Tag Archive: Vegetable Gardening

  1. Yes, Peas! Growing Edible Pod & Tendril Peas

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    ‘Golden Sweet’ snow pea is one of many delicious edible pod peas. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The tendriled vines of peas produce delicious pods in cool spring weather, and their roots naturally fortify soil with nitrogen. Once warm weather comes on, they can be pulled and replanted again in late summer for a second crop in fall. Peas are easily stored—by freezing or canning—making them a great choice for gardeners that preserve the harvest.

    There are many edible pod and tendril types to try.  Some create long vines, while others are bush-forming and better suited to small spaces. Fortify their soil, choose a sunny spot, and plant at the right time of year, and they’re a cinch to grow. At least 8-10 weeks are required to raise plants from seed to harvest. Harvest can last for several weeks. Once summer heat comes on, vines stop producing, and slowly turn brown and die.

    Edible Pod Peas

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    Classic ‘Sugar Snap’ peas are the snap pea standard. (Image by AAS Winners)

    Snow and snap peas are the two edible pod peas of choice. Snaps are crisp and plump and snow peas are more delicate and slender. Both are very sweet and can be eaten fresh or cooked.  Snaps are favored by most growers, but snow peas are gaining more garden ground.

    Two snow peas stand out when it comes to flavor and performance, ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ and ‘Golden Sweet’. The productive and vigorous ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ consistently gets high reviews by gardeners. It produces super sweet, 4- to 5-inch-long flattened pods on bushy, disease-resistant plants that only reach 2 ½ feet. The pale yellow pods get top marks for flavor and are produced on vigorous 6-foot vines that require trellising. First discovered in India, this variety is also more heat tolerant than most, which extends its window of harvest.

    Snap pea culture is dominated by the ever-popular ‘Sugar Snap’ (1979 AAS Winner) and ‘Super Sugar Snap’ varieties. This is because both are crisp, sweet, and prolific. The “super” in ‘Super Sugar Snap’ comes from the fact that these peas are more compact, earlier to produce (60 days), and bear more heavily over a shorter window of time. Reportedly, the mildew-resistant, 5’ vines yield pods that are not quite as sweet as the classic ‘Sugar Snap’.

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    ‘Patio Pride’ is a new, super compact snap pea perfect for containers. (Image by AAS Winners)

    Original ‘Sugar Snap’ peas became a household name for a reason. Nothing has come close to their quality since they were first introduced over 35 years ago. Young pods are relatively stringless, super sweet, reach up to 3 ½ inches in length, and are produced after 62 days. The 6-foot vines are heat tolerant (but not mildew resistant) and produce peas over a long period.

    The 1984 AAS Winner, ‘Sugar Ann’, is a super early producer bearing sweet peas in only 52 days. Another compact, early gem is the 2017 AAS Winner ‘Patio Pride’. It only takes 40 days for the ultra-compact, 6- to 12-inch vines to produce plump, edible pods. These can be harvested early or allowed to mature a bit at which point they can be enjoyed as shelling peas.

    Tendrils

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    ‘Sugar Magnolia’ peas produce loads of edible tendrils. (Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

    Pea tendrils can be eaten fresh in salads or cooked in stir fries. Heavily tendriled peas are semi-leafless and referred to as “afila” peas. Their sweet flavor and novel looks have made them popular in restaurants. Only recently have they become available to gardeners.

    The new tendriled variety ‘Sugar Magnolia’ produces a wild mess of green tendrils on 8-foot vines in addition to bearing good-tasting purple snap peas after 70 days. ‘Feisty is another vigorous tendril pea that has monstrous vines that can reach 30-feet in length. Harvestable tendrils are produced in 50 days and sweet pea pods are produced after 60 days.

    Cultivating Peas

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    A bountiful harvest of sugar snap peas.

    Cool weather, full sun, and fertile soil are required for great pea production. For best results, amend garden soil with a 1:3 ratio of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost to garden soil and lightly feed with an all-purpose organic fertilizer for vegetable gardening. Turn the soil gently to make sure it is light and friable.

    Most peas need trellising. The lightweight vines will grow well on a moderately sturdy trellis consisting of bamboo posts fixed with tightly fitted trellis netting. Even bush varieties can benefit from a low bamboo and twine support system.

    Once your spring pea crop is spent, remember that you can plant a new crop again in fall. These sweet summer treats are healthy, delicious, and well worth the effort.

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    A sturdy bamboo trellis fitted with taut trellis netting is perfect for peas. (Image by Jessie Keith)

     

  2. Combating Common Vegetable Garden Pests, Organically

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    The author’s daughter picking Colorado potato beetles from potato plants.

    For the past 11 years, I have grown my vegetables in a community garden plot, which has provided a rough, real education in plant pests, diseases, and weeds. Why? Because these mega veggie gardens are pest hot spots, and late summer is the worst time of year for the beasties. Whether it be my beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, or eggplants, the “bad” insects abound–threatening to destroy fruits and foliage and often spreading disease as they munch and crunch along. You just have to keep fighting them with every tool in the toolbox. And, if the bugs beat my crop, I will often start again, if there is time and the season allows. Sometimes beating the pests is just a matter of retooling planting time.

