Varieties of Veggies

Lots of wonderful and worthwhile types of vegetables are available — too many to list, really, but they're fun to explore. Read this section with the goal of figuring out what you may want to grow where you live. Favor vegetables that are too expensive at the store or never available locally. Treat yourself to new foods or enticing variations on old standbys.

Vegetable varieties vary in many ways. That's what makes vegetable gardening possible for everyone and keeps it so interesting. You could garden all your life and still not get around to growing all the tempting choices that would prosper in your particular region!

Days to maturity refers to the time elapsed between sowing a seed and picking the harvest for those veggies that are directly sown. Something like a radish or mesclun salad mix can accomplish this in 30 days or less. For plants that are normally grown from transplants, like peppers and tomatoes, the maturity time dates from when the small plants are planted in the ground until they bear.

Generally speaking, varieties of the same vegetable are ready at around the same time, give or take a few days. If you have a big gap, there's an explanation. For instance, 'Easter Egg' radish is ready in 25 days, but 'Summer Cross' takes 45 days because it's one of those giant white Oriental daikon types.

Please note that the days-to-maturity figure is relative — it's a prediction. Results vary according to your climate and the conditions in your garden. So consider it a ballpark figure or a way to roughly plan how fast some veggies are ready to eat relative to others.

Growing Vegetables by seasons

Matching your vegetables to your season length is sensible advice. If your growing season is approximately 90 days, growing anything billed as maturing in that amount of time or less ought to be easy. If you push the envelope, be prepared to help that variety with an early start indoors or some extra coddling in the fall. With experience, you can find out what you can and are willing to do.

First, though, get an idea of the growing seasons that you have to contend with (for info on growing season, see the frost zone info in Chapter 3). Typically, the vegetable-gardening season is summer, bookended by late spring and early fall. Gardeners mark the start by the last spring frost date and the finish by the first fall frost date (although some crops, like parsnips and kale, can stay out in the cold a bit longer and even gain improved flavor).

Your local weather forecaster may announce the frost date each spring (last frost) and fall (first frost), or you can call your local garden center or the nearest Cooperative Extension Office and ask. The dates vary somewhat from one year to the next.

If your growing season is long and warm, you can get started earlier and maybe even plant two or three rounds of crops. You may, however, have to contend with hot, dry weather at the height of summer, which is stressful for some vegetable crops (so mulch them and supply extra water).

If your growing season is short, you can still have a very bountiful vegetable garden. Choose vegetables that mature faster, and try some season-extending tricks. Here are two favorites:

  • Start seeds early indoors or in a cold frame, which is basically a box made of such materials as wood or concrete blocks covered with a glass or plastic sash that protects smaller plants from extreme cold and wind. Raising them to seedling-size until putting them out in the ground is safe. (See the upcoming section "Starting your own seeds indoors.")
  • Use plastic coverings (from row-cover sheeting or tunnels to cones to recycled milk jugs to "water wall" wraps) to keep a plant and its immediate soil nice and warm. See Figure 13-1.

Figure 13-1:

A "water wall," consisting of plastic sleeves filled with water, offers cold protection.

Figure 13-1:

A "water wall," consisting of plastic sleeves filled with water, offers cold protection.

You can grow some vegetables during the winter. Yes. Really! In mild climates, you can enjoy kale, carrots, leeks, and root vegetables all winter long. You may have to mulch them and then poke under to harvest but, hey, it's worth it! You can even sow salad greens in October and harvest extra-early in spring. Mmm.

Table 13-1 gives an overview of which vegetables tend to do better during which seasons.

Table 13-1 Ideal Seasons for Growing Vegetables

Type Description Examples

Cool-season These plants tolerate some frost Asparagus, beets, broccoli, vegetables and temperatures between 55 Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and 70°F. As such, they're fine carrot, cauliflower, collard, choices for gardeners in more endive, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, northern areas or, in milder onion, Oriental greens, climates, for growing in a cool parsnip, peas, potato, radish, spring or fall. Swiss chard, spinach, turnip, and turnip greens

Warm-season These plants are readily harmed Beans, corn, cucumber, vegetables by frost; they also fare poorly in eggplant, melons (muskmelon/

cold soil. Grow these plants in cantaloupe, watermelon), temperatures ranging from 65 to pepper, sweet potato,

80°F. They're good in the South pumpkin, squash, sweet and West and elsewhere during corn, and tomato the height of summer.

Perennials These edible plants live from Asparagus and rhubarb one year to the next, typically producing good crops their second or third seasons and thereafter. You can grow them in most climates, providing a protective winter mulch if warranted.

In planning a veggie garden, think ahead to what your favorite vegetables are and how you will make use of them. Focus on those delectables that you use a lot or that you like but are expensive or difficult to find in your local market. Maybe it is ethnic vegetables, or ones that are particularly ornamental.

Figure 13-2:

An ideal and ornate garden plan for salad lovers.

For example, if having a fresh tasty salad is one of your summer pleasures, try lettuce and greens of all colors and textures to give you variety (see Figure 13-2). Consider growing gourmet cucumbers or carrots to go with it. Sweet cherry tomatoes are another tasty additions that you will want to add.

