Best-of-the-Best Spring Vegetable Varieties

'Alcosa' savoy cabbage and 'Sugar Snap' peas (trellis)
‘Alcosa’ savoy cabbage and ‘Sugar Snap’ peas (trellis) are two recommended spring vegetable varieties.

Sweet crunchy carrots, crisp snap peas, and tender lettuce—vegetables like these just shout out, “It’s spring!” This is the stuff gardeners clamor for as they peruse new seed catalogs for the first vegetables of the season. But, with hundreds of varieties to choose from, it’s hard to know which are best for taste, yield, and good performance in the vegetable garden. This is where experience helps.
My top ten “favorites” list includes some of the best spring vegetable varieties. For over 25 years I’ve grown hundreds of vegetables—choosing new favorites, losing duds, and keeping superior standbys along the way. My findings are corroborated with university seed trials, seed catalog customer reviews, and award programs, like All-America Selections. If you aren’t sure what varieties to choose from, let this be your go to source great spring vegetables!


Chioggia beets
Candycane ‘Chioggia’ beets

When choosing beets (Beta vulgaris), I go for tasty, early, productive and pretty varieties. Of the reds, ‘Merlin’ (48 days) and ‘Red Ace’ (50 days) are the most reliable and sweet and have performed well for me. Both also received some of the highest ratings for taste, uniformity and performance at a recent University of Kentucky Beet Trial Evaluation. Of the golden beets, ‘Touchstone Gold’ (55 days) is an outstanding performer that produces the sweetest golden beets. For looks and taste, the red and white candycane striped ‘Chioggia’ (55 days) is the heirloom of choice.


Broccoli 'Artwork'
Broccoli ‘Artwork’ (image care of AAS Winners)

Good broccoli (Brassica oleracea) varieties for the garden must be heat tolerant and reliably produce large heads fast. My favorite spring broccoli is ‘Gypsy’ (58 days), which has reliably large heads with small beads and good heat and disease resistance. It produces well and develops lots of sideshoots after the first harvest. Gardeners interested in broccoli with extra-large heads should try the commercial standard ‘Imperial’ (71 days). It take a little longer to develop, but plants are super heat tolerant and high performing. Those seeking thin-stemmed broccoli should choose the 2015 AAS winning, ‘Artwork‘ (55 days). It produces many thin, flavorful, cut-and-come-again broccoli stems over a long season.


'Caraflex' cabbage
Space-saving ‘Caraflex’ cabbage

Small, crisp, sweet heads are what I look for in a spring cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Smaller heads are easier for me to store and finish, and they develop faster, which results in less damaged from cabbage loopers and slugs. The small savoy cabbage ‘Alcosa’ (60 days) is a reliable variety with sweet, deeply savoyed, blue-green leaves. Another small-head cabbage with good performance and taste is the conical ‘Caraflex’ (68 days). It’s heads look like perfect little cones and are perfect for small-space gardens. Gardeners interested in a slightly larger cabbage should choose the mid-sized ‘Tendersweet‘ (71 days). It’s flatted heads are comprised of tightly bunched, thin, sweet leaves.

Early Carrots

'Adelaide' carrots
Sweet, crisp ‘Adelaide’ carrots

There are many carrot (Daucus carota) varieties and some are much better suited for spring sowing than others. The perfect spring carrot is fast-growing, crisp, and very sweet. The best I have grown for flavor and texture is the baby carrot ‘Adelaide‘ (50 days). Its small carrots develop quickly and should be plucked from the ground before weather warms. Of the many new varieties available, ‘Yaya‘ (55-60 days) is a mid-sized “sugar carrot” that’s getting top marks for performance and super sweet flavor. The equally sweet ‘Napoli‘ (58 days) is another mid-sized super sweet carrot that always yields perfect roots.