    The five most common vegetable garden pests that I battle in mid- to late-summer are Colorado potato beetles, striped cucumber beetles, eggplant flea beetles, Mexican bean beetles, and harlequin cabbage bugs. Each returns year after year with regularity, but some years are worse than others. The severity of the previous winter usually indicates the severity of my pest problems–the milder the winter, the harsher the pest problem. Last winter was pretty mild, so this summer the pests and rampant. Here are some ways that I have learned to overcome these pests.

    Colorado Potato Beetle

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    Colorado potato beetles mating on top of a potato plant.

    The surest way to attract Colorado potato beetles to your garden is to plant potatoes, but if you don’t have potatoes, they will go for your tomatoes and eggplant secondarily. (Fortunately, they don’t appear to be attracted to my tomatillos.) The fat, striped adult beetles emerge from the soil and nearby forested areas to feed on emerging potatoes and then lay clusters of orange-yellow eggs on leaf undersides. These are followed by highly destructive little orange larvae that eat foliage and grow very quickly. You can kill the insects at any stage, but it’s easiest to pick off the adults and eggs. (Click here to view the full life cycle of these beetles.) The beetles can complete up to three life cycles in a single season, so once you have them, you generally have to fight them all summer.

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    Colorado potato beetle larvae (left) on tomato.

    These insects are highly resistant to insecticides, so it pays to choose organic methods of control. Time and time again, well-timed cultural control and good winter cleanup have proven to be the best means of battling them. Cultural control is essentially “picking”off the adults, eggs, and larvae and/or pruning off egg- and larval-covered leaves and branches. I generally smash picked specimens, but you can also drown them in a bucket of water. Good picking should start early and continue until all signs of these pests are gone.

    (To learn everything there is to know about Colorado Potato Beetles, visit potatobeetle.org.)

    Striped Cucumber Beetle

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    The symptoms of bacterial wilt spread by striped cucumber beetles.

    As their name suggests, these beetles favor cucumbers, but they also attack melon vines. Small, striped cucumber beetles look so cute and innocent, but they are so destructive. Every year my cucumber crop is a crap shoot, even if I choose tough hybrid cucumbers. These beetles cause damage by feeding on the plants and fruits, but the larger problem is the catastrophic bacterial wilt that they spread from plant to plant. Once cucumber vines get cucumber bacterial wilt, there is no turning back. The leaves will start to show droop and eventually whole stems will collapse and the vine will die.

    These pests may have two to three cycles in a season and are next to impossible to control, even with harsh chemical insecticides. Floating row cloth cover can keep them at bay, but it is a hassle and does not allow pollinators to reach the plants. For me, the best course of action is to choose bacterial-wilt-resistant cucumber varieties. Cornell University Extension offers a great list of resistant cucumber varieties to choose from. Of these, I have grown the short-vined slicer ‘Salad Bush‘, which is great for container growing. Two more reliable varieties are ‘Marketmore 80‘ and ‘Dasher II‘.

    (Click here to learn more about striped cucumber beetles.)

    Eggplant Flea Beetle

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    Eggplant flea beetle damage on an eggplant leaf.

    Tiny jet-black eggplant flea beetles are the smallest summer pests in this list, but they can devastate an eggplant in a matter of days. The small but numerous insects leave little pock marks all over a host plant’s leaves. Badly damaged leaves barely photosynthesize, resulting in poor, weak plants that produce puny fruits.

    If you want to grow eggplant, you have to protect them from eggplant flea beetles. There are plenty of insecticides that will kill these insects, but only a few non-chemical cultural practices will stop them. The best method that I have found is protecting plants with summer weight floating row covers that transmit a lot of sunlight while physically keeping insects from the plants. The key is covering plants early and then securing the row covers at the base, so the tiny beetles cannot crawl beneath them. Holding cover edges down with bricks, pins, and even mulch or compost, works. The only caveat is that you may need to hand-pollinate plants for fruit set.

    Good fall cleanup of infested crop plants will also keep populations down from year to year. On average, eggplant flea beetles will complete up to four generations in a single season.

    (Click here to learn more about these pests.)

    Harlequin Cabbage Bug

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    Harlequin bug adults and damage on summer broccoli.

    These ornamental stink bugs are the worst enemy of summer kale, broccoli, and other crucifers. They suck the juices from the leaves causing pock marks all over them. The most striking destruction I have  ever witnessed was with an enormous Portuguese kale that I had nurtured to a bold 2′ height through spring. Once the numerous beetles started to attack in early summer, the plant had no chance. I sprayed organic pesticides on the hundreds of adults that covered the plant to no avail.

