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year No Matter Where You Live.” So, there you go. [Laughter.]
Niki: Yeah. And they know it’s really very easy. I think all people really need to know is their first expected fall frost date. And then, when you’re looking at seed packs, the days to maturity. So, it’s easy math. If I can do it, anybody can do it.
Margaret: Now the math, do you add in what some seed people call “the fall factor,” because days are shorter and temperatures are generally cooler in the second half of the season, as opposed to lengthening hours of light in the spring sowings? Do you add a couple of weeks for the sort of fall factor of diminished light and heat?
Niki: I do. I add about seven to 10 days, and I mean, I just kind of tack an extra week on as I’m calculating and that seems to work really well. I don’t add more than that, because at that point then things become ready too early, and then they might be harvested before winter or late fall, when I don’t want them at that point. So one week works for me.
Margaret: So, here we are, I’m waiting for my first ripe tomato as well, poly-tunnel or no poly-tunnel because I don’t have one. [Laughter.] But I know I need to start fresh with some other crops, for instance, I put in another row of bush beans the other day. So, what are some of the food crops?
And a lot of people who are listening are probably new listeners, new readers of the website, a lot of people who have gotten into the throes of gardening this year in great numbers. And even some experienced gardeners have expanded what they’re doing because of the sort of situation out there. So, if we haven’t stretched the season before really, if we haven’t grown the second or third sowing of this and that, what are the things that you would want us to try our hand out most of all?
Niki: I think the most important thing to first realize is that anybody can succession plant. Growing up, we had this little family vegetable garden and we never succession planted. So, when that initial crop of beans was done, that was it. We never had more beans. And now, as you mentioned, I kind of use up every square inch of my garden.
But even people listening who maybe are in condos or only have a deck, you can still succession plant in pots. So, everybody should be succession planting if you definitely want to get as much food as possible this season.
So for me right now, I am putting more bush beans in, like you said; every two to three weeks until usually mid-July, I will put bush beans in. I’m also planting a fall crop of ‘Sugar Snap’ peas. I’m tucking more zucchini and cucumbers in the garden, because they take anywhere from 50 to 65 days. And I still have that in my season before that frost, even with the fall factor worked in. So there’s time for that.
Soon it’ll be time, in about a week or two, for all the fall and winter carrots and the beets. And of course, cabbages, cauliflowers, all of those cabbage-cousin crops, broccoli. I’m starting them indoors right now under my grow lights so that I can put them in the garden in about four weeks, because if I direct sow those in the garden, it’s going to be hard to keep those little seeds and seedlings happy in the intense hot heat and sun of summer.
Plus the slugs, even though it’s been dry, they have been just brutal, is the best way to describe them this year. I mean, it’ll be hot and sunny and I’m out there handpicking slugs. I can’t even explain it but they’re multiplying like crazy. I’m picking teeny-tiny ones, giant fat ones. I’ve had the point where all of a handful of slimy slugs, I don’t even care anymore. I’ll just keep on picking them.
So, I do like to start some things indoors under grow lights, because it’s a little easier than trying to nurture them along in the garden when the soil is hot and dry.
Margaret: So, that’s one of your tactical approaches, is to start it in a more controlled environment and have these homemade plugs to plug in when you see that square foot come available, when you pull some of that lettuce, right?
Niki: Yeah. And it’s one of the easiest things you can do. If you have grow lights, use them because even like you mentioned lettuce, lettuce won’t germinate when it’s hotter than, well, I don’t know the Fahrenheit but 27 Celsius. So probably 80 Fahrenheit, I guess. So, if you want the lettuce for fall and winter, start them indoors in mid-to-late August, plug them in your garden when they’re a couple of weeks old and you’ll have just bypassed the frustration of trying to keep the seeds and seedlings happy in again, that hot dry soil.
Margaret: Now, the list you just gave, which I know it wasn’t like the comprehensive list that you were reading from a script or something or from one of your books, by the way. But it includes almost everything except for tomatoes, peppers and eggplants and potatoes. I mean, it’s pretty comprehensive that you can push a lot of things. You can do it again with a lot of things.
