The Top Five Homegrown Vegetables

American gardeners love their veggies, and none more so that tomatoes! This is by far the most popular home garden crop -- grown by 86 percent of those with food gardens. But you need more than just tomatoes to have the fixings for a delicious summer salad, so it's not surprising that cucumbers, sweet peppers, beans, and carrots round out the top five.

Why Homegrown?

When you're talking about tomatoes, the answer is easy -- taste! No purchased tomato can compare to a perfectly ripe one plucked fresh from your garden and sliced for the table -- or in the case of cherry tomatoes, popped in your mouth right off the vine.

The taste of homegrown cukes, beans, carrots, and peppers can also be a revelation. Not only are they as fresh as can be and brimming with healthful nutrients; when you grow your own you can choose from a wide array of varieties bred for flavor rather than tolerance for long distance shipping.

And if you get "sticker shock" every time you look at the price of fresh produce at your local market, you'll appreciate the amount of money you can save when you grow your own. So let's get growing!

Of course, there's no reason to stick just to the top five veggies -- there are many more tasty crops that are easy to grow -- but we're sure you'll want to include these frontrunner's in your garden each season. Here are just some of the many varieties of these most popular vegetables that we offer.

'Jubilee' Tomato (80 days) - An open-pollinated variety with large yellow, globe-shape, meaty fruits with a mild flavor.

'Sweet Slice' Cucumber (62 days) - The long, slim fruits are sweet, burpless, and so free of bitterness they don't need to be peeled.

'Homemade Pickles Cucumber (55-60 days) - This high-yielding , disease-tolerant, open-pollinated cuke is a must for pickle lovers!

'Chocolate Beauty' Sweet Pepper (67 days) - The fruits of this hybrid mature from green to an attractive rich chocolate brown and are among the sweetest of peppers.

'Contender' Bush Bean (49 days) - Very early and productive, the pods are stringless and tender.

'Parisian' Carrot (58 days) - These one-inch round carrots are very sweet and nearly coreless. Kids love them!

Tips for Growing the Five Favorites

Tomatoes Start seeds early indoors 6-8 weeks before you plan to set plants in your garden. When seedlings have their first set of true leaves, transplant to individual pots or thin to the strongest single seedling. Keep seedlings warm (70 degree days; 65 degree nights) and make sure they get plenty of light. Once seedlings are a few inches tall, brush your hand gently across their tops daily; this will help them to develop sturdy stems. When the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past, usually a week or two after the last frost date, set hardened off transplants out in the garden.

Decide how you'll support your plants beforehand. Cages work well for the more restrained determinate varieties, while vigorous indeterminate vines need sturdy stakes, trellises, or other type of support at least 5 feet tall. Spreading mulch after the soil is warm will help to keep down weeds and reduce the likelihood of disease spores splashing up onto tomato leaves from the soil. It will also help conserve soil moisture, and consistent soil moisture is key for preventing problems with blossom end rot.

If you garden in long season areas with hot summers, double cropping gives you lots of tomatoes and avoids problems with poor fruit set that can result from summer heat. Plant your spring crop early and harvest your tomatoes before scorching temperatures stress plants. Start another crop in midsummer for harvest in the cooler weather of fall.

Cucumbers Like tomatoes, cukes are warmth lovers so wait until the soil is warm and frost danger past before sowing seeds. If you garden in a short season part of the country, you can get a head start by starting seeds indoors in individual biodegradable pots no more than 3-4 weeks before you plan to set them out. But because they are fussy about transplanting, plants from direct-sown seeds often catch up with transplants, so an early start doesn't gain you a great deal.

What's key for a good crop of cucumbers? A good support system for vines, protection from cucumber beetles that feed on young plants and can transmit deadly bacterial wilt disease, and consistent soil moisture -- cukes are mostly water after all! Misshapen, bitter fruits are the result of water stress. Drip irrigation combined with mulch will help you harvest top quality fruits.

Sweet Peppers Peppers also like it warm -- but not too warm. Like Goldilocks with her porridge, peppers need temperatures that are just right to produce the best crop. They certainly don't like conditions that are too cold, so wait until night temperatures are reliably above 50 degrees F before setting plants in the garden. And be sure plants are well-hardened off to avoid transplant shock.

But peppers can also sulk if temperatures remain above 90 degrees during the day, dropping blossoms without setting fruits. If you live where summer temperatures routinely soar, set your pepper plants where they will get some afternoon shade from taller crops or cover with shade cloth during heat spells. As with tomatoes, gardeners in the warmest areas can double crop, setting a second planting out in July for fall harvest.

Beans Looking for a big return with a minimum of effort? Plant beans! The large seeds are easy to plant and if planted in warm soil, germinate quickly. Bush beans are especially easy, growing fast and giving you an ample harvest. Pole beans offer a longer season of productivity and are a good choice for space-challenged gardeners.

Sow bean seeds directly in the garden after the last frost. If you are growing pole beans, have your support in place first. Plan on making repeat sowings of bush beans every 2 to 3 weeks until about two months before your fall frost date for a continued harvest of delectable fresh beans.

Carrots For those of you eager to get seeds in the ground, unlike the previous crops, carrots seeds can go in the ground 2 to 3 weeks before the last frost date. Carrots grow best when temperatures are moderate -- between 60 and 75 degrees F -- so make successive sowings every couple of weeks until late spring; then plant again in mid to late summer for a fall harvest. Gardeners in warm parts of the country can sow in fall, winter, and early spring.

Carrot seeds are notoriously slow to germinate and the tiny seedlings often have trouble pushing up through crusted soil. Covering seeded rows with a material such as vermiculite or sawdust rather than soil can help young plants emerge. Another option is to mix some radish seeds in with your carrot seeds. The radishes germinate quickly and break up the soil crust, and also mark where the slower-germinating carrots seeds are planted. Plus you'll automatically thin your carrot planting as you harvest the radishes.

Question of the Month: Preventing Blossom End Rot on Tomatoes

Q: I look forward to fresh tomatoes from my garden every year, but too often the tomatoes develop a black, leathery, rotted area on the bottom. What causes this and how can I prevent it?

A:Your tomatoes are afflicted with blossom end rot. This is a physiological problem, not a fungus disease or insect problem. It is caused by insufficient calcium in the developing tomato fruits. Usually isn't the result of a calcium deficiency in the soil, but occurs because the plant can't take up enough calcium and move it to the fruits because of stress or damage to the root system. One of the most common reasons for this is fluctuation in soil moisture from very wet to very dry. Other causes include excessively wet soil, rapid growth early in the season followed by dry conditions that slow growth down, too much high-nitrogen fertilizer, and cultivating deeply too close to the base of the plant. To minimize problems with blossom end rot keep soil moisture consistent by using mulch, which will also keep weeds down; if soil drainage is poor, plant in raised beds; and go easy on high-nitrogen fertilizer.

Article published on May 1, 2014.

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