    There are a few management practices that will help stop these bugs. Floating row covers can also be used, as was suggested for the eggplant flea beetles, but harlequin cabbage bugs are big enough to pick off by hand, if you have the time and can handle the slightly stinky smell they emit when disturbed. Small nymphs are also susceptible to treatment with insecticidal soap.

    Two to three generations of harlequin cabbage bugs can occur each season. By late summer, they are no longer a problem, so you can plant your fall cabbages and kales with confidence.

    (Click here to learn more about these pests.)

    Mexican Bean Beetle

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    Mexican bean beetle larvae and damage on a bean leaf.

    Like Colorado potato beetles, it’s the larvae to Mexican bean beetles that do the harshest damage to bean plants. The adults emerge in late spring but they rarely cause major problems on bean plants until midsummer. The adults are orange, black-spotted beetles that lay clusters of orange-yellow eggs below the leaves, much like the Colorado potato beetle. The unusual larvae are fuzzy, bright yellow, and skeletonize leaves as they feed along the leaf bottoms.

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    Mexican bean beetle adult on a bean leaf.

    You can control these pests as you would Colorado potato beetles with one exception – destructive harvesting. Destructive harvesting is the harvest and total removal of infested plants from the garden. After picking, infested plants should be pulled, bagged, and taken far from your garden. (Click here to view a YouTube video from the University of Maryland about destructive harvesting.) Beans can be replanted as late as mid August for early fall harvest.

    In general, regular weeding, good plant care, and excellent garden clean up, in summer and fall, will help keep pest populations down. Clean the ground of all leaf litter and weeds, and amend the soil with top-quality amendments for vegetables, such as Fafard®Garden Manure Blend or Natural & Organic Compost, and your plants will be more robust to resist the many garden pests that threaten to destroy them.

  3. Growing Salad Greens in Spring

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    A suite of spinach and romaine lettuces growing in late March.

    This is the time of year to start your seeds for salad greens, such as spinach, lettuce, and arugula. Getting a head start indoors will ensure that you will have fresh greens by late March to early April when daytime temperatures are warm enough for growing and nights are still cool and crisp. Once transplanted in the garden in early March, your seedling starts should take off, if your beds have been well prepared.

    Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is the most variable green—coming in lots of shapes, lead densities and colors. Some of the most common and popular types include the upright romaine or cos lettuce (popular in Caesar’s salads), crisphead or iceberg lettuce, and looseleaf types, which include butterhead and oakleaf varieties, among others. Colors vary from bright chartreuse green to deep green, purple and bronze. Speckled varieties also exist, such as the Austrian ‘Forellenschluss’, which essentially translates to “trout-like”. Reliable starter varieties, such as the classic heirloom looseleaf variety ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, super tight-headed romaine ‘Spretnak’, and unusually beautiful French crisphead, ‘Reine Des Glaces’, are all quite easy and delicious.

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    The French crisphead lettuce ‘Reine Des Glaces’ looks beautiful and has more flavor than your average iceberg lettuce.

    Spinach and arugula grow under the same conditions as lettuce—requiring cool weather for best growth and flavor. Both are less variable in appearance, but there are quite a few cultivated varieties with special characteristics that set them apart. Spinach may have smooth or savoyed leaves and some varieties are slower to bolt (set flower) in spring than others. The 1925 heirloom ‘Bloomsdale’ has large, savoyed leaves and is slower to bolt than most. I contrast, ‘Corvair’ has large, smooth leaves and is resistant to downy mildew. Some cultivars, such as ‘Baby’s Leaf‘, are recommended for growing “baby spinach”. Arugula cultivars vary somewhat in leaf shape, color and heat. The popular ‘Wasabi’ is an easy-to-grow selection with leaves that truly taste of hot wasabi. The new ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ is a visually pretty, finely cut variant with purple-red venation.

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    Looseleaf lettuce varieties can come with variable leaf shapes and colors.

    There are a few things to know when growing these greens. To begin with, they must have cool germination temperatures. Lettuce seed, for example, germinates best at temperatures between 70 and 40 degrees F, with those at the higher end sprouting faster. Most other greens do, too. The small, almond-shaped seeds of lettuce also require light to germinate, so be sure not to cover the seed—just gently pat it down and wet its soil completely. Arugula seed is also small and should be surface sown, but spinach seed is larger and can be planted just below the soil’s surface. For planting all these seeds, it is vital to select a quality seed-starting mix with a fine texture, such as Fafard Seed Starting Mix with Resilience. (For more seed-starting tips, click here.)

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    Tidy, open beds and good spacing are needed for healthy, vigorous greens.

    Before planting, be sure to harden seedlings off, slowly exposing them to outdoor temperatures and sunlight until they are acclimated. Soil should be fortified with a quality organic amendment.  I recommend Fafard Garden Manure Blend for greens. Work it in evenly before planting your seedlings. Once seedlings are planted around six to eight inches apart, water them well and apply a light solution of water-soluble, all-purpose fertilizer.

