Time to sow those cool-season seeds

By Rebecca Jepsen
For the Mercury News
August 2, 2008

August is the time to start seeding cool season crops, which will reward you with an abundance of fall and winter produce.

Common options that are easily grown in our region include broccoli, beans, peas, beets, spinach, arugula and many varieties of lettuce. To add interest and diversity to your garden and your dinner plate, try kohlrabi, Swiss chard, fava beans and an array of fabulous Asian greens.

Most of these can be direct seeded in your garden. Broccoli, onions, spinach, lettuce and Asian greens will do better if started in pots.

Starting your own seeds is easy. Begin with a standard garden pot and lightweight potting mix. Fill your pot with moist, potting mix and add slow-release fertilizer (follow instructions on the label) if your mix doesn't already contain fertilizer. Tap the pot gently to settle soil.

Next, use a chopstick or the eraser end of a pencil to poke holes in the soil for your seeds; depth and spacing will be listed on the seed pack. Lightly cover the seeds with additional potting mix — again, do not pack down. Use a spray bottle or mister to thoroughly wet the soil, being careful not to disturb the seeds. Make sure to keep the soil moist.

Germination and planting times will depend on the type of seed, but before you know it, your seedlings will be ready to take root in your garden.

On another note, although recent weather has felt more like fall than summer's normal dog days, it's still important to deeply water trees and woody shrubs a couple of times during the summer. Watering to a depth of two feet helps promote a healthy root system. Most drip systems don't provide enough water to thoroughly penetrate the soil and give roots needed moisture. Make sure the basin around the plant is intact, and use a hose or bucket to fill it. You can use a moisture meter, screwdriver, auger or straightened coat hanger to check moisture depth. You will be able to penetrate moist soil.

Q I have noticed curling and shriveling leaves on my tomato plants lately. What is going on?

A If the leaves are curling in the hot midday sun, but look normal at night, you may need to add more water. It's best to water on a regular basis, as tomatoes don't do well with uneven watering.

Otherwise, you may have a tomato russet mite infestation. These insects are almost impossible to see with the naked eye. The damage they cause typically starts at the bottom of the plant and moves upward. The July hot spell left many plants vulnerable to this pest. Tomato psyllids also have been common this year. They secrete toxic saliva during their feeding stage that can severely damage tomato plants. See the August to-do list for details on how to control both problems.