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.

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.

White Pumpkin

71004thumbTheir creamy white exteriors do not reveal much about the flavor within. They looks like they might taste like vanilla, or coconut, . . . or maybe Swiss cheese. Below the white skins, white pumpkins (Curcubita pepo) have orange flesh that really tastes like other pumpkins, but maybe a bit milder, like ‘pumpkin-light’. They are popular because they look so cool, and make great jack-o-lanterns.

They take a while to mature, so pumpkin plants should get into the garden as soon as weather is warm enough for them in spring. They can be grown from seed sown directly, or from seedlings. They want rich soil, and need to be watered regularly in order to grow evenly through summer. The annual vines sprawl on the ground, producing only one or a few fruits each, finishing by first frost.

Popular varieties of white pumpkin, like ‘Cotton Candy’, ‘Lumina’, ‘Casper’ and ‘Silver Moon’ can weight more than ten pounds. Less common ‘Full Moon’ can get to be seventy-five pounds! White pumpkins makes as many edible flowers as orange pumpkins make, but not as many seeds. ‘Baby Boo’ and ‘Gooligan’ weigh less than a pound, and are only a few inches wide, so are inedible.

Winter Squash Last For Months

IMG_20140301_073739With all the talk about replacing warm season vegetables and bedding plants with their cool season counterparts this time of year, we should also address the irony of summer squash and winter squash. Their designations suggest that they too grow in specific seasons; summer and winter. Duh. It would make sense that summer squash would be replaced by winter squash during autumn.

However, both groups are warm season vegetables that can get planted or sown as seed in early spring. The vines of both summer and winter squash grow through spring and summer, and then eventually succumb to the first frost. The difference is that summer squash start producing early and abundantly, and continue to produce through summer. Winter squash ripen slowly in autumn.

Summer squash, like zucchini, pattypan and crookneck squash, are very prolific. Zucchini can be overwhelmingly so. However, their fruits, which are incidentally considered by most to be culinary ‘vegetables’, are best fresh. Otherwise, they are quite perishable. They can be frozen or canned, but do not hold up well. Consequently, good summer squash are unavailable after the first frost.

Winter squash, like Hubbard, acorn, butternut, turban and spaghetti squash, as well as pumpkins, are not nearly as productive. Individual plants might produce only single large fruits, or only a few small fruits, depending on variety. These fruits develop and ripen so slowly that they are not ready until autumn, as the vines are withering. Supposedly, exposure to slight frost improves their flavor.

The advantage of winter squash is that the fruits are tough enough to be stored for months into winter, hence their designation as winter squash. Some pumpkins can be stored out of the weather for months after winter, although flavor and nutritional quality slowly deteriorate. If that is not long enough, the flesh of winter squash can be peeled, and then frozen or canned. Unfortunately, winter squash are no substitute for summer squash, and take more work to cook, but they are certainly worth growing.

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.

Flowers Are Only The Beginning

70719thumbFlowers have a bigger and better agenda than coloring our gardens and homes. They bloom to get pollinated. Their color and fragrance are designed merely to attract pollinators. Less vain but more abundant blooms take advantage of the wind to disperse their pollen. Once pollinated, flowers fade and deteriorate as resources get diverted to the production of seed and fruit to contain it.

Some flowers are on a tight schedule. They bloom in a single brief season. Others have a bloom season that last significantly longer than the individual flowers do. They might bloom continually for a few months, replacing fading older flowers with new flowers; or they might bloom in phases, with each phase blooming simultaneously, and then getting replaced with a subsequent phase.

Fruit trees and many fruiting vegetable plants bloom once annually, and then produce fruit. Tomato, summer squash and bean plants bloom and produce fruit continually. Tomato fruits are best if allowed to ripen on the vine. Beans and summer squash like zucchini are better if harvested while young and tender. Also, the plants are more productive if regularly deprived of premature fruit.

The priority of these plants is to produce seed. Production of seed requires significant resources. Plants that are busy producing seed within maturing beans and zucchini do not put much effort into producing subsequent bloom and fruit. However, if deprived of maturing seed and fruit, these sorts of plants are compelled to divert resources into new bloom, and seed and fruit production.

The same applies to many flowering plants, particularly perennials and flowering annuals. ‘Deadheading’ is the removal of deteriorating flowers to promote continued bloom. It is not practical for plants with profuse small flower, such as sweet alyssum and lobelia. Nor is it necessary for some sterile or nearly sterile plants that do not produce much seed anyway, like busy Lizzy (impatiens).

French marigold, petunia, zinnia, floss flower and cockscomb all bloom better if deadheaded. Rhododendrons do not benefit directly from deadheading, but look better without old floral trusses. Conversely, the potentially picturesque dead flowers of sea holly might be left intact.