Continuing with our getting the vegetable garden up and running, I thought that this week we’d start to go through the most popular vegetables or vegetable groups and I’d give you some background information to help you plan your choices and avoid some common mistakes and pitfalls.
We start with asparagus, as this is one of the most sought after garden crops, it starts with A, and it’s generally misunderstood by beginners. Unlike the majority of our vegetables, asparagus is a perennial and needs to be planted only once. You purchase crowns, which are planted in the spring, and then you wait for a couple of years before you take your first harvest.
Ah, but the first harvest is soooo good.
The first and second year you’ll probably cut the stalks from your plants in order to force them to get a great root system and to keep them from flowering. They do make great ornamentals, though, and once planted they can grow in the same spot for generations. Usually in the third year you begin your harvest, which has to be done at just the right time or you get less-than-spectacular tasting spears.
An asparagus bed can be left in place for years with little need for maintenance, but the crowns can also be divided periodically to expand your patch. Since these are perennial, the bed preparation is critical. You can also plant this crop in a spot away from your vegetable garden since it needs minimal tending and occupies the same spot for years on end. Diseases are rare, insects are few and care is easy once the plants are established. Crowns are ordered from local garden centers or by mail, but do some research on what varieties to use.
Beans come in a wide variety of shapes, colors, types and growth habits. They are also one of the most nutritious and healthy vegetables. Beans are planted mostly by seeds and occasionally from packs and, the seed being rather large, they are easy to plant. Most beans benefit from growing on or against some type of structure and this is one of the greatest garden crops that adapts well to storage. Some beans (usually called string beans) when picked at the right point, freeze exceptionally well while others, the shelling beans, are dried and stored for use during the year. Keep in mind that many bean plants and the structures you’ll grow them on (wires, strings, poles, trellises or even bushed on the ground) can shade other plants so keep them toward the north side of the garden with shorter plants to the south.
A crop like string beans lends itself well to successional plantings so you don’t have your entire harvest in one or two days. String and pole-type beans are unforgiving if left on the vine too long and are best harvested young as they get tough and seedy in just a matter of days. Beans can be somewhat challenging when it comes to diseases and it’s important to move the crop around from year to year to avoid repeated infections. There is also a handful of bean insects, so read up on both and control them as soon as you notice the symptoms.
Beet seeds are sown in rows either by hand or using a mechanical seeder. There is a wide variety of beet types, colors and sizes that allow you to grow for taste, use (fresh, canned, pickled or for storage), and early and late season crops. The foliage is also high in nutrients and can be thinned for use in salads. Beets grown as a late season crop get particularly tasty as the soil cools in the fall and as long as they don’t get too pithy they can be harvested well into December if the soil is workable. Insects and diseases are minimal and this is a fairly easy crop.
Broccoli is also one of the more healthy garden crops to grow and it too can be grown as an early and late season crop. To grow early you need to make sure you start some seed indoors, though many garden centers now carry the cell packs of plants in late March and again later in the summer for a fall crop. They can also be direct seeded, but they do much better from starts as this reduces the time needed in the garden and allows you to get a jump on the growing cycle. There are a number of varieties of broccoli, the differences being color, time to maturity and the size of the heads. Disease problems are minimal and insect problems are easy to control as long as you know what to look for, so read up.
Brussels sprouts are generally started indoors as starts toward mid-summer, then planted into the garden in later summer. The sprouts emerge along the elongated vertical stem and are harvested through the fall. This is another crop that can be left in the ground fairly late into the fall and the sprouts tend to improve in taste as the weather turns colder. Grown as a fall crop, there are little to no problems with disease or insects.
Cabbage has long been a staple crop among East End farmers, so that’s a good clue that it does well out here. It can be grown as an early and late crop and like broccoli you’ll probably want to start your own plants from seed, though garden centers often have starts available in March, April and again later in the summer. The later crops are much less likely to have any insect problems, but for the most part, this is an easy crop and the insects can be easily controlled. Cabbages age generally green or purple and head size is determined by the variety. Smaller gardens are well suited to the newer, small-headed varieties.
Carrots are directly seeded into the soil either by hand or with a mechanical planter. While we usually grow one crop per year, two are possible and I can recall trying to coax carrots from a frozen garden in December. But there are so many types and sizes that a single carrot season can be quite long. Soil preparation is critical as this is a root crop where the root, or carrot, does not like running into clumps, clods, rocks and the like. Carrots come in a wide range of lengths, widths and even colors. Some are long and slender, some short and blunt and some are rounded. Once seeds are planted, the newly emerging plants are thinned to allow proper spacing and again, you don’t want them all maturing at the same time so vary planting dates as well as varieties. Insects and diseases are very minimal.
Celery is one of the more difficult crops and should probably be avoided by beginners. The seeds need to be started very early indoors and if they are planted out when it’s too cool, they’ll set seed instead of growing succulent stalks. The stalks mature fairly late in the season and they need to be blanched prior to harvesting to exclude the chlorophyll. I’d only suggest celery for a gardener that’s in need of a challenge.
Cucumbers are grown for a number of uses. They are used for pickling and salads and they can be grown as long and slender cukes as the English cucumber, short and blunt as the Kirby or any number of other traits. They do take up a good amount of garden space, can be grown directly from seeds in the garden or started indoors or from store bought cell packs. Cukes can be grown on the ground and several types can grow on supports to maximize garden space. If grown on the ground they should be grown on the garden periphery and if grown vertically, toward the north side. Cukes have their share of insect and disease problems and they should be grown in a different spot every year but no garden should be without them. There are also bush type cukes that are well adapted to smaller gardens. Every gardener seems to have at least one cuke a season that goes unnoticed until you trip over it because it’s grown to the size of a torpedo.
Next week, we’ll finish up with eggplants through tomatoes. In the meantime, get those seed orders in and remember you can get really great information on most of the vegetables you want to grow via the Cornell growing guides at www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/scene0391.html. If you want a rough guide of what to plant, try www.fritzhaeg.com/webpic/gl-pic/gl-pic-ee-nyc/nyc_planting_calendar.pdf, but keep in mind that it was intended for gardening in the New York City area so you’ll need to add at least one week for gardens in the western areas and two weeks for gardens in the East Hampton and Amagansett areas.
ndrew Messinger has been a professional horticulturist for more than 30 years. He divides his time between Southampton, Westchester and the Catskills. E-mail him at: Andrew@hamptongardener.com. The Hampton Gardener is a registered trademark.