It’s All in the Timing


Mache Mache going to seed in my vegetable garden

After 20 years of obsessing about my vegetable garden, I've come to one conclusion: it's all about the timing.

Yes, yes, good soil is essential, but we're all adults here.  That goes without saying.

And my failures in the vegetable garden are almost uniformly failures of timing.  Last year, for example, we had a frost June 1!  That meant everything heat-loving went in too early.

On the other hand, I've been observing my volunteers and seeing that Mother Nature is often ahead of my schedule. Self-seeded mache germinates in fall and is there waiting under the snow for spring.  This mache tastes much better than any mache I've ever seeded in early spring.

Pole bean seeds that fell off my arch last year are now up and big, substantial plants getting ready to climb…whereas I would never push a pole bean seed into the ground until Memorial Day.

And an Italian leaf broccoli that I seeded late last summer did nothing worth considering last fall…but was up and gorgeous in late May…and eaten with gusto.

Mother Nature clearly has an advantage over me in that she knows the exact temperature and light conditions under which seeds are ready to germinate and plants to grow.  But she has another advantage in that she doesn't have to stomp around a wet spring garden compacting the soil in order to get things in at the right moment.

She just casually flings around a bunch of seed in late summer and fall and lets it sit there waiting.  I'm sure much of it rots, especially given the harsh winters we have in Zone 4.

But some of it doesn't.  I think Mother Nature deserves a little mimicry.  So this year, as a science experiment, I am going to try seeding spinach, radishes, and peas in November, right before the ground freezes. 


  1. Mother Nature manages this because she has a much larger amount of space, seeds and patience than we do. She gives the early planting a try and if there’s a late frost, then something else comes up. But you encourage me (on the cusp between zones 6 and 7) to remember my fall planting even if that does mean planting during the summer drought.

  2. I love experimenting in the vegetable garden, it is what makes that process so exciting and the rewards so delicious.

  3. The volunteer tomatoes that popped up in my garden are now about 3 times the size of the expensive fancy ones I bought from a reputable organic nursery. The self-sown nasturtiums are flowering, while only 3 out of about 20 seeds I planted germinated – and those are only about 3 inches tall. I let 2 mache plants go to seed – I can’t wait to see what happens in the fall. Mother nature is great – I wish she would do all the work with my whole garden!

  4. Yeah, we’re all adults here. But I will say it’s my experience that it is the soil TEMPERATURE that governs everything, not necessarily the ambient one. Every seed has a window of opportunity for sprouting; sure, soil moisture is a huge factor but in my humble opinion it’s how warm the soil is (or isn’t) that makes your seeds, volunteers, and weeds grow. If it swings wildly then the seedling will fail; if it steadily warms, all’s well.

  5. My volunteer tomatoes, mache, & lettuce are always more vigorous than those that were coddled in a hothouse. I’m considering using the Mother Nature method for tomatoes next year. Should make for an interesting Spring considering my memory hardly lasts to the end of the day, never mind to the end of winter.

  6. LOL. Sounds like gardening in the desert. It sometimes takes more than a year for an annual out here to come to fruition. I’m on year 2 of my indian eggplants (fruit both), year 3 for the jalapenos(fruit the last two) and year two for the artichoke (only fruit in year 2).
    Sometime the plants have a mind of their own …

  7. It took a few years but I finally caught on that the “volunteer” cucumbers that showed up half way through the summer – of blended heritage, the result of whoever I planted in the spring crossing with its neighbor and hiding under the leaves to go undetected by me, only to rot and sprout hybrids all over the place – were far more resistant to all the plagues that afflict my cuke crop. Now I deliberately plant early and let a few stay on the vine too long – harvest the seeds and resow for a late summer crop of mixed bloods. It would seem that most of the vine destroying problems are long gone by August so I get the best at the end of the season.

  8. I have been watching the exact same thing this year Michele. My self sown mache has reseeded and gone. I have found self sown lettuce, asian greens and tomatoes this year and kept many. And I know why. I let things go to seed in my laziness. So I let the turnips and chard that overwintered go to seed before I pulled them. I would have let the carrots bloom, but I needed the space.

    My most spectacular nature in charge crop this year are the sunflowers. I left them for the birds and they came up all over. They are huge already. Last year I struggled mightly just to get the parents of these freebies going. This year I just stand back and watch.

  9. I had arugula and lettuce go to seed last year and got lots of volunteer arugula in January, lettuce in April. Nature was telling me not to shirk on the cold weather crops. As for the warm weather crops, I still think a greenhouse and other season extenders are in order. Naturalized sunflowers and golden poppies are definitely a favorite.

  10. In ATL we always plant peas and sweet peas (& onion, shallots, garlic sets) in fall, since it gets hot too early for spring-planted ones. And since poppies don’t transplant, I sow Shirley & Peony poppies on MLK day every year (January). New hybrid Echinaceae/Purple Coneflower is short-lived, so the regular species is better for me. Not only do I sow it all over the yard, but I sent a pound and a half of seed to the AHS seed exchange. Happy trowels.

  11. I got hooked on planting seeds in sandwich bags a la “ and germinated lettuce, spinach, brussel sprouts, broccoli and all kinds of flowers by March 1st here in Bellingham, WA. These tiny greenhouses are terrific, but I’m looking forward to late fall sowing of some of the same things and letting Nature take its course.

  12. I’ve had great luck planting spinach in the fall and wintering it over. I usually put the seeds in the ground in September or October and then cover the plants with frost cloth. I’m always amazed when they can survive cold snaps of 2o below zero! (Although I usually give them an extra blanket if it’s gonna be really cold with no snow for insulation.) There’s nothing like eating a fresh spinach salad in January!

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