If you’ve been following our gardening posts, then you know we’ve been discussing the beginnings of a vegetable garden to provide fresh, local, organic foods and a great sense of satisfaction from even just a small bit of self-sufficiency. So far, I’ve been able to get a few things started: The onions were planted and basil and lettuce were started indoors. Now, my attention turns to deciding what else to grow and finding the right seeds for each variety.
There are two main sources for seeds: catalog/internet suppliers and local garden centers/stores. My recommendation is that whichever the source, be sure to choose varieties that have been bred for success in difficult conditions. In many ways, the mid-Atlantic area is a good gardening area with its long days and long growing season. But there are a few pitfalls to this region. Extreme heat and humidity causes mildew and plant stress. Typically moderate winters allow a lot of pests to survive from one season to the next. Rainfall is variable and temperature is a wild card. Spring can be warm, hot, cold or a mix of all in one week – causing problems for germination. Bugs not only eat the foliage, they carry pathogens that cause plant disease.
Still want to be a gardener?! If so, you have to be an optimist in spirit, a pragmatist in practice and a believer in the Zen of working with nature – not fighting against it. But if you’re still here reading, that means you’re up to the task, right?
My suggestions for dealing with these challenges is to minimize them by looking for varieties that are disease resistant and tolerate heat and humidity. Resist the sales pitch that a variety is “the best tasting” because anything home-grown beats supermarket and the fact is, if it fails to grow, you won’t taste anything!
Also, don’t plant veggies that will never make it to the dining table. A few examples: Corn will be stolen by the squirrels long before its totally ripe; Summer squash/zucchini will succumb to a type of bug called the Squash Borer (I refuse and do not encourage pesticide use); Broccoli and cauliflower don’t tolerate heat; Carrots and beets need near-perfect, no-clay, no-stone soil; Potatoes, peas , winter squash and melons take a lot of space relative to their yield.
So, what’s left? Well as I said, the backyard garden is small so concentrate on just a handful of high-yield vegetables like:
Tomatoes. They are THE NUMBER ONE crop based on taste! However, be forewarned: Once you grow your own tomatoes, you may never want to eat a supermarket/restaurant tomato again. Use several different varieties assuming each may do better in one set of weather patterns than another. Plant at least ten plants because the squirrels love them too. These can either be started indoors from seed in little pots, or you can buy plants at a garden center that are ready to be put into the ground.
Green Beans. Nothing in the store can match green beans picked 20 minutes before eating. There are quite a few varieties available so I recommend the following: Contender, which are the fastest growing but produce most of their beans at one time. And Provider, which produces beans over a longer period. Both are disease resistant.
Swiss Chard. A spinach-like green but better-tasting. Swiss chard has been called the perfect green because of its incredible nutritional value. By the time it reaches the store however, it’s wilted and expensive. A variety called Fordhook Giant is one of the best.
Cucumber. Since it’s a vine, cucumbers can be grown vertically on a fence or trellis using very little ground space. It is efficient gardening and there are many varieties you can eat without peeling (the skin is where all the nutritional value resides).
Lettuce. In the mid-Atlantic this is an early-season crop since heat causes it to become bitter. Fresh lettuce is delicate and has a subtlety that dissipates by the time it reaches the produce section. It’s efficient because when the lettuce is finished you can then plant beans in the same space. The best varieties for tolerating late spring heat are leaf lettuces, although if a romaine-type lettuce is your thing look for seeds of Jericho – bred in Israel to grow in summer temperatures.
Basil. Obviously not a veggie but one of the most wonderful herbs. Pick fresh leaves and sprinkle on any pizza. It can turn that cardboard-box take-out pizza into something special.
Onions. Onion sets – those miniature, ready to grow onions – are both easy to plant and don’t take a lot of space. They can be planted around the perimeter of a bed where something else will be planted later on when it gets warmer.
Flowers. If you like cut flowers on your dining table, then Zinnias are your flower. Easy to grow and with a variety of colors, they can be cut for a table display and new stems will grow on the plant. Varieties range from tiny quarter-sized blooms to giant six-inch flowers, and with a wide range of petal shapes.
Just remember, right now it is too early to plant anything except lettuce and onions. The rest of the garden has to wait until warmer temperatures arrive, usually around April 15- May 15. Stay tuned to JustSaying for later planting dates and advice.