Experienced Maine gardeners know that the kickoff is Memorial Day. That’s when all danger of frost is past, so you can plant your warm-weather vegetables without fear.

Well, gardeners, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re late out of the starting gate. Three weeks late, which is an eternity on the short Maine gardening calendar.

Granted, with few exceptions, it has been a cold and rainy spring. Even if you were willing to brave the drizzle and chill, the ground was often too soggy to plant successfully. On the rare sunny days, you may have had other things to do – attending graduations, washing your windows, opening your cottage for the sea- son or watching Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity on TV, depending on your political persuasion.

Who can blame you if you’re tempted to give up the vegetable garden this year? Isn’t that why they invented farmers markets, so you can enjoy locally grown food without the work and problems of growing your own? Don’t give in to that temptation! Not that I have anything against farmers markets – they’re great places to buy your seedlings. (And given your late start, you’ll be relying on seedlings.)

But nothing compares to vegetables you grow yourself. They taste better (at least I think they do), save you money, provide exercise and give you a taste – pun intended – of gardening success.

Fortunately, you can still plant a variety of vegetables that will produce plentiful, excellent food before the first frost. Yes, many will require a considered approach now – namely, good counting skills, seedlings (it’s too late for seeds) and perhaps a dwarf hoop house – but you can handle that. So Mr. and Mrs. Procrastinator, do not give up hope. With a little care and these tips, expect to pile your plates high with homegrown vegetables later this summer.

PEPPERS

All peppers start as green peppers and then turn red, yellow or purple and sweet-tasting. But if you’ve waited this long to plant this year’s crop, you had better make your peace with green as it’s unlikely enough time remains for the peppers to ripen. But that’s OK, the green ones are still tasty (and the Press Herald’s food editor thinks they are unfairly maligned). They are useful for grilling, cutting up for salads and freezing to use in recipes all winter long.

Pepper seedlings should be planted about 18 inches apart in rich, well-drained soil. The plants grow only a foot or two high, but I like to tie them loosely to a stake so that our grandchildren (or me when I am not looking where I’m going) don’t knock them down. Here’s what I suggest:

New Ace, 60 days, an update of the longtime favorite Ace. This pepper has been uniformly successful for my wife and me. It produces big, chunky, thick-walled and flavorful fruits.

Mellow Star, 60 days green, 80 days red. I haven’t grown this Japanese shishito pepper, but Ramona Snell of Snell Family Farm in Buxton raved about it. The Johnny’s catalog describes it as wrinkly and thin walled, mild with no heat when green and sweet when red, especially good in stir fries, tempuras and salads.

CUCUMBERS, SUMMER SQUASH AND ZUCCHINI

I’m bundling these summer-producing cucurbits because they require the same treatment in the garden.

You might get productive plants if you direct-seeded plants now, but given today’s date it would be wiser to buy seedlings – if you can find any. Guess what I’ll be doing as soon as I finish writing this column? Going out to buy squash and cucumber seedlings. I planted ours – from seedlings we started inside – on May 30, but the cold rains of early June did them in.

About those seedlings – and this advice applies to any vegetables – look for small, recently planted ones, Snell suggests. If the seedlings are large and perhaps already have flowers and small fruit, they are old and tired, she said, and won’t perform as well in your garden. The silver lining to your tardiness? Since temperatures finally (I sincerely hope) have warmed up, you won’t have the bother of hardening the seedlings off to help them adjust from the cosseted environment of the greenhouse to the real world.

Back to the cucurbits – keep the plants about four feet apart, using just one seedling per site, and plant them in rich soil amended with compost. Cucumbers come in some exotic varieties, but the common types are rough skinned (or pickling) and smooth skinned.

And while the ultra-productive zucchini is the butt of many jokes, in my experience, a family of two can eat the production of two plants if they pick the squashes small and both grill them and use them raw in salads, as my wife Nancy and I do. Some suggestions:

• National Pickling Cucumber, 52 days, an old standby that can be picked at any size, and used for eating fresh and pickling.

• Muncher, 60 days, a smooth-skinned variety that produces eight-inch fruit, with strong compact vines. It works well in containers and in the garden.

• Slick Pik, 48 days, bred by Brent Loy of the University of New Hampshire, is my choice for yellow squash. It is extra early, flavorful and attractive. What more could you want?

• Black Beauty, 55 days, an heirloom zucchini from the 1920s, is the classic choice and has done best in our garden.

• Avoid Straight Eight. It’s a great favorite with cucumber beetles, who will devour it.

BEANS

Like peas, beans are planted directly into the ground and come in either bush or pole varieties. Unlike peas they do not like the cool, damp spring weather and they do like the heat of summer. Which means you’re in luck.

Planting late in season, you’ll want bush beans, which produce more quickly than pole beans and ripen at about the same time. Green beans, despite their name, also come in yellow and purple. Beyond those, there are a few dried varieties, in which you discard the pod and eat the seeds, that will also produce before frost hits. Here’s what I suggest:

• Provider, at 50 days, is the earliest green bean. It produces five-inch long green pods.

• Golden wax beans, 50 days, are the most common yellow bean, with a buttery flavor and five-inch long pods.

• Amethyst, 56 days, is described in Johnny’s catalog as the fanciest purple bean, good cooked or raw.

• Early bush Italian bean, 50 days, is the earliest for gardeners who prefer flat pods to round ones. At this date, you may be pushing your luck, but at 80 days when the pods begin to dry, you can use these for dried beans, too.