Niki: It is. Although Margaret, you’re making me feel a little guilty because I actually have a few tomato suckers I’ve rooted-
Margaret: Oh, boy.
Niki: …and I’m just going to try to put those in and see happens. And I might have accidentally gone to a garden center today, and I might’ve accidentally bought another pepper plant so we’ll see what happens. Normally, I wouldn’t plant those in early July, but I’m going to give them, I’m going to put them in pots, I’m going to put them in my poly-tunnel, and maybe I’ll still get a harvest from them this year.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to experiment and try new things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s going to be fun.
Margaret: So, you didn’t mention, I don’t know if you mentioned herbs, but one of the other things that I like to do is, the basil that I put in May—my last frost is sometime in later May so sometime in May that I might’ve put young plants out of basil. They are starting to flower or they have been flowering and they’re going to get woody and big and whatever.
And my tomatoes, my paste tomatoes for my sauce, that’s not coming till August, September cusp really, in big amounts. And so, I might do some more basil. Do you do herbs as well again?
Niki: I actually do. I had gotten some seeds from Johnny’s not that long ago, including a new downy mildew-resistant basil. And so, I started them about a month ago and they’re now about an inch-and-a-half tall so I have about, don’t ask me why, but about 40 basil seedlings I need to find more space for in my garden. So I do, I usually plant basil twice for the exact reasons you mentioned. The tomatoes come on much later. They’ll start to flower; I do pinch the plants back during the growing season for a while, but of course it’s not as effective forever. It’s best to have a second crop.
So, these guys are going to go in the garden in the next week or so, and then they’ll be ready late August, early September into late September, or whenever that first frost comes.
Margaret: One of the things I love the most in the second crop is the peas. I love edible-podded peas and shelling peas. And then, it almost feels like they’re sweeter in the second, the fall, harvest because they’re not bumping into that heat of July. My first sowing bumps… is around now. It comes to harvest around early July, late June, early July. So, it kind of gets fried.
Niki: It’s true, totally true. And you know, the summer peas, because they’re planted so early, a lot of people think they need cold temperatures to germinate but they don’t. They germinate really quickly and just fine as long as you keep the soil moist in early to mid-summer. So, the ‘Sugar Snap’ peas are my absolute favorite, and I’m going to be sowing a very heavy crop of those. And we’ll probably start harvesting those early to mid-September, but they’ll take us through for about three to four weeks. And I mean, peas in September, what a treat. You can never have enough.
Margaret: It really is, it really is. And that’s the only time I really do the shelling peas, is I don’t do them in spring, but I do them in fall for using in recipes that I’m going to freeze or just freezing bags of. Do you know what I mean?
Margaret: So, if I want to try…. I need you to come here for some therapy, some onsite therapy. [Laughter.]
Niki: If the borders were open Margaret, I’d be on my way down.
Margaret: So, my idea of season-extension—I’ve never had a greenhouse, I’ve never had a poly-tunnel. I kind of rig things up and it’s a little “informal,” let’s just say. And so, at my house, you might see wire hoops that I’ve had for years. I have different sizes and so forth of hoops that basically stretch across a bed and a foot or 2 high.
I have fabric, lighter-weight and heavier-weight fabrics. I use a lot of clothes pins to hold them on. [Laughter.] But if you wanted to get started, if you were going to teach us, here’s the thing to start with in terms of… because there’s some gear we need to do some of the season-extension besides succession-sowing tactics. We also are going to need to be there with some protection and so forth. So, what would be—would it be a frost blanket? What would it be that you would say, “Here’s the beginner’s kit.” Do you know what I mean, the beginner kit of gear?
Niki: Totally. Yeah. I love the way you look at that, actually. Well, to be honest, the beginner’s kit isn’t going to cost you any money. If you’re going to start with one thing for season-extension this year, I would get some shredded leaves, the fall leaves that fall in your lawn in autumn, mow on them, shred them up. And then I would put them over the top of my carrots and my beets before the ground freezes, which for me is usually sometime in mid- to late November. And then, you can harvest those carrots or beets all winter long.
