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The garden harvest: Four questions for Jim Hole

It's time to talk harvest, pruning and – yikes – frost.
Late summer is always the best time in the garden, when much of the bounty is at its peak--beans and peas, corn, zucchini, tomatoes and more. But what is the best way to maximize your harvest? And should you continue to fertilize your flowers and veggies this month? Our gardening guru Jim Hole addresses a few common concerns.

Q: With July rains and now a good run of hot weather, veggies are coming in strong this month, but so are their leaves and more shoots. What's the best way to maximize the yield that is now ripening?

Hole: Growers go in every couple of days and thin the patch, picking every other beet or zucchini. That allows sun to get at the more spaced-apart plants that remain. So you can prune lower leaves if you'd like, but thinning the patch may be best, allowing what remains to continue to spread out, grow and ripen.  But you can pinch off the side branches that develop on a plant, just leave the flower cluster tops intact. Now is the best time to harvest zucchini, while it's young and tender. Beet tops are great for sauteeing, so start to pick some of those too--you can even eat carrot tops. Under-ground vegetables can stay much longer--carrots, parsnips, potatoes, onions.

Q: Is there anything we should still be fertilizing at this time of summer?

Hole: I wouldn't fertilize anything but the hanging baskets now (and for a few weeks more), because they have a variety of plants in a small space with little room for roots to grow. Everything else is heading toward harvest time, with cooler temperatures and the chance of frost within a few weeks from now, so unless a plant is showing a deficiency, I'd leave it as is. Anything that flowers now won't have time to ripen and grow before the end of season, so fertilizer isn't warranted.

Q: What do we do when there's a danger of frost?

Hole: Garden stores sell rolls of a lightweight white spun fabric. Keep that handy and when there's a danger of frost, drape it over your frost-sensitive plants (tomatoes, zucchini, beans). Anything growing underground, like carrots, rutabaga--these get sweeter the longer they stay in the ground, so cooler temperatures are great. You can also use a thin bed sheet to cover plants when there's a frost warning.

Q: Flowers with spent blooms--can we cut these off? Is it good for the plant?

Hole: Definitely. Maintain what's blooming with water and sun, but you can also go ahead and cut flowers with a sharp clean tool and put them in a vase inside the house, or just dead-head the spent flower tops in the garden. Perennial plants need the seeds from the bloom sometimes, but mostly, the blossom is a free-loader for the plant: it's the leaves and stems that need the continued sun and water. You can also shape and prune trees and shrubs most anytime, but remember some (like lilacs) are setting flowers for next year as we speak. The buds are already forming, so if you prune heavily, you may not have flowers next year. Just take off older, outer branch stems on a yearly basis when pruning this type of tree.