    In no time, you should have harvestable greens. In is not uncommon for most greens to take between 45 to 50 days to produce after planting. Harvest depends on the green. Spinach, arugula, and looseleaf Garden Manure Blendlettuce can be harvested leaf by leaf while romaine and crisphead lettuce are harvested whole by the head. The easiest way is to cut the head with a harvest knife from the point where it meets the ground.

    It is not uncommon for a few stray greens to begin bolting before they are harvested. If this happens, let them bloom and set seed. After plants have bolted, wait for the seed to mature and dry. Then collect the seeds for planting later in the season when growing conditions are cool once again.

  4. New Vegetables for 2016

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    The new slicing tomato ‘Black Beauty’ is darker than any other black tomato and has incredible flavor. (photo care of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

    Each year I boost my passion for vegetable gardening by adding some of the latest new varieties to the garden repertoire. Those that pass the flavor and productivity tests may have a permanent place in my yearly garden while those that don’t shine will make space for new plants to trial next year. Last year’s winner was the flavorful, uniform, and high producing, AAS-winning ‘Chef’s Choice Orange’ slicing tomato. (Its deepest orange fruits were so sweet!) Just glancing at my growing pile of vegetable garden catalogs makes me excited about the fresh suite of new vegetables for 2016.

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    The new AAS Winner ‘Candyland Red’ is a sweet new currant tomato for the garden. (Photo care of All America Selections)

    Let’s start with tomatoes and close relatives, like tomatillos, eggplants, and peppers. By far, the most exciting tomato being offered is the succulent, pure black slicing tomato ‘Black Beauty’. The Wild Boar Farms introduction has meaty flavorful flesh that is dark red to black. A classic red tomato on the table is the hybrid ‘Madame Marmande’ from Burpee that boasts beautifully lobed fruits packed with rich tomato flavor. Cherry tomato lovers should consider ‘Candyland Red’—a high-producing red currant tomato that’s super sweet. Pair it with the golden currant tomato ‘Gold Rush‘ for fun, colorful snacking.

    There’s a great pick of peppers for 2016, hot and sweet. Promising hots include the Brazilian ‘Biquinho’ hot pepper, which looks like a bright red teardrop when ripe and is said to have a fruity, smoky flavor, and the fire-red ‘Flaming Flare’ pepper with its sweet, slightly hot flavor. Sweet pepper lovers should check out the golden sweet ‘Escamillo’ pepper. This prolific early bearer is an AAS winner for 2016. All of these peppers will pair well with the new, heavy-bearing ‘Gulliver’ tomatillo for salsa making.

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    The golden yellow pepper ‘Escamillo’ is another AAS winner with great taste and performance. (Photo care of All America Selections)

    Though eggplant can have challenges due to susceptibility to flea beetles and Colorado potato beetles, I am excited about the new ‘Meatball’ hybrid eggplant from Burpee. The large, meaty fruits are supposed to be extra tasty.

    Gardeners seeking something unusual may consider the Mexican sour gherkin, also offered by Burpee.  The tiny fruits are crisp and sweet but also slightly sour. Add these to a salad along with slices of the remarkable ‘Sakurajima’, the world’s largest radish. Offered by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, these massive daikon radishes can reach 15 pounds and just beg to be grown by adventurous vegetable gardeners with lots of mouths to feed.

    Spring greens are some of the first veggies to go into the ground and new varieties, such as the super spinach ‘Gangbusters’ and/or beautiful heirloom lettuce ‘Yugoslavian Red’, are sure to make easy work of the salad garden. Throw in some vigorous Fidelio flatlead parsley or unusual saltwort Japanese greens for added interest and flavor.

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    The bright, uniform ‘Yellowbunch’ Carrot is a sweet new offering for 2016. (Photo care of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

    Unusually colored carrots are becoming more and more popular and Johnny’s ‘Yellowbunch’ Carrot looks like a real winner with its straight, crisp, sweet roots of bright yellow. Other new root crops of interest include the pure white ‘Avalanche’ beet, an AAS Winner with mild, sweet flavor and uniform roots.

    This list would not be complete without something sweet. Said to have the highest Brix score (15!) of any other canteloupe, Park’s Select ‘Infinite Gold’ hybrid is bursting with flavor and highly disease resistant. Vines are high-yielding and fruits have very deep orange flesh.

    Whether growing greens, tomatoes, or melons—your vegetable garden will only be as good as the soil and nutrients you provide. Give this year’s new offerings and old favorites the best chance possible for success. Feed your soil with quality garden compost, such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, or quality manure, such as Fafard Garden Mature Blend. Both will enrich garden soil to the maximum for large fruits and big roots. Feed with a fertilizer formulated for vegetables—we like Black Gold Tomato and Vegetable Fertilizer—and your new garden vegetables will perform to their fullest.

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    Adventurous gardeners should consider growing the giant ‘Sakurajima’ radish. (Photo care of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

  5. Growing Garlic

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    Freshly harvested and cleaned hardneck garlic.