If you want to take it a tiny step further, you mentioned the frost blankets, the row covers. Absolutely. You can make little wire hoops out of 12-gauge wire. You can buy hoops, you can make PVC hoops, you can make hoops that have a lot of things. I’ve even used hula hoops to make hoops. Cut them in half and it’s a low hoop, but it works. And cover it with that row cover or a clear sheet of plastic. And you can extend your season by four weeks or more depending on what type of crop you have. You could cover lettuces in October-November, spinach, arugula, kale. I mean, there’s really no end to the different crops you can use for season-extension.
So, you could start with a mulch, which is really easy and cheap, or you could start with maybe some fabrics and hoops. And I mean, after a year or two, you might think, “Maybe I do want a cold frame.” You could build a super-simple cold frame from a wooden box with a clear polycarbonate or an old window top. And then, all of a sudden you’ve got this little mini-microclimate that you can use to produce food all winter long. So, it’s sort of like the gateway, I think, into year-round vegetable gardening. Once you get that first cold frame, there’s just no looking back.
Margaret: Now, when you do use fabric, such as the simplest form of fabric would be like a row cover–the thicker, heavier kind for adding warmth, for instance, at the end of the season. How do you hold it down? What is your method? Do you use those earth pins, because I find that kind of wrecks the fabric a lot of times? Do you know what I mean? What’s the gear that does the holding down, so it doesn’t blow away or whatever?
Niki: Well, for my mini-hoop tunnels… But it’s just fabric; fabric isn’t something I would use all winter long. I would use that in spring or fall so I’m not making something super-strong to hold it from winter winds and stuff.
So, for spring and fall, I generally will weigh it down with rocks or logs around the sides. I don’t like the staples too much, because as you mentioned, they poke holes in the fabric thus shortening its life dramatically, because once you’ve got a hole, it’s going to tear, and it’s frustrating. So, you can weigh it down really easily.
You can also bury the ends of the fabric. I tend not to do that too much unless I’m trying to use lightweight fabric to prevent insect damage, because otherwise, every time you want to harvest, you’ve got to un-bury the fabric and it gets messy. So, I try not to do that too much. I prefer to weigh it down.
And if I’m doing plastic mini-hoop tunnels for winter harvesting, I actually along the sides of my bed, the length of the mini-hoop tunnel, I will just take like a 1-by-2-inch by 8-foot-long (because my beds are 8 feet long), piece of untreated lumber, and just roll up the sides of that plastic into it. And then, I’ll put like two screws into my raised wooden beds, and that’ll hold it down for winter. And then, I’ll just lift the ends open when I want to harvest.
But I don’t do that for the fabric, because again, that would damage the fabric. And again, the fabric is only on for a short amount of time. But for the six months of winter I get, the little plastic-covered mini-hoop tunnels work great.
Margaret: So, no matter what we do, really, no matter what we sow or plug in that we’ve sown indoors, or which gear we buy, we will also want to have this sort of tactic of the best care of these plants, each generation of these plants. And you’ve alluded to a little bit of this, you kind of talked a little bit about when it’s hot out, it’s harder on the young plants especially and so forth.
But some of your sort of cultural tactics for the second half of the season that might be different from in spring, because obviously, the soil is less moist naturally, stuff is coming older, stuff’s coming to harvest—any sort of cultural tips you want to share as well?
Niki: Well, I mean, this is a time of year… Usually, I’m complaining about the amount of rain we’ve had, and this year is not that year. I’m complaining with the lack of rain. So, I’ve been deep watering. Now, when you’re succession planting, I mentioned when the soil is hot and dry, it’s hard to establish a crop. So, when you do have newly planted seeds or seedlings, you’ll have to give those areas a little more TLC.