Defining hybrids

You may see the term hybrid on seed packets and in seed catalogs. All it means is that the vegetable variety in question is a result of a cross (through pollination) between two parent plants of the same species but different subspecies or varieties.

Generally speaking, crossing two different plants — plants of different kinds or species or families or orders — doesn't work (you can't cross a carrot with a tomato without splicing some genes). No seed is produced, or the seed that's produced is infertile and doesn't germinate. This setup is nature's way of keeping species unique and things somewhat orderly. But an early-ripening tomato crossed with an especially juicy and tasty one — now we're talkin'!

Figure 13-2:

An ideal and ornate garden plan for salad lovers.

An F1 hybrid (first filial hybrid) is the first generation resulting from a cross between the parent plants; F2 and F3 hybrids, then, are the results of subsequent crosses of the crosses. Complicated! Often experimental, too. (Austrian monk Gregor Mendel actually laid out the basics of heredity for us in the 1800s with his experiments with garden peas.) Don't fret. Seed companies do this work under highly controlled conditions, winnowing out the duds and making sure the plants can replicate desirable results with precision. All you have to do is buy the good seeds.

Uniformity, predictability, and disease resistance are the results of combining the genetic traits of two good parents and repeating the same cross. Hybrid offspring are often more robust and productive than either parent. Something called hybrid vigor often appears, a healthy exuberance that seems to result from the good qualities of one parent canceling out the bad of the other.

What's the catch? Actually, I can name two. Producing hybrid seed requires the seed company to maintain the two parent lines and often to laboriously hand-pollinate, so hybrid seeds are more expensive than the alternative (see "Appreciating heirlooms"). Also, there's no point in saving seed from a hybrid that you like and replanting it next year — it won't "come true" — that is, it won't be the same and indeed may exhibit various mongrel qualities from either of its parents. So you're bound to purchase fresh new hybrid seeds each year if you want to grow a hybrid variety that you like.

Favorite hybrid vegetables include 'Big Boy' beefsteak tomato, 'Blushing Beauty' bell peppers, 'Nantes' carrot, 'Salad Bowl' leaf lettuce, 'Silver Queen' sweet corn, and 'Crenshaw' cantaloupe melon.

Appreciating heirlooms

Heirloom vegetables are vegetable varieties that people save and pass on for more-practical home-gardener virtues such as excellent flavor and a prolonged harvest period. Commercial seed companies, on the other hand, breed for uniformity as well as good shipability (thicker, tougher skins on tomatoes and squash, for instance) and ripening-all-at-once (for harvesting convenience). You may prefer heirlooms.

When a variety is called "open pollinated," it means the seeds are the result of natural pollination by insects or wind. With veggies that have open-pollinated seeds (on-hybrid varieties), you can save the seeds and plant them again next year; they'll be the same. Heirloom varieties are simply those that have been passed down through generations of gardeners, like any other family heirloom. Realize that older ones that are still in circulation have obviously stood the test of time and should be worthwhile.

Genetically engineered plants: A miracle or a monster?

Boy, is this an emotionally charged issue! Most people are either strongly for or against this issue. There are few fence sitters.

Here are the common points made by those who support genetically engineered plants:

I Using them can lead to higher yield and less pesticide use.

I Genetic engineering is merely an extension of traditional breeding.

And here are the common points made by those who are against genetically engineered plants:

I As with all new technology, it could lead to unknown side effects to the environment and to humans.

I It uses artificial techniques and dangerously alters genetic material.

So, you choose sides.

So far, only large-scale agronomic crops like corn, wheat, rice and soybeans, are being genetically altered, mostly because that is where the big money is and this process is very expensive.

Specialty seed catalogs have wonderful selections (do an Internet search or comb the ads in gardening magazines and send for the catalogs). Many mainstream catalogs are offering more and more heirloom vegetables in response to popular demand. You can also nose around your neighborhood gardeners, community gardens, and/or farmer's markets to meet other like-minded gardeners who can share their seeds and knowledge of them.

Whether it's a nice tradition, a survival skill, or a way to honor gardeners of the past, saving seeds from your favorite vegetable varieties is a fun and rewarding skill. Depending on what else you grow in your garden, cross-pollination can interfere and must be prevented, either by covering flowering crops (to keep insects and bees from tampering or the wind from contaminating) or staggering planting dates. At season's end, you have to harvest ripe seed, extract it from its fruit, dry it, and store it in a cool, dry place until you need it next year. If you'd like to give seed-saving a try, I suggest starting with squash or pumpkins — they're easy. For details on techniques as well as much more fascinating and useful information on heirloom vegetables, check out Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org).

What's the catch with heirlooms? Well, they're not as perfect or uniform-looking. Because heirlooms aren't commercially bred, they may be more colorful and more variable in size and shape than their hybrid counterparts. Also, their skins may be thinner, so you get great flavor, but they don't travel well and may be vulnerable to bruising — or they may have lots of seeds inside (as in certain squashes and pumpkins), causing you a bit of extra work to separate out the edible parts.

Favorite heirloom vegetable varieties include 'Moon and Stars' watermelon, 'Tom Thumb' baby butterhead lettuce, 'Gold Nugget' winter squash, 'Ragged Jack' kale, 'Super Italian Paste' tomato, 'Henderson's Bush' lima bean, and 'French Breakfast' spring radish.

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