    Growing garlic is easy and gratifying. For starters, it tastes infinitely better than store bought. Secondly, there are also tons and tons of wonderful cultivated varieties to choose from that vary in size, color, heat, and flavor. Garlic isn’t just garlic when you become tuned into its diversity (just check out the offerings at The Garlic Store). And fall is the time to plant it.

    The cultivation process begins in fall when the soil is still workable, usually between October and December. Just like any other root crop, the best bulbs develop in well-drained, friable garden loam. Then amend with compost, such as Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost, and add some bulb fertilizer for assured success.

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    Garlic should be planted in fall in fertile, amended loam.

    For planting, dig holes 3 to 6 inches deep and 12 to 16 inches apart. Set a single clove in each hole with the tip pointing upwards and the blunt root base down to a depth of 4-5 inches. Cover with soil, water, and wait. Within a couple of weeks sprouts should rise from the soil, and the plants may reach a 6 inches or more before heavy frost hits. They will overwinter in an evergreen to semi-evergreen state where winters are mild but will die back in colder zones.

    In spring, garlic plants will emerge and leaf up, and by late spring to early summer each will produce a heronesque flower or bulbil bud. The buds should be removed as soon as they appear or they’ll deplete the precious garlic bulbs underground. Just clip the stems back to the main plant, but don’t throw away the buds. They’re also good eating and look and taste great stir fried or sautéed.

    Some garlic varieties produce earlier in the season and others produce later, so it’s nice to plant a seasonal variety that will mature at different times. On average, most cultivars are harvestable by midsummer . You will know they are ready when their tops begin to turn brown. Refrain from watering the plants at this time to keep bulbs from rotting.

    When the tops start to turn dry and begin to bend down, the cloves are ready to harvest. Dig the bulbs and allow them to dry in an airy place away from sun. The drying technique depends on garlic type. Softneck garlic can be hung to dry in braids, and the tops of hard-neck types can be cut and the bulbs dried on a dry, breathable surface. Store in a cool, dry place.

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    It’s amazing to see what a handful of garlic cloves planted in fall will become the following season.

    Choosing the right garlic for you depends on where you live and the flavor your favor. The key distinction between types is whether they are soft or hardnecked. Softneck garlic is the most popular type grown in Europe and the American South. It grows better in milder climates (but will still grow well pretty far north), stores for longer, and has flexible necks that allow mature bulbs and plants to be easily braided into hanging garlic braids. There are two softneck forms, silverskin and artichoke. Silverskin soft-neck garlic has smooth, silvery skin, more cloves and keeps for a very long time. Artichoke has coarser skin, fewer, larger cloves and a milder flavor. Still, heat, pungency and flavor varies widely from cultivar to cultivar, so consider this when choosing garlic to grow .

    Hardneck garlic is more commonly grown in northern and eastern Europe, Russia and North-Central Asia. It grows better in cooler climates, has a shorter storage life and stiff necks that attach the bulbs to leaves above. This type produces fewer, larger cloves that are fragrant and vary in flavor depending on the cultivar. Hardneck types are believed to be more closely related to wild garlic.

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    Garlic scapes appear in summer and are very good to eat.

    The rewards of growing garlic are great. Homegrown bulbs have superior taste, you can grow lots of different types that vary in flavor, and they are cheap. Specialty varieties usually sell out early in the season, but gardeners wishing to experiment with garlic growing this late in the season still have an option. Garlic cloves from the grocery store (which are inevitably softneck) work just as well. Just separate the cloves and plant away.

  6. Miniature Pumpkins

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    If you didn’t grow your own small pumpkins this season, they are easily found at local orchards and markets! (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Miniature pumpkins are so irresistible they almost beg to be picked up and held. Varieties like the bright orange ‘Jack-B-Little’, striped ‘L’il Pump Ke-Mon’, tangerine orange ‘Bumpkin’, and the ghostly white ‘Baby Boo’ stand about two inches tall and three inches wide, their sides creased with deep ridges. Whether you use them for decorating, cooking or party favors, one baby pumpkin is never enough. In October retailers offer bins full of the little charmers, but it is also easy to grow them at home. Raising mini pumpkins can be a great, kid-friendly gardening project.

    Natural and OrganicThese smallest pepos are part of the same squash or cucurbit family as their larger relations and favor similar growing conditions—plenty of sunshine—at least six hours per day–and consistently moist soil enriched with organic amendments like Fafard ® Premium Natural & Organic Compost. The vines will sprout happily in large containers or in-ground settings. As befits their smaller size, minis take somewhat less growing time than the orange behemoths, maturing in 90 to 100 days from seed. Under good conditions, each vine should produce eight to ten miniature pumpkins.