You could put a little wire hoop tunnel over the top of your newly planted succession bean bed or your carrot bed, and then cover it with shade cloth or row cover now just for the first week or two, so that the soil doesn’t dry out as quickly and those seeds have more of a chance to germinate. And once they popped up, you can remove the cover so they can have the sunshine to grow. So, I do use mini-hoop tunnels in summer with those types of covers.
But paying attention to watering, especially when you’ve got crops like the peas and the beans and the cucumbers and zucchinis. Once they begin to flower and fruit, they have higher moisture needs. So, if they’re not getting it from rain, I’m going to have to play mother nature and get out there and deep water them.
And I think most gardeners know that deep watering is better than getting out there every day and giving the water a little sprinkle the soil, you want to make sure you water to encourage plenty of deep roots. And then I mulch, I mulch my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, any longterm crops that are in the garden. They’re mulched with straw or shredded leaves to lock that soil moisture in.
And then of course, you’ve got the side benefit of fewer weeds because there’s a mulch on the soil, and as the mulch breaks down it adds organic matter to the soil. But also around things like tomatoes, it helps prevent the spread of soil-borne diseases like tomato blight. So, there’s many benefits to mulching your crops so I’m big on mulch.
Margaret: It’s been very interesting this year. You talked about the stress of dry conditions, which we’ve had here, too. And we’ve had this up and down. It was hot when it isn’t usually hot, and it was cooler when it wasn’t usually cool. It’s all over the place. But what I haven’t had a big outbreak, and I know I’m going to kick myself for mentioning this-
Niki: Knock on wood.
Margaret: Knock on something. I haven’t had a lot of insect infestations. Normally by now, I would have seen in the kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, whatever, the brassicas, I would have seen various kinds of what do you call them…caterpillars.
Niki: Cabbage worms.
Margaret: Yeah, exactly.
Niki: I can send you some, it’s no problem. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Nice. Thank you so much. Are they allowed to cross the border? I’m not sure.
Niki: Sadly, the border doesn’t seem to work for them. And it’s only the past week that I mean, early in the season I go out… I did have my cabbages covered with insect netting over wire hooks. So, I didn’t have the early moths laying their eggs. But then I took them off to let more light in, and then I got the eggs and now I do have some cabbage worms. But I go out and I pick them off, and the robins are all throughout my garden so I keep just tossing them to the robins so, they’re grateful at least, I don’t know.
Margaret: That’s hilarious. For an organic gardener, there’s really no substitute for sort of a ritual. And I like the early morning time of day of inspection, of especially the undersides of leaves, I think, where things are lurking, like eggs.
Niki: People should, if you see eggs on the underside of your leaves, before you squish them or wipe them off with a gloved hand, make sure you know what they are. Because I know the cabbage worm eggs look like tiny little yellowish bullets, so I recognize them. I’ve had them for years, I know. But I mean, they could be ladybug eggs or eggs for lacewings or something else that’s good that you want in the garden. So, before you kill a bug or an egg, people should definitely ID it or learn what it is first.
Margaret: Yeah. My favorite place is BugGuide.net. It’s a bunch of universities in the U.S. I guess; it’s a volunteer thing. But I find that I can upload there if I’m really stuck. A lot of times I have a field guide that will tell—I have enough books, reference books, entomological reference books, that I can usually figure it out. But then, I can use BugGuide.net or some people just use like iNaturalist.org or one of the other citizen-science apps and just upload that picture and get a crowdsourced ID pretty quick, if they know what the plant is and what the region is and the date and the picture—that usually helps someone say, “Oh, that’s such and such,” which is great.
But I think there’s no substitute for vigilance in the organic garden really, is there?
Niki: No, I mean, it’s an incredibly important, and my province is organic so you can’t go buy weed-and-feed for your lawn. You can’t use these chemicals anymore, and we haven’t been able to for, I think, 19, 20 years now. So, you have to learn what these things are, and a morning cup of tea in the garden, as you’re looking for slugs and looking for cabbage worms, it’s kind of a ritual. I love it out there early in the morning.
