It's time to start thinking about the vegetable garden. We had frost recently, and will again, but this is a good time to think about what to plant. I can't cover all plants I will grow — or have in the past — but I'd like to share a few tips on plants I love, starting with artichoke and going to zucchini.
Twenty years ago it was unheard of to grow artichokes in a New England garden. The first time I grew an artichoke from seed it developed into a huge plant, but didn't start to produce "chokes" until cold weather came in the fall. So I built a little plastic-sheathed hoop house over it, and harvested my one and only artichoke in October — after snow! The local paper sent a reporter and a photographer.
Here's what I've learned since that first effort: start early. I planted seeds March 3 this year in six-packs and transplanted seedlings into bigger plastic pots in mid-April. Now the plants have four large leaves, and are ready to go to my cold basement (45 degrees) where I will set them up under lights on a timer, giving only 10 hours of light per day for the next 10 days. This will fool those poor artichokes into thinking they have gone through a winter. Artichokes, you see, usually only produce in their second year. I'll plant mine outside in early June. In California, artichokes are perennial — though I've never succeeded in overwintering them here.
Now locally grown artichokes are sold at farm and seedlings are sold, too, in case you haven't started any. They will produce lovely foliage plants — and a few small artichokes. Some farms grow them in unheated greenhouses to stimulate them to produce their first year.
"B" is for beans. There are many varieties; all can be placed in one of two categories: bush beans or pole beans. Bush beans produce a nice yield of beans over a three to four week period, and are done. Pole beans, once they start producing, will continue to produce some beans until fall — if you keep picking them. Not only that, pole beans are better for casual gardeners, as many varieties still are yummy even if the beans are not picked on time and get large. Bush beans that get large, get woody. My favorite pole bean is Kwintus from Cook's Garden Seeds. Kentucky Wonder is also great, and available everywhere.
Beans are legumes, and have nodules in their roots that can harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These bacteria take nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil — transforming it into nitrogen usable by plants. Free fertilizer, if you will. You can buy a packet of inoculant at garden centers. Wet your beans at planting time, then sprinkle the inoculant on the beans, and plant. A packet of inoculant will do a lot of beans, but won't work next year, so share your leftovers with another gardener. And if you don't get any in time, you can sprinkle it over the soil and water it in.
"B" is also for broccoli. I start mine by seed, but it's getting a bit late for that now if you want early broccoli. But it is plentiful at garden centers, and quite cold-tolerant once hardened off and well established. You can plant seeds outdoors by seed in mid-July for a fall crop.
My favorite broccoli substitutes are two relatives that don't ever produce a big head, but are quick-growing and produce very numerous mini-heads, what we would call side-shoots on broccoli. One is called piracicaba, and is available from Hudson Valley Seed Library (www.seedlibrary.org). It's actually a tropical broccoli, so does well in the heat so summer when many others are feeling wilted and sad.
The other is Happy Rich, a hybrid sold by Johnny's Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com). Like piracicaba, it has a lovely flavor — and you can eat the leaves and stems if you are so inclined. It produces all summer and well into the fall.
The last of the "B" vegetables, for today, at least, is Brussels sprouts. This vegetable is not universally well loved — too many cooks and lunch counters over cook it, serving mushy sprouts. But they are wonderful if lightly steamed and served with butter or vinegar.
Some gardeners never get big Brussels sprouts because they let the plants grow taller and taller, putting all their energy into growing tall. So here is what you need to do: cut off the top of the plant in early September. Labor Day at 10 a.m., to be precise. Cut off the top three to four inches, which is where upward growth occurs. Then the plant will use its energy to create big sprouts.
Skipping forward to "Z" as promised, my favorite zucchini is one called Romanesco. It has a striped, ridged exterior and firm flesh that is very tasty. What's wonderful about it is that, unlike many summer squash and other zucchini, the flesh is still tasty and usable even if the squash goes unnoticed and develops into a big fruit.
Romanesco zucchini plants are rarely found at garden centers, but seeds are readily available. Buy the seeds now, plant outdoors in June or early May indoors in four-inch pots.
Sorry I skipped a few vegetables in this year's tips, but there will be more in future columns. Meanwhile, I'm going outside to plant some carrots —they come after the "Bs."
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