'Reine des Glaces' lettuce
Crisphead ‘Reine des Glaces’ lettuce

There are many lettuce (Lactuca sativa) types, but my favorites are small, sweet, fast, and crisp. My very favorite is the little gem romaine ‘Tintin‘ (55 days). The little heads are all crisp, sweet, heart and they consistently perform well. Of the crisphead type lettuces, the French heirloom ‘Reine des Glaces‘ (62 days) is flavorful, slow to bolt in the heat, and has loose heads of coarsely serrated edges that look pretty in salads. Salanova® has a high-performing line of designer mini lettuces that are really nice. Of these, try the fast, frilly red Salanova®Red Sweet Crisp (55 days). Its tiny cut-and-come-again heads are wonderful in containers or small gardens.


French 'D'Avignon' radishes
Classic French ‘D’Avignon’ radishes

Most think that radishes (Raphanus sativus) are spicy and make you burp, but good spring radish varieties are mild and sweet if you grow and pick them at the right time. When it comes to classic French breakfast radishes, nothing beats ‘D’Avignon‘ (21-30 days). The early, sweet, red and white radishes should be harvested as soon as they reach 3-4 inches in length for best crisp texture. The new purple radish ‘Bravo‘ (49 days) is reliably sweet, very colorful and slower to bolt, making it good for late-spring culture. Of the white radishes, ‘Icicle‘ (27-35 days) produces long, crisp roots that remain sweet with little bite, even when subjected to heat.

Snap Peas

 'Sugar Ann' snap peas
Reliable ‘Sugar Ann’ snap peas (image care of AAS Winners)

Snap peas (Pisum sativum) are a must in my spring garden, and those that remain stringless, crunchy, and sweet are my favorites. The classic top-notch variety is ‘Super Sugar Snap‘ (60 days). Look no further if you seek a prolific, high-quality snap pea produced on 5-foot vines. Those interested in short-vine peas that bear early should pick ‘Sugar Ann‘ (52 days), which bears lots of sweet snaps on 2-foot vines. The 1984 AAS winner is a classic coveted by gardeners with limited space.
Ensure your spring vegetables have a great start by enriching your garden beds with the best amendments. Mix a liberal amount of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost into your garden soil. Turn it in deeply to better support root crops and encourage vigorous root growth all around.

Reap the Fall Garden Harvest and Make the Beds for Winter

Girl holding a squash
Now is the time to reap the end-of-season harvest. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Bringing in the sheaves,” goes the old hymn, “bringing in the sheaves.  We will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”
Mid to late fall is when gardeners “bring in the sheaves”, not to mention the tomatoes, pumpkins, cool season greens or whatever crops might still be growing in beds, borders, and containers.  As night temperatures dip, it is time to harvest your produce or risk losing it, except in a few cases, like carrots, kale, and collards, where flavor actually improves with a little frost.

Dahlia 'Deerwood Erika'
Once the tops of the dahlias have died back, it is time to dig their tuberous roots and store them indoors through winter. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Collect Seeds and Dig Dahlias

Edible crops are not the only harvest items.  It is also time to collect seeds from heirloom annuals—flowers and vegetables—that you want to save for next year.  (Click here to learn more about saving heirloom seeds.) Sort and store your seeds in labeled paper packets and keep them in a cool dry place through winter.  If you live in a cold-winter climate, that same cool dry place can provide an out-of-season home for tender dahlia tuberous roots and gladiolus corms. When digging dahlias, be sure to clean them gently while keeping the roots and lower stems intact. Be sure not to disturb any of the growing points, or “eyes”, located just below their stems.

Once they have been dug, allow the corms and roots to dry off for a few days, then nestle them into labeled boxes, tubs, or bags full of dry vermiculite, perlite or peat moss. The stored roots should be kept moderately dry, but not bone dry. In winter, check and mist the contents periodically to keep them from completely drying out.
The late-season garden just on the cusp of frost time. (image by Jessie Keith)

Bring in House Plants

It is not exactly harvesting, but fall is also the season to bring tender container specimens, like tropical foliage plants and citrus, into the house. Before bringing them indoors, clean off and inspect both pots and plants carefully for hitchhiking pests. Clean plants from top to bottom with insecticidal soap, if you are concerned that they may harbor unwanted pests. You may also consider repotting incoming houseplants in Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil. (Click here to learn more about cleaning and repotting house plants.)