    If you live in an area with a short growing season, start minis indoors two or three weeks before the last frost date for your area. Otherwise, sow outdoors in mid-May to ensure a supply for harvest-time decorations. Follow package directions, making sure to give the young plants plenty of room. Grow the pumpkins in vegetable or ornamental beds, or on sunny decks or terraces. Proximity to some kind of support—fences, trellises or bamboo teepees—is helpful, though the vines can also be allowed to sprawl along the ground or cascade from porches or raised beds.

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    The cute little ‘Jack-B-Little’ is one of the cutest and most common little pumpkin. (photo by Marian Keith)

    Lilliputian Jack-o-lanterns are very amenable to container culture. Almost any sturdy vessel will work, as long as it has drainage holes. A ten-gallon container will support a single mini pumpkin vine. To grow several vines in one pot, select one that will hold twenty to twenty-five gallons, preferably with a diameter of at least thirty-six inches. Whatever container you choose, fill with a fifty/fifty mix of quality potting medium like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix With Extended Feed With Resilience™ and Fafard ® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.

    In-ground or in containers, if you decide to support the young pumpkins, tie them with soft ties–pieces of old pantyhose or any other flexible material. As you tie the vines, you will notice that the young fruits start out rather pale in color. Rest assured, the orange-fruited varieties will turn tawny in time.

    Critter control is a must, because varmints like raccoons, squirrels and groundhogs are extremely fond of miniature pumpkins. Spray the developing minis with an organic critter deterrent to keep them away. Remember to re-spray after every rainstorm.

    You will know your minis are ripe when the vines appear dried-out and the stems greenish-brown. If you are using the pumpkins as decorations, let them cure in a cool, dry place for about a week before piling in baskets, mounting on wreathes, carving into votive candle holders or arranging on the mantle. Minis also make clever place cards for birthday or dinner parties.

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    ‘Bumpkin’ is another sweet little pumpkin worth seeking out this season. (photo my Jessie Keith)

    Though less fleshy than larger varieties, ‘Jack-B-Little’s and their kin can also be used in cooking. The little pumpkins make eye-catching individual containers for baked eggs or savory hot dishes containing combinations of meat, vegetables and/or grains. Sprinkle the insides with a bit of brown sugar, dot with butter and roast for a simple dessert. Minis can also be used as colorful ramekins for sweet baked concoctions like custards, bread puddings or fruit crumbles. Because the sides of the pumpkin are somewhat thicker than most ceramic vessels, you may have to add extra cooking time to standard recipes.

    In fall, the garden is full of big specimens—giant squash, “dinner plate” dahlias and cushion mums big enough to seat a giant. Miniature pumpkins are a reminder that good garden things also come in small packages.

  7. Vegetable Garden Soil Preparation

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    These tidy beds have a compost mulch layer protecting vegetables and a walkway protected with thick grass clippings.

     

    Rain and snow melt make spring garden soil preparation a challenge every year, but once you can get into the garden, get into your soil! Feeding your garden soil in spring is an investment that pays off every time. Amending, turning, tilling, fertilizing, and mulching are the five practices needed to make your garden great all season! The addition of drip hoses for easy irrigation can make garden care even more effortless.

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    Rich soil yields better crops, so it pays to feed your soil. Adding the best amendments will ensure your soil is ready to work. Adding lots of compost will increase good yields, but be sure that your compost is good quality. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost is a high-performing compost sure to give your garden what it needs. For areas where you intend to plant greens, go with nitrogen-rich amendments, such as Fafard Garden Manure Blend.

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    “No till” areas in the vegetable garden need different care.  These include beds with perennial and winter crops, like areas with asparagus, garlic, strawberries, or hardy herbs, as well as well-amended spots that are already in good shape below ground. Still, adding extra organic matter to no-till spots will ensure better growth while allowing for the addition of needed amendments. Adding a layer of compost and lightly turning it into the surface will increase organic matter while not disrupting your plants or soil structure.

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    Compost acts as both an amendment and protective mulch.

    Compost acts as both an amendment and protective mulch.

    Many gardeners have bed areas that are tilled yearly. This has its pluses and minuses. Tilling brings the bank of weed seeds to the surface and disrupts soil structure and organisms, but it also increases tilth and allows organic matter to be worked deeply in the soil. If you plan to till, plan to double your amendment by adding a till-in layer and a mulch layer. First, put down a thick layer of compost or manure and till it deeply into the soil, then rake and berm bed spaces as needed. Finally add a second layer of compost to further enrich the soil and protect against weeds. The second step is extra important because tilling brings lots of weed seeds to the soil’s surface.

    Fertilizing

    Many vegetables require lots of food to produce good yields through the season. It’s essential to feed the garden well from the beginning with a good tomato & vegetable fertilizer. OMRI Listed fertilizers approved for organic gardening are best. Simply broadcast the fertilizer and gently work it into the top layers of soil where it’s needed most.  Heavy feeders, such as tomatoes, peppers, and melons, should be fed again at planting time.

