Tomato

60406Actually, it is a fruit. It contains seeds. Tomato, Solanum lycopersicum, is one of the most popular vegetables in American gardens. Most are red. Some are yellow or orange. A few weird varieties are pink, green, dark purple, brownish or creamy white. The largest tomatoes can get more than four inches wide. Tiny clustered ‘grape’ tomatoes are less than a quarter inch wide. There are literally thousands of varieties!

Most garden varieties are ‘indeterminate’, which means that they are productive throughout the season until frost. ‘Determinate’ agricultural varieties produce all their fruit within a limited season to facilitate harvest. This also works nicely for home canning. (Determinate varieties seem to be more productive only because all the fruit ripens at once.) Although technically perennial, plants are grown as annuals. They get about three to six feet tall. Most garden varieties need support.

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Spring Fashions For Vegetable Gardens

60406thumbCompared to replacing cool season annuals with warm season annuals, the replacement of cool season or ‘winter’ vegetables with warm season or ‘summer’ vegetables is not quite as traumatic. Most of the cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower plants finish in time to make room for new vegetable plants anyway. Unlike flowering annuals, they make it obvious that they are done for the season.

If left too late into warming spring weather, the juvenile floral buds of broccoli and cauliflower will bloom, and become tougher and somewhat bitter. Cabbage does the same, but only after bolting first. (‘Bolting’ is the emergence of tall floral stalks from formerly basal foliage.) By the time beet, carrot, turnip and radish bolt, their plump roots are more like fibrous wood than tender vegetables.

Once space is relinquished, tomato, eggplant and pepper plants might be the first vegetable plants to go back into the garden. Even if the weather gets cool for a while, it will not get cool enough for frost. Roots disperse as soon as they get into the ground. Warming weather accelerates growth above ground. Fruit develops through summer. (Fruits contain seed. True vegetables do not.)

Tomato, eggplant and pepper are popularly planted as seedlings because only a few plants of each are needed. Each plant probably costs more than a single package of seed (which contains enough seed to grow many more plants than are necessary), but are still not too expensive collectively. Seedlings get established and start growing more efficiently than germinating seed does.

Various melons and squash, including zucchini, can either be planted as seedlings or sown as seed. Their seeds germinate and grow so efficiently that seedlings probably do not have much advantage. However, their seedlings are relatively fragile to handle, so might be at a disadvantage. Seedlings might be practical for one or two plants; but seed might be best for several plants.

Bean and cucumber grow most efficiently from seed mainly because several or many of each plants are grown, and also because seedlings are somewhat sensitive to transplant. Onion and potato are popularly grown from onion or potato ‘sets’, or ‘seed’ onions or potatoes, which are merely juvenile vegetables that grow into productive plants. Onion can also be grown from seed.

Pole Beans

90327The main difference between pole beans and bush beans should be obvious. Pole beans climb poles. Bush beans are bushy. To complicate things, bush beans are more common in commercial agriculture because they are more adaptable to harvesting machinery, and they are most productive in a brief season, so are more efficiently harvested all at once rather than throughout summer.

Pole beans are generally more popular in home gardens for the opposite reason. They will not produce all at once, but will instead produce enough somewhat continually until the end of summer. Some varieties can climb past second story eaves, so should be confined to reachable trellises or other supports. They are annual, so the tangled thicket of vines that forms on top is no problem.

Most pole beans, which are also known as green beans, string beans, snap beans, French beans and haricot vert (French for ‘green beans’) are varieties of Phaseolus vulgaris. Some heirloom varieties of the original string beans produce beans with annoying ‘strings’ along one side of each bean. Dried beans are different varieties. Regular harvesting promotes continuous production.

Crop Rotation Improves Vegetable Production

90327thumbA south or west facing fence is a perfect place to grow pole beans. Twine can be strung in a zig-zag pattern between single rows of partly protruding nails along the top and bottom. The spacing of the nails should match that of the pole bean plants. Bean seed sown at the base of the fence germinate and grow quickly. Vines are happy to cling to the string and climb to the top of the fence.

Alas, it is temporary. Pole beans are annuals. They start to grow now, produce all summer, and then yellow and ultimately die by autumn, leaving the fence bare again. If the technique is repeated in the same spot with the same sort of pole beans the following spring and summer, the plants could be noticeably less vigorous. Repeating if for a third season could be downright disappointing.

It is best to grow beans in a different location every year if possible. After a few years, they can return to the same fence. Until then, tall plants, like caged tomatoes or corn, can be cycled through the area in front of the fence. Tomatoes and corn also perform better if not grown in the same spots for more than one season at a time. This process of cycling crops is known as ‘crop rotation’.

