Labor Day is reflexively regarded as the end of summer and with it the end of the gardening season. Not so fast, my fellow Americans! Summer will be with us for a few weeks yet, until the autumnal equinox on Friday, Sept. 22.
But the best is yet to come. While we harvest our lima beans, eggplants and tomatoes now, we should consider the three months ahead of us as a “second summer.”
A far-reaching element of American Exceptionalism is our country’s singular diversity of terrain, climates and seasonal transitions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, American farmers and home gardeners took European agriculture — especially that of the United Kingdom — as their model, only to be annually disappointed by the erratic performance of their imported seeds.
While American culture and politics mirror European origins, our agriculture does not. Reckoned in temperature, precipitation, sunlight and day length, the only areas in the U.S. remotely resembling Western Europe are the northern-most stretch of Down East Maine (minus the winter), and the Seattle area, from Tacoma up to Bellingham.
We tend to think nature, and the garden, operate according to a Northern European time clock: the growing season punching in come June, and punching out three months later, on Labor Day. This is far from the case. Because of our nation’s Southern Mediterranean and North African-like latitudes, most US gardeners can reap a second, three-month long garden season.
When fall arrives, we typically reach for our sweaters, if not our overcoats. But, in fact, for vast swathes of the country, we should reach for our sunhats and hoes. Fall is prime gardening time.
Most of the country — some 80 to 85% — offers six months of peak outdoor gardening. In September, October and November, the average temperatures in our 30 largest cities are conducive to growing virtually every vegetable, except perhaps tomatoes and eggplants after mid-October.
In cooler northern climes, the garden-friendly “second summer” average temperatures range from a high of 59 degrees in New York to 53 degrees in Chicago and Seattle. Heading southward, the temperatures get positively balmy, averaging 60 degrees or above, from Houston’s 71 degrees to Louisville’s average of 60. Of course, it gets still warmer (and wetter) in places like Miami and New Orleans. And it gets plenty warm in the Southwest and all the way to Northern California.
“Fall” is too glum and fateful a term to encompass the fertile splendor of the season — the garden is in full swing. Lasting until the first deep frost, this complete garden season runs until mid-October in the northern states (and even late October if you’re on the water, like Boston), into late November in the mid-South and as late as mid-December in the Deep South, South Central and Southwest.
The garden’s autumnal reboot brings forth bountiful harvests of delectable vegetables. In the North, enjoy lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, turnips and Brussels sprouts. In the South, gardeners can grow anything they like.
In the spirit of Labor Day, the garden offers a salutary hybrid of work and leisure. And, to get bottom line-ish about it, no other investment will reap you dividends even close to what gardening offers, tangible gains you can sink your teeth into. Hedge-fund managers, take note: a modestly-sized garden can deliver a return on investment up to 25,000%, reckoned by what comparable produce will cost at your local grocer.
Remember that the garden is not only mankind’s original business — it is the ideal workplace. You are the boss, setting your own hours, claiming full ownership. You work in a thriving creative environment in a picturesque setting. The commute: minimal. Consider it a “second summer vacation.”