Clean Up Beds

But even as you bring crops, plant materials, and potted specimens into the house, a good many chores await outside.  Brisk, or at least moderate, fall weather and the beautiful change of leaves make these outdoor tasks a bit easier.

Dill Seed
Seed collecting is an important part of the fall harvest process. (Image by Jessie Keith)

First, decide what you want to do with your ornamental beds and borders. (Click here to learn the best ways to clean your fall landscape!) Some gardeners, especially habitat-conscious ones, leave lots of seedhead-bearing plants standing to provide late fall and early winter rations for birds and wildlife.  If you are one of them, remember to keep pulling up the weeds that sprout around those plants as long as the ground is workable.  This will make life much easier come spring.

If neatness is a priority, pull out spent annuals and cut down stalks of perennial plants.  Compost the remains.  If your spring planting scheme features some unfilled spaces, now is the time to plant bulbs like daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths.  Once the ground has frozen, mulch with several inches of pine straw, clean hay or chopped leaves to protect plants from the effects of winter frost heaves.  Use extra mulch around shallow-rooted ornamentals, like the popular Heuchera and Scabiosa, not to mention anything that is only marginally hardy in your climate zone.  Delicate shrubs, like some roses, can be surrounded with stake-supported “cages” covered with hardware cloth or burlap.  These can be filled with chopped leaves to insulate the plant from cold winter winds.

Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Mix with RESILIENCE packPlant a Cover Crop

Another option for enriching the soil of a productive plot is to sow a fall cover crop of vetch or crimson clover.  This kind of “green manure crop” fixes nitrogen in the soil and can be tilled in or turned under in spring, which allows it to do one final good garden deed as a soil amendment. Cover crops also protect the soil by reducing erosion.

As you do these chores, remember that these are the last acts in the seasonal play that is gardening.  Applying a little extra effort in fall is an investment in next year’s flowers, vegetables, and fruits.

Growing Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, and Kale Organically

Large-headed cabbages with farmhouse in the background
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.

Small 'Caraflex' cabbages
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.

Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend pack
Fafard’s OMRI-Listed Compost Blend is an ideal amendment for cole crop beds.

Growing Brassicas

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:

Growing 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.

Growing 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.

'Alcosa' cabbages
‘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.

Growing 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.

Growing 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.

Brassica 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.

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

New Vegetables for 2015

'Fantastico' grape tomatoes
The compact grape tomato ‘Fantastico’ is a super sweet, high producer that received an AAS award in 2014. (Photo care of AAS Winners)

One of the highlights of the gardening season comes in the depths of winter, with the arrival of new catalogs brimming with enticing new varieties. The following are among the best of the new vegetables for 2015.


A hybrid of two long-time favorites, ‘Jersey Boy’ produces bright red, half-pound tomatoes that “brilliantly join ‘Brandywine’s sublime sweet-sour tang with ‘Rutgers’ classic rich color, shapeliness, yield and performance.” It debuts in the 2015 Burpee catalog, as does ‘Cloudy Day’, which reputedly bears good crops of 4-ounce fruits even in areas too cool for most tomatoes. 2014 All-America Selection Winner ‘Chef‘s Choice Orange’ wins plaudits for its “deep orange, beefsteak shaped fruits” with “firm, sweet, mild flesh.” They ripen relatively early on tall, 5-foot vines. Smaller in all its parts is another 2014 AAS winner, ‘Fantastico’, which yields 10 or more pounds of rich red, grape-sized tomatoes on compact plants suitable for large containers. For lovers of old-time tomatoes, Johnny’s Selected Seed now offers the Heirloom Collection, a seed mix comprising ‘Brandywine’, ‘Striped German’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, ‘Amish Paste’, and other classics.