    Mulching

    In addition to adding a compost mulch layer, I protect and define walkways with leaf mulch, straw or hay, and grass clippings. These natural mulches stop weeds and make it easier to traverse the garden in wet, muddy weather. They also hold water and keep root zones cool on hot summer days. By fall’s end, they have usually broken down into accessible organic matter.

    Living mulches are another option. Planting a dense summer cover crop in walkways, like white clover, will keep them tidy, cool, and mud-free while also feeding the soil. Just be sure to keep the edges trimmed and turn plants under in fall.

    Amendment Application Formula

    When adding amendments, determine how many inches you want to add over your garden area. Here is the simple formula needed to determine this:

    ([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).

    Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

    A thick layer of straw helps hold moisture around these okra plants while also keeping walkways clean and weed free.

    A thick layer of straw helps hold moisture while also keeping walkways clean and weed free.

    Irrigation

    For added benefit, consider snaking a drip hose beneath mulch layers to make summer watering easier and more efficient. Below-the-surface watering keeps water at root zones while virtually stopping surface evaporation on hot days. The key is marking your drip lines from above (to keep from accidentally cutting the line with gardening tools) and securing nozzles for easy access. At watering time, just hook up your lines and let them drip for an hour or so to ensure deep watering.

    Once the vegetable season takes off, your garden will be in good shape with these five steps. Sure, weeds, drought, and hot days will come, but their impacts will be minimized  and your time and garden’s productivity will be maximized.

  8. Growing Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower and Kale Organically

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    Large-headed cabbages, like those growing in this spring vegetable garden, need lots of space to reach full size .

    Of all the cool-season vegetables, few are as variable and satisfying to grow as cole crops (Brassica oleracea), also called “brassicas”. Tasty favorites like kale, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower yield big harvests and are easily grown the organic way, even in the face of lots of pests. It all starts with healthy plants and good care.

    Smaller cabbage varieties, like these ‘Caraflex’, can be planted closer together.

    Where summers are hot, cole crops are best grown in spring or fall, but in my community garden my spring crops yield better. This is largely due to plentiful foragers, like rabbits, groundhogs, voles, and deer. By summer’s end, mammalian garden pests are in larger numbers and always take a toll on my fall crops—particularly my brassicas. Fencing and smelly organic animal repellants like 100% natural Plantskydd will help, but it’s always a battle.

    In spring, it pays to plant large, robust seedling starts for quick establishment and good success. If growing from seed, I begin planting early indoors—generally in late February to early March. By the time my plantlets are 4-inches tall, they are ready to harden off and plant outdoors. Starts are also sold at local nurseries, though they offer less selection. Seed catalogs always have newer, more interesting varieties. This year I chose seeds for the small-headed savoy cabbage ‘Alcosa’, broad-leaved ‘Galega de Folhas Lisas’ kale, bolt-resistant ‘Packman’ broccoli, and bright purple ‘Graffiti’ cauliflower.

    Natural and Organic

    Fafard’s OMRI-Listed Compost Blend is an ideal amendment for cole crop beds.

    Brassicas require full sun for best growth. Deep, fertile soil with a slightly acid to neutral pH (6-7) is ideal. Be sure to amend the soil with Fafard® Sphagnum Peat Moss and Premium Natural & Organic Compost —being sure to till amendments in deeply—and fortify with a fertilizer formulated for vegetables. These vegetables have high macronutrient requirements (NPK 14-14-14) and specific micronutrient needs (high calcium and boron). At planting time, I recommend fertilizing with an OMRI-Listed (certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute) vegetable fertilizer, bone meal, and borax, at the recommended doses.

    Set plants out after hard frosts have ended but cool days and light frosts are still expected. Most cole crops can withstand freezing temperatures down to 20° F but grow best at temperatures between 70° and 85° F. Late March to early April is the best planting window where I live in the Mid-Atlantic.

    Each brassica grows a little differently and may require slightly different care. Here are the growing basics for my spring standbys:

    Broccoli

    Broccoli varieties vary widely. Some produce enormous central clusters and others smaller clusters with ample side shoots; some have large, loose beads (buds) while others have small beads produced in tight, dense clusters. Gardeners can expect plants to bear heads 50 to 70 days after planting. ‘Packman’, ‘Diplomat’, and ‘Early Purple’ are three high-performing varieties that produce big heads, have good side shoot production, and grow beautifully in spring.

    Brassica oleracea 'Early Purple' (Italica Group)

    Grown for its good looks and flavor, broccoli ‘Early Purple’ is also a popular market vegetable.

    Broccoli seedlings look like nondescript leafy sprouts, but in a matter of months they will produce big budding heads of broccoli. Space your broccoli plants about 1 to 1.5 feet apart at planting time, and plant a minimum of six plants for good yields. Don’t allow newly planted seedlings to dry out, and ensure established plants always get ample water. Once nice broccoli heads are set, harvest them and wait for more to develop. Broccoli is a cut-and-come-again crop that should not be allowed to flower and set seed. I generally harvest mine with garden shears or a garden knife.