Margaret: Yeah. So, in the last few minutes I wanted to ask you: I don’t know what kind of projects you’ve been up to. I know you have been working on a new book that will come out, when is the new book coming in the fall?
Niki: It was supposed to be next year, but actually they pushed it up. So, it’ll be coming out in December of 2020, so sooner than later.
Margaret: Great. So besides that, I wondered any new project in the garden? Any new crop that, the last book, “Veggie Garden Remix,” I think was the last one—so many new crops that even I had never heard of.
I put in a whole new asparagus plot because my 30-year-old one just was petering out and I decided for my old age here, I wanted the rest of my life to have plenty of asparagus every year. So, that’s what I did. So, anything that you’ve done this year that you know is different?
Niki: Well, I mean, here in Nova Scotia, we were all, like many places, locked down, and we were home for three months. And it’s only just opening a little up now. But during that time, I think everybody took time to put in gardens, look at their lawns, make new decks.
So, I’ve been tackling lots of outdoor projects and my ornamental garden that I put off for far, far too long.
But I’ve also built new cucumber trellises. I’ve put in so many pandemic potato patches. I had extra straw bales, so I’ve been growing these huge gardens of potatoes in straw bales [above], where I’ve loosened the straw everywhere so the potato plants will produce the potatoes within the straw, so they stay really clean. So, I’ve got probably 200 seed potatoes planted in a loose straw.
Niki: I know, listen, I don’t even know what to say to myself anymore.
So, anywhere I could plant more food this year, I did. Mainly because everybody I know said, “We’re coming to your garden this year if the grocery stores start to close.” [Laughter.] So I was like, “I better expand my plantings.”
And I am planting more fun things for myself, but because this was a year where the seed companies, oh my gosh, they were overwhelmed. It was hard to get stuff. I did get some things early, but certain things I never did get.
So, I’ve got a few new types of cucumber melons this year, sort of like along the lines of Armenian cucumbers, which I grow because my husband’s Lebanese, and I have seeds from his village from many years ago. And so, I grow a lot of cucumber melons but I’m growing lots of new tomatoes. There’s a 14-, 15-year-old tomato expert from Toronto, Emma Biggs. And so, she sends me tomato seeds and I send her other seeds and I’m growing some of her amazing varieties. So, I’ve got a lot of fun little things I’m growing, but unfortunately, because of the lack of seeds and the pressure of the spring, I didn’t get as much as I would’ve liked to try this year.
Margaret: Oh, quick, quick question. The cucumber trellises you just mentioned, are those of concrete reinforcing wire, or what are they made out of?
Niki: They should be, but again, it was hard to source them. So, I have a whole bunch of cucumber trellises that are vertical made of those, I made years ago. I have tunnels for cucumbers made of those, which the 4-by-8 sheets of concrete reinforcing mesh. But these ones, honestly, I had some scrap wood from another project so I just made like 5-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide, just honestly, an A-frame trellis, really simple [above]. I also grow cucumbers in my poly-tunnel up strings and twine. So, I grow cucumbers in lots of ways. The only way I don’t grow them is on the ground, because I get bugs; I get diseases. If I can grow vertically, it’s going up. That’s my rule.
Margaret: Well, Niki Jabbour, as soon as the border opens, I’m going to expect you for the consultation onsite here. [Laughter.]
Niki: I’ll be there.
Margaret: Thank you. And we’ll have the giveaways of the book, as I mentioned. And thank you so much and lots of links for other people in other regions as promised. Thank you so much for making the time today.
Niki: Thank you so much for having me. It’s always a joy. Take care Margaret.
more succession-sowing help
(Photos, except of peas and cabbage worms, from Niki Jabbour, used with permission.)
enter to win niki’s year-round book
I’LL BUY A COPY of Niki Jabbour’s “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year No Matter Where You Live,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box by scrolling all the way down the page, after the last reader comment:
Do you grow any edibles in the “offseason,” whether indoors or under cover or in a greenhouse–even if just a few extra weeks before or after frost?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will. But an answer is even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday July 21, 2020. Good luck to all.
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prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 13, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).