With the first few days of truly warm weather, when leafy greens go into a full-tilt wilt in the afternoon sun, the time has come to discuss some realities of subsistence gardening in San Antonio. It will soon be hot, and probably dry, for several long months and there’s not much that can be done about it. In a few weeks, a lot of what looks lush right now will be leggy, seedy, or dead – and that’s OK. The transition from “glorious spring” to “what might survive the summer” requires a mental shift, but all is not lost.
Seasonality is part of the process, and the rewards of a kitchen garden (or any other endeavor) come from knowing you’ve worked hard (or smart) to get the goods. With a little planning, experimentation, ingenuity, and common sense, you can use the transitional period to build your arsenal for aesthetic and culinary survival.
Fact: within a month, most spring plants will be harvested, dried up, or gone to seed — which is exactly where you want them so you’ll have seeds for the following season. This might not please your inner landscaper, but letting seeds dry on the stalk is important to keeping them viable, and growing from your own stock is both cheaper and hardier than starting with packages every season. We harvest about a pound of arugula seeds each year, so we plant liberally and year-round, and we always have good salad material. The dill, after weeks of Wild Kingdom-style battles for dominance between the aphids and the ladybugs (who eventually won), are happily “curing” huge heads of seed we’ll plant again in winter. A few days from now they’ll be totally dry, we’ll pull them out, and plant something else in the meantime.
Having said that, a word to the wizened: with some exceptions, there are few edibles that truly thrive in full summer sun here, despite what the planting labels say. It’s a late start, but pole beans and cowpeas (blackeyes) can take the heat, look nice, and add nitrogen to the soil. Okra does well, but get the plants established before the full heat kicks in. Experiment with greens, tender herbs, and other edibles in pots you can move around to chase shade and find out what grows where this time of year. Consider shade cloths: like winter frost protection, summer sun can be mitigated by temporary structures you can take down in the fall.
The figs and grapes aren’t ready yet, but tomatoes are ripening and the chilies are loaded. Our eggplants, which went in late this year, aren’t in full swing yet. But if they all survive the summer, they’ll produce again in fall. The point is this: kitchen gardening isn’t always about what looks pretty, nor is it about immediate gratification. Seasonality is part of the process. A little planning and tending, even of the weekend gardener variety, will pay off.