• Coco Noir bush bean, 75 days, is my own favorite dried bean. Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester carries them. I’ve been saving this seed for three years, planting them every summer from dried beans I set aside. Although edible as a green bean, the Coco Noir is best for dried black beans. Leave the pods on the plant until the leaves start dropping, and the pods are dry and withered.

PEAS

The vegetable that does poorest in hot weather is peas, which just happens to be one of my family’s favorites. Generally speaking, if they aren’t harvested by the end of July, the vines and pods dry up and produce a less sweet pea. Happily, the Wando bush variety is an exception to the rule. It can stand up to the heat, so is often planted by gardeners who want a fall pea crop.

I didn’t plant it this year because our pea-crazy Florida visitors are coming over the Fourth of July, but when they schedule their annual visit for August, I always plant Wando. To get a decent crop in Maine, plant these seeds directly in the garden before the end of June; counting today, you’ve got exactly 13 days. Wando produces seven or eight peas in each 3-inch pod, and while it is considered a bush variety (which typically means they do not need support and produce again and again until frost), it still grows 30 inches tall and does better growing on a fence or with other support – more like a pole bean – than it does sprawling along the ground.

While you are too late for the traditional Fourth of July peas, trust me peas taste just as good on Labor Day.

TOMATOES

When you plant tomatoes in late spring or early summer, you have to do the math, Snell advises. In fact, you really ought to do the math for every vegetable you plant late. Figure out your average or, if you want to be super-cautious, the earliest frost date for your vegetable garden. The earliest we have ever had a frost at our property in Cape Elizabeth is Sept. 20; the average is Oct. 12, though in recent years – whether you believe climate change is real or not – frost has come around Halloween.

Every tomato seedling you buy will list its days to maturity. In my experience, the number is over-optimistic by a week or two. Then again, we live close to the coast and are plagued by cooling sea breezes and fog. So, pick the frost date you want to use, count back the plant’s days to maturity from that date, add 10 days so you have a margin of error and read the labels to select the tomato that fits your timetable.

This late in the season, your choices at garden centers, farm stands, farm markets and garden centers may be limited. That said, Snell and I recommend these:

• Early Girl, 50 days, six to eight ounces for fruit, the most popular early tomato.

• Stupice, 52 days, 3 to 4 ounces, heirloom variety, great flavor.

• Sun Gold, 55 days, cherry-size golden fruit, the sweetest and most reliable tomato in the Atwell garden.

• Moskvich, 60 days, indeterminate, open-pollinated heirloom, four to six ounces, a Russian variety that performs well as temperatures cool in the fall.

EGGPLANTS

Like tomatoes and peppers, eggplants are in the nightshade family, and they need the same growing conditions – fairly rich, loose soil.

They produce a hardy, dense vegetable, which Nancy and I like grilled with a few herbs.

Eggplants come in many colors, and can be fat or skinny. Since the only way we eat it is grilled, I like the large, black varieties.

• Travata, 70 days, from Johnny’s, is one of the best early varieties. It’s a classic bell shape, 3 inches wide by 5 inches long, and flavorful.

That is 10 days longer than the early peppers need and a full 20 days longer than the earliest tomato, so no guarantees. On the other hand, if you love eggplant, throw caution to the wind. If worse comes to worst, they’d be good candidates for a dwarf hoop house come September.

When the weather grows cooler, you install the hoop house over these or any of your not quite ripe crops. Smart Maine gardeners always keep a pile of old blankets in their garden sheds to use against the threat of frost in September. Frost aside, as the temperature drops, the vegetables will ripen more slowly. The hoop house, or a movable cold frame, shelters the crops and extends the season slightly at the far end, since your garden didn’t have the benefit of a springtime start.

COLE CROPS

Although catalogs say your cole crops – broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts – can be planted as early as April, Snell waits until June at her family’s farm in Buxton.

“June is a much better month to plant them in Maine,” she said.

In short, delaying has served you well here as these plants all do better when they ripen in the cool fall than in the hot summer. At the risk of repeating myself, at this time of year, you’re better off planting seedlings. Since cole crops are less popular than tomatoes and peppers, your choices will probably be limited and you’ll have to take what you can get.

Next year, promise yourself to get started early enough to grow your own seedlings, then seek out Diplomat broccoli from Johnny’s, also Diablo Brussels sprouts and Snow Crown cauliflower.

COOL-WEATHER CROPS

Quick-growing cool-weather crops, including lettuce, chard and other greens, as well as beets and carrots, are no trouble at all. Many Maine gardeners plant these in succession, starting in mid-April for a harvest in June, then subsequent plantings for harvests in August and September. So you’ve missed your June crop this year? No biggie. Just carry on with later plantings and you’ll have plenty to eat.

… AND WHAT NOT TO PLANT

So that’s what you can still plant this season, and more importantly harvest, although it’s edging toward late June. Here are a few to skip: for these, that ship has sailed.

Winter squash: The earliest winter squash I found in a catalog search is an early butternut, that lists at 85 days to maturity. Regular butternuts, according to the catalogs, ripen in 100 days. The long gestation lets them develop the thick skin they need to be stored through the winter. But at this point, the first frost in most of Maine is probably fewer than 85 days away.

Melons: Watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydews and other melons are really meant for southern climates. True, the University of New Hampshire has developed varieties that technically ripen in 80 days, though they do best with black solar plastic under them. If you ask me, if you are just starting melons now, the chance of failure is too high to make it worth the effort.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]