The Hampton Gardener: Veggie growing made simple

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Last week we began to take an alphabetical look at the vegetables and vegetable groups that you might be putting into your garden this year.

We’ll continue the alphabetical tour this week and next, then we’ll take a break from the vegetable garden and explore the centuries old garden dilemma of annuals versus perennials.

Keep in mind though that we are rapidly approaching the time when some vegetable plants will need to get started indoors. This means that now is the time to make your choices about what vegetables you’ll be planting in your garden this year and whether you’ll be starting them from seeds or store-bought starts.

My understanding from seed vendors is that sales so far are very brisk and well ahead of last year, so visit your garden center or place your orders via snail mail, with all due haste. It also can’t hurt to make a list of those cell packs and starts that you’re planning on purchasing at garden centers and to share your list to help them know what customers would like to see on the benches this year.

Prepping Your Garden

While it’s still much too early to be doing any work in the vegetable garden itself, there are a couple of things you may be able to sneak in. Well-aged compost and manure are very important components that should be added to every vegetable garden on an annual basis. It’s probably best to wait until March to do this but I know some are suffering from cabin fever and this may alleviate some of the symptoms.

If you have these materials ready on your property and they are not frozen solid, you can begin to layer them in. Work the compost and manure into the soil in the vegetable garden so long as you can get the material to the garden without leaving ruts and tracks on nearby lawns.

Another preparatory thing you can do is add limestone to the surface of the vegetable garden by hand or with a spreader. This way the remaining snows, freezes and thaws will work the limestone into the soil over the next several months.

Choosing What and When to Plant

Once it’s time to plant, keep in mind the life-cycles of different vegetable families before you start to break ground. This week we’ll cover the care and planting of eggplants, garlic, lettuce and melons and squashes.

Eggplants are in the same family as tomatoes and peppers, which is a clue that these are long-season vegetables that generally take a good deal of time to mature so they need to be planted when the soil is warm.

The smaller varieties such as this year’s new introduction, Gretel, have the shortest maturity times and can be harvested roughly two months from the time the plants are set in the ground. Larger varieties such as the ever popular Black Beauty will take nearly 10 weeks to mature from planting. Planting in mid-May means an early August harvest at the soonest for the larger varieties.

When growing eggplants, it’s important to remember that they can sometimes benefit from support such as a tomato cages. And like tomatoes and peppers, eggplants are relatively heavy feeders.

The decision about which eggplant to grow was once very simple as there were only two or three types available and they were all approximately the same size, color and matured at the same time. Now, however, there are numerous varieties of eggplants with varying maturities, colors and shapes. For the most part, you can determine which type to grow based on what you will use the eggplant for.

A variety like the Kermit hybrid is well-suited for Asian dishes while Black Beauty is generally thought to be perfect for grilling. Still other varieties are good for roasting and cooking.

While not overly disease-prone, eggplants do attract their share of insects and need to be monitored carefully to avoid problems. Also, like tomatoes, eggplants can take up large amounts of space.

I recommend that beginning gardeners plan only a few plants at first to become familiar with the growth habits and yield potentials. It’s also a good idea to grow peppers, eggplants and tomatoes separated from one other by other crops.

Garlic has to be mentioned as a fundamental and critical crop to every vegetable garden. However, I’ve written a great deal about garlic over the years and don’t want to go into depth about this bulb at this point.

Pertaining to garlic though, a few quick points to remember is that garlic is easy to grow, should be started in the fall, and can be planted just about any place in the garden. Garlic is also known to act as a deer and insect repellent so its use serves several purposes.

If your idea of lettuce revolves around the word iceberg, then lettuce should probably not be in your vegetable garden.

Lettuces are divided into two groups consisting of head types and leaf lettuce. Head type lettuces are seeded; the heads mature and are then harvested. Leaf type lettuces are seeded and then can either be left in place to mature and then harvested, or—as is my preference—can be harvested frequently over a long period of time. This nearly continuous harvest will be productive until it gets too warm and the plants bolt and the leaves become bitter.

There are dozens of varieties of leaf lettuces that range in color, texture, flavor and heat resistance. While you can spend hours researching the various types, I’ve gotten into the habit of taking five or six packets of my favorite varieties and mixing the seed together.

I first plant the seed in short rows and then every three to five days, as the seedlings begin to emerge, I thin them and use the first thinnings as my first salad greens. I continue this thinning for several weeks until there is adequate space between the various plants to allow them to mature.

As the various plants mature, I harvest leaves from the outside of the plant, allowing new leaves to emerge from the inside. In this way I can begin harvesting as soon as 10 days after my first sowing and continue my harvesting for two to three months. I then begin the process all over again in late summer and harvest well into October.

Head type lettuces should be sown in a different area of the garden, for while they will need to be thinned, the plants must be allowed to mature to develop a harvestable head. Head type lettuces include varieties such as Buttercrunch, Bibb and Four Seasons and they generally take longer to mature than the leaf type lettuces.

Head type lettuces can be started fairly early as they can tolerate soil temperatures as cool as 40 degrees—but they can also be damaged by late frosts so don’t jump the gun too much. Insect problems are few, but watch out for aphids, which are easy to control. Also, keep an eye open for slugs.

Melons and squashes (including zucchini, gourds and pumpkins) are all pretty much long-season, late-maturing crops. They are generally grown on the outer edge of the garden as most of them need room to sprawl and reach.

Pollination is an issue for both types of crops and some gardeners will plant flowers nearby to encourage the attraction of bees, which are the prime pollinators. However, some of these crops can cross-pollinate, which can result in some interesting garden oddities.

For melons and squashes, an organic or plastic ground mulch can be very helpful in reducing weed problems, reducing water usage, and in keeping the soil warm. While not everyone’s cup of tea, we’ve had great success for the last 35 years using black plastic mulch but I realize this may not be an option for the strict organic or sustainable gardener.

These types of crops are not always easy to grow as they can be subject to a number of foliar diseases and insect problems. First-year gardeners tend to be very successful and then find increasing problems with each successive planting. After the heady success of beginner’s luck, my advice is to start with only a few varieties the following year and rotate their location every year. Make sure to read up on disease and insect control.

While you are making decisions about what to grow this year, remember to check out Cornell University’s site where home gardeners have ranked their favorite veggies at vegvariety.cce.cornell.edu. Become part of the program by inputting your own information and feedback. Keep growing.

A

ndrew Messinger

has been a professional horticulturist for more than 30 years. He divides his time between homes and gardens in Southampton, Westchester and the Catskills. E-mail him at: Andrew@hamptongardener.com. The Hampton Gardener is a registered trademark.

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