Royal Snow Pea
The new ‘Royal Snow’ snap pea has pretty purple pods and pinkish flowers. (Photo care of Johnny’s Seeds)

New introductions for 2015 also include many veggies from outside the tomato aisle. Among the most notable are two pea varieties from the hand of Dr. Calvin Lamborn, father of the snap pea. The fleshy, 3-inch, deep purple pods of ‘Royal Snow’ make a tasty and ornamental addition to salads and other dishes (and the pink flowers are pretty too). They are also good lightly cooked. Vines of ‘Petite Snap-Greens’ are harvested when young for tossing into salads or using in stir-fries. Both varieties are available from Johnny’s.


The bush bean ‘Mascotte’ holds its long, slender, tasty pods on stems that rise above the plants’ low, mounded leafage. With its compact habit and long harvest season, it’s perfect for containers (in a fertile, humus-rich growing mix such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix) or narrow garden beds. Its many virtues earned it an AAS award, the first for a bean variety since 1991.

Pumpkins & Squash

Cinderella's Carriage pumpkins with AAS logo
The new ‘Cinderella’s Carriage’ pumpkin is a beautiful deep orange red and very high performing. (Photo care of AAS Winners)

AAS winner ‘Cinderella’s Carriage’ derives its name from the flattened, carriage-ready shape of its large, reddish-orange pumpkins, arrayed on vigorous, powdery-mildew-resistant vines. As many as seven mini-carriages are produced per plant. Similar in shape (but much smaller in size) are the fruits of a new summer squash variety from Burpee, ‘Cupcake’. Their tasty, savory-and-sweet flesh and tender dark green skin suits them for many uses including roasting, grilling, and slicing into stir-fries.


A panoply of peppers debut this year. Two AAS winners head the list: zingy-fleshed ‘Giant Ristra’, whose fire-red, 7-inch-long fruits are perfect for stringing into swags or wreaths; and gold-fruited, sweet-flavored ‘Mama Mia Giallo’, which also offers the virtue of a compact plant habit. Its long, conical, often curved peppers are delicious fresh or roasted. Burpee introduces an 8-inch, pale-green Italian frying pepper (‘Long Tall Sally’); an early-fruiting banana type (‘Blazing Banana’); a large, moderately hot, Ancho-Poblano variety with dark glossy skin (‘Big Boss Man’), and a jumbo, foot-long, sweet red Marconi-style selection (‘Thunderbolt’).

'Giant Ristra' hot peppers with AAS logoCucumbers

And of course there are cucumbers. Compact-growing, early-bearing ‘Pick a Bushel’ is a great fit for cooler regions (as well as container gardens), producing basketfuls of cukes early in the season. Firm, flavorful, and sweet, they can be harvested young for pickles or allowed to mature to slicing size. Matures in 55 days from sowing. Fellow AAS winner ‘Saladmore Bush’ offers many of the same virtues, but bears over a longer season on somewhat longer vines.
Bon appetit!

The Summer Garden Harvest Revs Up

Tomatoes and toaster
Tomatoes are in full swing by late summer. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

As summer starts to wind down, the harvest revs up. August finds many gardeners harvesting daily, as the hard work of spring and early summer is transformed into bountiful crops. Vegetables, fruits, and herbs hover at the peak of ripeness, almost crying out to be picked. Flowers can be dried for winter arrangements and next year’s garden waits in the wings in the form of seeds ready for collection. In the midst of all that abundance, the biggest challenge maybe finding time to capture and process the plentiful harvest while keeping the garden productive well into fall.

Vegetable Harvest

Tomatoes, squashes, eggplant, peppers, beans, cucumbers, broccoli and a host of other summer vegetables require regular harvesting to keep plants productive. Earlier generations of gardeners spent late summer afternoons, evenings and weekends canning or drying the surplus produce. These techniques, plus freezing, are still an option, but so is donating extras to local food pantries or soup kitchens. Non-gardening neighbors may appreciate gifts of fresh produce as well.

