By Brenda Bolton, Mobile Master Gardener | [email protected]

Q: Can you suggest some easy backyard vegetables I can grow here in the summer?

A: The annual joke at my house on that first sultry morning of Mobile summer is that no one settled this land in July. Or August. We laugh at the old joke and then go out into the heat to cut okra for the freshly shelled peas on the stove.

Spring is gone, but gardening and its rewards are not. We do need to know which edibles are heat worshippers, and we must follow their calendar. Find those calendars in the Alabama Cooperative Extension publication “Planting Guide for Home Gardening in Alabama” (ANR 0063) and “The Alabama Gardener’s Calendar” (ANR 0047), both available at www.aces.edu. A handy visual planting guide online is local garden writer Bill Finch’s “The Plain Garden Planting Cycle” (Google it), one of my quick-reference personal favorites.

We live in a year-round gardening zone, always planting, transplanting or harvesting something, or preparing soil for when we do. Summer is the time to enjoy the hot-blooded edibles of the home garden. In backyards across the Gulf Coast, the heat brings on the summer favorites, our sun-worshipping easy edibles: colorful hot peppers, shiny aubergine eggplants and subtropical okra, a member of the hibiscus family, ready to take on July and August. You almost can’t fail with these. Of course, if you were eating these from your garden on the Fourth of July, you planted them in the spring after last frost, but you can actually start new pepper, eggplant and okra plants right now for a late crop.

Nothing tastes more like summer than tomatoes, and some small patio tomatoes seem willing to perform even in July. But my big varieties are worn out, a treat for the stinkbugs and the fat green hornworms, fruit splitting when an abundance of rain is followed by hot sun. The hottest months are not ideal for homegrown tomatoes here.

Spring tomatoes that perform best are set out as transplants after last frost to mature under the more ideal May and June sun. However, July and August is the time to plant for fall crops, so another round of tomatoes can be set out mid-July to mid-August, to mature in slightly cooler weather.

Other easy summer edibles include the herbs that star at summer parties in salsas, bruschetta, pesto and dips: basil, oregano, rosemary, bronze fennel, summer savory and, when kept more shaded, cilantro, flat leaf parsley, mints and thymes.
If it’s fresh berries you love, now is the time to harvest all those blue and black and red berries planted in cooler fall through spring months: plump blueberries for June muffins; shiny blackberries, served up in cobblers with vanilla ice cream; and strawberries, featured in everything from salads to sandwiches. Fig trees now hang heavy with rich, sweet, brown and purple figs with berry-red flesh.

July brings to the table other Southern favorites, grown at home or enjoyed from local markets: melons, green limas, several types of Southern peas and beans, all planted last spring, along with sweet white corn that tastes like summer vacation at granddad’s. For the ambitious, now and into August is the time for starting from seed broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage (inside for transplant) and limas, pole and snap beans, winter squash, pumpkins, beets, carrots, collards, cucumbers, field peas, turnips, rutabagas and Irish potatoes in the garden.

Check the detailed charts of planting and maturation dates in the publications referenced at the start of this column. If you prefer only spring planting, use this hot weather to solarize your garden and compost vegetation for enriching your soil in anticipation of next year.

Real summer is here now, but earlier, on a particularly lovely day, I was enjoying a meal at a restaurant under the reaching limbs of an old oak overlooking Mobile Bay. I replayed views I’d enjoyed in travels away and had to admit, none surpassed this beauty of sun and sky and open water, seen through the frame of dappled shade and gnarled oak limbs.

For a gardener, Gulf Coast life is about beaches and boats, seafood and sunshine, and so much more. It’s about the gift of nature’s bounty, to be enjoyed year-round.

YOU ARE INVITED TO THESE UPCOMING GARDENING EVENTS

What: New, Better, Yours: Plant the Newest, Best Plants
When: Wednesday, July 26, 10:30-11:30 a.m.
Where: Bellingrath Gardens, 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
Admission: Fees apply; call 251-973-2217 for more information.

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Monthly Meeting
When: Thursday, Aug. 3, 10:30-11:45 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Favorite Plants for Mobile Gardens, Mobile Master Gardeners

Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769 or send questions to [email protected].