Soil borne pathogens proliferate along with the host plants that sustain them. Such pathogens may not be a noticeable problem in the first year while they get established. However, they are likely to be established and ready to infest the same sorts of host plants more aggressively in a subsequent season. Crop rotation of the host plants to cleaner locations annually interrupts this process.

In local soils, crop rotation is likely more important to compensate for nutrient depletion. Tomatoes are greedy with particular nutrients that other vegetable plants may not need in such quantities. The same applies to other vegetable plants. Tomatoes planted where other tomatoes grew last year may notice a lack of the nutrients that they crave the most of. However, zucchini may not miss what the tomatoes of last year took. Conversely, tomatoes may not notice what may be lacking where zucchini or other vegetables grew last year.

Bell Pepper

90320There are too many varieties of chili or pepper to count; but there are surprisingly few that are known as bell pepper, Capsicum annuum. They are the select few that lack capsaicin, which is what makes others so distinctly ‘hot’ and ‘spicy’. Most are quite mildly flavored. Green bell peppers, particularly those that are green because they are unripe, are generally more bitter and less sweet.

Bell peppers are warm season vegetables that get planted at the same time as tomato and eggplant, which they are incidentally related to. They are more productive where summer nights stay warm. In mild coastal climates, they are likely to start production later, or finish production sooner, than they would in warmer climates. They like warm sunshine, rich soil, and regularly watering.

The myth that green bell peppers are merely unripe red bell peppers is not completely untrue. They all start out green, and red bell peppers are often used green. Furthermore, most green bell peppers eventually turn red if they ripen enough. However, varieties that are grown as red bell peppers are different from varieties that are grown as green bell peppers. Orange and yellow bell peppers are increasingly popular. Purple, brown and white bell peppers are still rather rare. Red and green are the most productive and easiest to grow.

Summer Vegetables Replace Winter Vegetables

90320thumbEvery year at about this time, there is the same concern that it is too early to put summer or warm season vegetables into the garden. When the time comes, replacing warm season vegetables with winter or cool season vegetables will also seem to be too early. Nonetheless, it is best to start the transition early so the garden will be ready for production as the weather warms into spring.

Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage that are in the garden now should have time to finish before warmer weather makes them bitter. If the warm season vegetable plants that will be planted in their place are adaptable to it, and if the spacing is correct, they can be planted in amongst the cool season vegetables so that they will be ready to go when the the outgoing vegetables get harvested.

Unlike most of the cool season vegetables, which are truly ‘vegetative’ vegetables, most of the warm season vegetables are actually fruits, which is why they start to develop in spring, and mature through summer. Tomato, pepper, cucumber, eggplant, corn, bean and both summer and winter squash are the most popular here. Most produce from spring to autumn. Some produce only once.

Corn and other vegetable plants that produce only once can be planted in phases every two weeks or so to prolong production. By the time one phase finishes, the next should be starting. Corn is more efficiently pollinated, and therefore more productive, if grown in square blocks rather than in narrow rows. Corn and many warm season vegetables should be grown from seed sown directly.

However, tomato, pepper, eggplant and maybe zucchini and other squash can be planted as small plants from cell packs, because only a few of each type are needed. A cell pack of six or eight cost about the same as a packet of seed, but all the seed in the packet are not really necessary. Besides, the small plants are less likely to be eaten by snails than newly germinating seedlings.

Pumpkins Need Not Be Wasted

81107thumbThere is likely no other fruit that gets wasted quite like pumpkins. Almost all get hollowed and carved into Jack o’lanterns, illuminated from within for Halloween, and then discarded or added to compost within the next few days after Halloween. If they stay too long in the yard or on the porch, they mold or get partly eaten by squirrels. They were fun while they lasted, but the party is over.

Most people who use pumpkins for Halloween d├ęcor do not consider recycling them in the kitchen. Pumpkins carved into Jack o’lanterns are considered to be as disposable as cut flowers that have started to fade. Realistically, Jack o’lanterns that were carved several days prior to Halloween are probably too far gone by now to be recycled, and some are too sooty and toasted inside.

Of course, those that are not so deteriorated can be used in the kitchen like other winter squash. Sooty or toasted portions are easily cut away and discarded. The brightest orange pumpkins that were bred to make the best Jack o’lanterns, are not as meaty or as well flavored as those that are grown for culinary use, but they are not bad either. Their thinner shells are quick to bake or roast.

It seems that most pumpkins in supermarkets this year are not quite as bright orange as those that were developed specifically for Jack o’lanterns. They also seem to be more dense with thicker shells, as if bred to be recycled in the kitchen after Halloween. The smaller and more brownish pumpkins that are heavy with thick shells are probably still the best for pies, even if no fun to carve.

