Part of what makes gardening so much fun is the chance to grow something new and different every year. Although we may continue to plant the tried-and-true varieties that reliably perform well in our gardens, it's always exciting to experiment with vegetables that offer new tastes, colors, improved yields, or high nutritional value. And who knows? You may discover some new varieties that will appear yearly on your "must-haves" list!
With the increasing interest in edible landscaping and the "food, not lawns" approach to cultivation, gardeners want their food gardens not only to be a bountiful source of fresh produce, but to look great as well. One way to add beauty and excitement in the landscape as well as the kitchen is to grow vegetables in a colorful array of varieties. Colorful vegetables are also high in the phytochemicals that contribute to their healthful nutritional properties.
Vegetables can delight your eyes, tickle your taste buds and bolster your health. Why not liven up both your garden and your plate with some of our colorful new varieties this year.
Carrots The secret to great carrots is deep, loose soil that's free of stones, clods and plant debris. That's why raised beds are great for long carrots like 'Atomic Red' and 'Tendersweet.' If you garden in heavy clay or stony soil, short, round carrots like 'Parisian' are your best best. Sow seeds starting in early spring and continue planting every 2 or 3 weeks until midsummer. Gardeners in the Deep South and warm winter areas of the Southwest and Far West can sow a crop in late summer for fall and winter harvest.
Spinach Seeds of this hardy green can go in the ground as soon as the soil can be worked. Spinach grows best in cool weather, so plant again about 8 weeks before the first expected fall crop for a late-season harvest. Cover the seedbed with row covers to avoid problems from pests like leaf miners, flea beetles, and aphids. Rotate the location of spinach and other beet family members in the garden to reduce disease problems.
Melon Wait until the soil has warmed up well before sowing melon seeds or setting out transplants. In colder parts of the country, warm the soil before planting with black or infra-red transmissible plastic mulch. To start seeds early indoors, sow seeds 3-4 weeks before planting-out time in large peat pots to minimize root disturbance when you set seedlings in the garden.
Tomato Start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your setting-out date. Plant outside when the soil is thoroughly warm and all danger of frost is past, usually a week or two after the last expected frost date for your area. For an earlier crop, pre-warm the soil with black or red plastic mulch and set out plants as much as 3 weeks earlier than usual protected by wire cages wrapped in clear plastic. Then keep your fingers crossed!
Cucumber Cukes do best in loose, moisture-retentive soil that's high in organic matter, so work in compost before planting. Sow seeds directly in the garden when all danger of frost is past. Protect seedling from pests like the cucumber beetle with row covers, but remove them when plants start to bloom so bees can reach flowers to pollinate them.
Beans Wait until the soil is warm and dry to plant. Bean seeds planted in cool, wet soil may rot before they germinate and are more likely to be attacked by the seedcorn maggot. Seeds that do germinate in cold soil may be stunted. If you're growing beans for the first time in your garden, dust seeds with a legume inoculant powder, which contains special bacteria that help the bean plants "fix" nitrogen from the air.
Beets Thinning beet seedlings is key to a good crop. Beet "seeds" are actually dried fruit husks containing multiple seeds, so even if you space them out at planting time, you'll still need to thin the seedlings. Aim for a final spacing of 4-6 inches. Be sure to add the tender young greens you thin to a spring salad.
Watermelon Seeds of seedless watermelon varieties such as 'Orange Crisp' need very warm soil temperatures to germinate and rarely make a good stand if direct seeded. Start seeds indoors in peat pots, ideally on a heat mat. Seedless varieties should be interplanted with a seeded variety for proper pollination and good fruit set.
Summer squash Gardeners in cool northern areas should wait until a week or two after their last frost date to plant seeds or transplant seedlings. Southern gardeners can make several several plantings in succession for an extended harvest. Protect young plants from pests with row covers, but remove them when blossoms form.
Q: Why is it important to rotate the location of different kinds of plants in my garden?
A: Some pests and diseases can carry over in the soil; switching the spots where particular crops are grown can help foil their attacks. For example, all members of the cabbage family are susceptible to many of the same fungal diseases. The spores that spread these diseases can survive in the soil, often for several years. So making sure to plant your broccoli, cabbage, kale and other cole crops in a new spot for three years reduces the likelihood that your plants will become infected. The spores that cause the fungal disease early blight on tomatoes can survive in the soil for at least a year. Setting out tomatoes in a new location will help you grow a healthier crop.
Different plants take different amounts of nutrients from the soil. Leafy greens like spinach need lots of nitrogen, while legumes like peas and beans actually add nitrogen. Members of the squash clan, including cucumbers, melons and pumpkins, have a higher phosphorus requirement than tomatoes, eggplants and peppers.
Rotating crops can also help to keep soil in good tilth. If shallow-rooted crops like cabbage are followed by deeper rooted crops like tomatoes, soil compaction can be lessened. The repeated hilling of the soil needed for corn and potatoes helps to reduce the number of annual weeds in that section of the garden.
The first step in planning a rotation schedule is to group the plants you plan to grow into families with similar pest problems. Then try to come up with a plan that will move these groups through the garden according to their nutrient demands. One plan might be to start with legumes like peas and beans to build up the soil. Follow this the next year with leafy greens and cole crops to take advantage of the increased nitrogen in the soil. Next come fruiting crops like the squash and tomato families that will thrive with a little less nitrogen. The fourth season, finish up with root crops and onion family members with their relatively low fertility needs. Then it's back again to peas and beans.