    There are a couple of troubles specific to broccoli. Boron deficiency causes florets to turn brown prematurely and stems to become hollow. Additionally, insufficient water will keep plants from setting florets, and heat in excess of 86 ° F may encourage plants to bolt quickly and taste bitter.

    Cabbage

    There are lots of fun cabbage varieties offering different flavors, looks and characteristics. Heads may be conical, flattened, rounded, large or small, and can have smooth or savoyed leaves. Four varieties for connoisseurs are the blue-green and purple-pink blushed ‘San Michele’, dwarf conical ‘Caraflex’, giant sweet savoyed ‘Drumhead’, and elongated purple ‘Kalibos.’ Days to harvest vary from variety to variety , but on average you can expect heads to develop 63 to 88 days after planting.

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    ‘Alcosa’ is a small, savoyed heirloom cabbage that’s easy to grow.

    Seedlings should be planted outside when they are around 4 to 6 inches tall. Compact varieties may be spaced as close as 10 inches apart and large varieties between 18 and 24 inches apart. Once healthy heads develop, cut them at the base with a garden knife and remove any large, ratty lower leaves. Cabbage will store for a long time, if refrigerated or kept in a cool dry place.

    There are several common cabbage nutrient deficiencies. Potassium deficiency is common and results in heads with leaves that become yellow then dry and papery along the edges. If comparable yellowing is seen between the leaves, then magnesium deficiency is likely the problem. Heads with weak or hollow stems are suffering from boron deficiency.

    Cauliflower

    Cauliflower comes in a myriad of sizes (tiny to giant) and colors (white, green, purple and orange). Fun, interesting varieties include the dwarf heirloom ‘Snowball’, bright purple ‘Graffiti’, electric orange ‘Cheddar’, and very large ‘Giant Naples.’

    Brassica oleracea 'Cheddar' (Botrytis Group)

    The orange cauliflower ‘Cheddar’ is higher in beta-carotene than white forms.

    The sooner you can get your cauliflower into spring ground, the bigger the heads will be, but it’s important to note that this brassica is not as frost-tolerant as cabbages, broccoli and kale. Seedlings should be planted 18 to 20 inches apart. Be sure to give plants ample water when cauliflower heads begin to develop. Layers of leaves cover and protect developing heads from sun and pests. Once the leaves unfurl and heads look curdy and fully developed, they can be cut from beneath and harvested.

    Nutrient deficiencies and heat troubles that plague broccoli are also a problem with cauliflower. Excessive heat and ill-timed harvest can cause heads to elongate and taste bitter.

    Kale

    Some of the best kale varieties for eating are the popular ‘Nero di Toscana’ (aka. dinosaur kale), heat-tolerant Portuguese ‘Tronchuda Beira’, and frilly, tender ‘Red Ursa’. Young leaves can be eaten fresh in salads and more mature leaves are great for cooking.

    Brassica oleracea 'Lacinato' (Acephala Group)

    One of the most beautiful and delicious kales for the garden is the blue-green ‘Nero di Toscana.’

    Kales are cold hardy and can be planted along with broccoli and cabbage starts. Spacing varies from variety to variety, but on average 12 to 18 inches apart is a good planting range. Leaves can be harvested as soon as plants reach a reasonable size and have ample foliage. Harvest leaves as needed using clean shears.

    Unlike the other cole crops mentioned, kales can survive hot summers with care. Be sure to water them well through the hot months while protecting them from summer pests, namely harlequin bugs and cabbage loopers.

    Pests

    Lots of pests predate on brassicas. Slugs and cabbage loopers (Trichoplusia ni) commonly attack cabbage heads, eating their way through the layers of leaves. Harlequin bugs (Murgantia histrionica) are aggressive sucking insects known to lay waste to summer kales, and cabbage maggots (Delia radicum) will de-root and gut spring plants in no time.

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    Orange, black and white harlequin bugs attacking a head of ‘Packman’ broccoli.

    There are several organic methods to tackling these pests. Sluggo® is a non-toxic, OMRI-Listed pesticide that will quickly take care of slugs. Cabbage loopers are best tackled with a product containing BT (Bacillus thuringiensis); OMRI-Listed Safer® Caterpillar Killer is a great choice. Harlequin beetles are eradicated at all stages with products containing neem oil, a popular organic pesticide, and applying a sprinkling of wood ashes around the base your brassicas will deter cabbage root maggots.

    It also pays to recognize and destroy the pest eggs on sight: Small, pearly cabbage looper eggs are laid singly or in small, open clusters (5-7 eggs) on leaf surfaces; harlequin bug eggs look like black and white bulls-eyed barrels laid in tight clusters (~12 eggs) along leaf undersides; cabbage maggot flies lay eggs near the base of plants, so it can be helpful to sink 3” plastic bottle collars (1” below ground, 2” above) to keep hatched maggots from reaching seedlings.

    With good care, any gardener can grow broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale organically. Once the harvest begins, it will make all the work worth it.