White, pink, green, yellow, red and bluish gray pumpkins are as variable as their colors are. Any are worth trying in the kitchen. Although some are quite bland, others have rather distinctive flavor. Those that are deeply furrowed or very lumpy are of course awkward to work with. Like other winter squash, pumpkins are very tough, so it is important to be careful when cutting them into pieces.

Cabbage

61012There are those of us who can grow cabbage well, and there are the majority of us who wish we could. Mild winters allow cabbage to be grown in autumn as well as in spring; but warm weather can also compromise flavor and promote premature bolting (blooming), which ruins the heads. Cabbage demands rich soil and regular watering. If the weather is evenly mild, they dig that too.

Spring grown cabbage was planted last winter, about a month prior to the last frost. Now it is time for autumn cabbage, about a month or two before frost. New plants can be planted a bit deeper than they were originally grown, so that the wiry and fragile sections of stem below the lowest leaves can be buried. Plants should be at least a foot apart and might get larger with more space. It takes at least two months for dense round heads of common green or red cabbage to mature. Slower varieties are worth growing for their unique flavors.

Vegetables Come And Vegetables Go

61012thumbVegetables are annuals too, just like the flowering bedding plants that get replaced seasonally. Some are technically biennials, and a few might even have the potential to be short term perennials if they ever got the chance. Yet, for the purposes of home vegetable gardens, the warm season vegetables that produced through summer should now get replaced with cool season vegetables.

Yes, pulling up tomato plants to make room for cabbage is the same dilemma as pulling up petunias to make room for pansies. No one wants to do it while the plants are still productive. Tomato plants might continue to make a few more tomatoes until frost. Yet, planting cool season vegetables should not be delayed for too long. They want to disperse their roots while the soil is still warm.

Just like warm season vegetables, many of the cool season vegetables are more efficiently grown from seed sown directly into the garden. Root vegetables like beet, carrot, radish and turnip do not recover well from transplanting. Besides, cell packs do not contain many seedlings, even if multiple seedlings within individual cells are divided. It is more practical to sow seed evenly in rows.

Baby greens can also be grown from seed because so many small plants are wanted. Unlike heading lettuce that get harvested as individual mature plants, baby greens get plucked as they develop, from plants that may never reach maturity. Chard, kale and collard greens grow well from seed, or can optionally be grown from cell pack seedlings if fewer larger leaves are preferred.

Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprout are more typically grown from cell pack seedlings because only a few individual plants are desired. One or two six packs of cabbage might be more than one garden needs, and do not cost much more than a packet of seed. They mature at different rates, so larger ones can be harvested first, while smaller ones get more time to mature.

The root vegetables work the same way, maturing somewhat variably through a few weeks. However, secondary phases planted a few weeks after primary phases can start to mature as the primary phases get depleted. ‘Cole’ crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, consume the same resources, so perform best in small groups with a bit of separation.

Cool Season Vegetables Are Coming

80926thumbIt is getting close to one of those two unpleasant times of year for the vegetable garden. It happened last spring, and it will happen again this autumn. Plants that so dutifully produced vegetables through the last season must relinquish their space for plants that will produce vegetables for the next season. In autumn, it will be cool season vegetables that replace warm season vegetables.

They are all on their own distinct schedule. Pulling up corn stalks is not so distressing because we know when they are finished. Pole beans, bell peppers and summer squash might make it easy as well, if they start to look shabby as their season ends. Tomatoes are the more unpleasant ones to pull up, since they can continue to produce right up to the end, even as the nights get cooler.

If they were planted on the edge of the vegetable garden, and allowed to grow outside of the space needed for incoming cool season vegetables, winter squash can stay until their vines succumb to frost. Fruits that get harvested just prior to frost last better in the cellar. Those exposed to a bit of frost attain better flavor. Winter squash really are summer vegetables. They just finish in autumn.

Seed for beets, carrots and various root vegetables that are grown this time of year should be sown directly into the garden. Root vegetables do not transplant well. Besides, too many relatively expensive seedlings would be needed to grow a substantial quantity of such vegetables. Seed should be sown in phases every few weeks so all the vegetables do not mature at the same time.

Peas, spinach and leafy (non-heading) lettuces should likewise be grown from seed sown directly into the garden. However, it is more practical to grow broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage from seedlings rather than seed. Because only a few plants of each are needed, they are not terribly more expensive than seed. One or two six packs might suffice. Another option that is useful for those who grow varieties that are unavailable in nurseries, is to grow seedlings from seed in small pots or flats, to plant out later.