Summer Greens

By Charlie Nardozzi

Summertime is upon us and all our favorite heat-loving vegetables are pouring in from the garden. Tomatoes, peppers, squashes, cucumbers, sweet corn, and melons are maturing during these long, hot days. But if you're a salad lover you may be pining for the cooler days of spring and fall. Don't despair; in spite of the heat there are greens you can grow for summer salads.

All it takes is selecting the right greens to grow and altering your growing techniques to account for the heat, bugs, and potential lack of rain. Here are some greens to try to keep you in salads all summer long.

Swiss Chard and Mustard

While traditional greens, such as spinach, may not thrive in the summer heat, mustard and Swiss chard can tolerant the high temperatures. Here are some good varieties to try:

'Florida Broadleaf' mustard - Light green leaves have a distinct white midrib. The leaves are ready to pick 45 days after seeding.

'Tendergreen' mustard - Oblong, thick leaves have a spinach-like flavor and are particularly suited to growing in the humid Southeast.

'Golden Sunrise' Swiss chard - The leaves feature golden veins and midrib on wavy, medium green leaves. It matures 55 days from seeding.

'Ruby Red' Swiss chard - Red veins and stems contrast well with the dark green leaves. 'Ruby Red' is particularly attractive when grown with 'Golden Sunrise' Swiss chard.

Summer Lettuce

While most gardeners think of lettuce as a cool-season crop, there are some varieties that can stand the heat. They may not grow as large and succulent as they would during cooler times of the year, but they will produce a meal for you. Grow the looseleaf varieties instead of the head or romaine types. They can be harvested when young and are less likely to struggle during periods of intense heat.

Here are a few to try:

'Ruby Red' lettuce - This compact, slow-to-bolt, red-leafed variety doesn't fade its color during the heat.

'Sierra' lettuce - Tall, open heads of green leaves tinged in red resist bolting and becoming bitter even during periods of hot weather.

'Sangria' lettuce - A red butterhead that forms loose heads with smooth leaves even in the heat.

Exotic Greens

Beside the mustards, chards, and lettuces, there are many other greens that grow well in the heat. Here are some spinach substitutes, greens mixes, and even an old-time, cool-season green to try this summer.

Mesclun mix - There are many versions of this mix of greens. Usually they contain a combination of lettuces, chard, arugula, and kale. Some spicier mixes may contain mustard and Oriental greens. They grow even in the summer heat because you harvest the greens when they are still young.

Malabar spinach - A warm weather spinach substitute, malabar spinach grows on a vine and needs to be trellised. The vines produces spinach-like greens that thrive in the heat.

New Zealand spinach - New Zealand spinach produces bushy plants with tender young leaves that can be used as you would spinach. It grows slowly but thrives in hot, dry conditions.

'Red Russian' kale - While kale is sweetest tasting when allowed to mature during cool temperatures, it still can grow in the heat of summer. You can either harvest the young leaves and mix them in a salad, or wait until fall to harvest the sweet, larger leaves after a frost. 'Red Russian' features flat, green leaves with attractive red veins.

Growing in the Heat

There are some tricks to growing greens during the summer heat. Just by altering your growing techniques, you can have better success with your crops.

Since the sun is so hot during the middle of summer, it's best to provide some shade for your greens, especially in the afternoon. Plant them alongside tall crops, such as corn or tomatoes, or drape a shade cloth over the rows, keeping it well ventilated so the soil and seedlings don't overheat.

Since the soil is very hot in summer, many seeds won't germinate well when direct sown. Sow seeds indoors or on a shaded deck in pots and flats and transplant seedlings into the ground.

Keep the new plants well watered. The summer heat evaporates moisture quickly from the soil, and seedlings have small root systems and not much margin for error with water. Watering also cools the soil and plant leaves, encouraging better growth.

Cover the plants with a lightweight floating row cover to keep out insects. The tender seedlings are prime targets for aphids, white flies, and other bugs. The row cover may raise the heat around the plantings, but it's important to keep these insects from eating your crops.

Harvest greens while they are still young. They'll be tasty and tender and have less chance of being affected by the heat or insects.


Splitting Melons

Q: I have thrown out more of my honeydew melons than I've been able to eat this year due to them splitting before they ripen. What can I do to prevent splitting?

A: Melons need lots of water and heat to mature properly, but the skin of newly developing fruits is quite tender. It's possible the plant took up too much water and forced it into the fruit, but the skin couldn't grow fast enough to contain the fluid so the pressure made it crack and split.

To avoid splitting fruit, protect baby melons from the hot sunshine and keep them evenly watered. Next time a fruit begins to develop, try to move it under some of the leaves on the vine to keep it from being susceptible to temperature extremes. You can mulch and use a soaker hose to provide even soil moisture conditions, and cover the melons with a lightweight floating row cover. Since it's early in the season, your plants should produce many more melons so you're bound to get more fruit.

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