Basket of fresh herbs and vegetables
A basket of fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden.

In between harvesting sessions, keep production high by enriching the soil around plants such as cucumber, squash, and broccoli with fertilizers like Fafard Garden Manure Blend or Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost Blend. After mid-August, gardeners in northern areas with short fall growing seasons should remove excessive bushy growth and flowers from tomato plants, so the plants’ energies go into enlarging and ripening existing fruits before frost.

Herb Harvest

Harvest herbs, especially vigorous types, like basil, regularly, to ensure a continuing supply of young leaves. Cut off any flower stalks as soon as they appear, because the flowering process gives herbs a bitter taste. If plants have become leggy or unwieldy, cut them back by about one third, to stimulate bushy new growth.

Harvest herbs in the early morning, after the dew has dried. The easiest way to dry parsley, sage, rosemary, lavender, and other herbs that are shrubby or have a relatively low moisture content, is to hang cut stems upside down in a warm dry place. Basil and other mint family members with higher moisture levels dry best when the leaves are separated from the stems and arranged on trays to dry. All herbs are ready to store when the leaves can be crumbled easily.

Oakleaf Hydrangea
The aging blooms of oakleaf hydrangea turn pink as they dry and are great for cutting.

Fruit Harvest

August is the time to harvest figs, some melon varieties, late-bearing blueberries, everbearing strawberries, plums and even the last of the cane fruits, like raspberries and blackberries. During the harvest period, use netting to protect ripening fruits from hungry birds. After the fruit has been gathered, prune back fruiting canes and check near the soil line for signs of cane borers. Remove and discard any infested wood.

Flower Harvest

Many varieties of flowers, grasses and seed heads are ready to be harvested and preserved for crafts and indoor arrangements. As with herbs, the most popular preservation method is air drying, which works best for flowers like strawflower, yarrow and globe amaranth that contain relatively little moisture. Flowers with higher moisture content can be submerged in a granular desiccant compound, pressed between layers of absorbent paper, or preserved using a glycerin solution.

Harvest flowers just as they open, choosing unblemished specimens that feature graceful forms and growth habits. Strip off all leaves before tying and hanging flowers for air drying. Hydrangeas, especially “peegee” (Hydrangea paniculata), oakleaf (Hydrangea quercifolia), and mophead (Hydrangea macrophylla) types, may also be ready for August harvest. Choose flower panicles that have already begun to dry on the plant, with petal edges that are somewhat crisp to the touch. In the case of white-flowered peegee and oakleaf types, the flower panicles will have turned pink. Many mophead hydrangeas will display greenish petals.

Seed Harvest

Beginning in August, save seeds of heirloom or unusual varieties of edible and ornamental plants. Some seeds can be harvested “dry” by simply removing dried seed pods or receptacles from stems and shaking or blowing out seeds. Others, like tomato seeds, must be gathered “wet” and soaked in water, along with some attached plant material. During the soaking process, seeds tend to collect in the bottom of the soaking vessel, while other plant debris floats to the top. Wet-gathered seeds are then air dried. All seeds should be stored in cool, dry, dark conditions and labeled according to seed type and date of collection.

August marks the beginning of the harvest cycle that brings the growing season full circle. The month’s “to do” list may be long, but for most gardeners, the end result makes the labor worthwhile.

Heat Tolerant Greens for Summer

Swiss chard
Swiss chard is a delicious, heat-tolerant green that’s as pretty as it is tasty. (photo by Jessie Keith)

When temperatures heat up in early summer, the tender lettuces of spring bolt, choosing to obey the biological imperative and produce flowers and seeds instead of toothsome leaves. Gardeners understand the process, but those of us who are salad lovers still crave home-grown greens to complement bold summer veggies like tomatoes and peppers. Fortunately, salad salvation is easy to find in the form of heat-tolerant greens for summer.

Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix pack
Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix is recommended for growing greens.

These leafy garden favorites range from low-growing plants perfect for container culture to statuesque specimens that can serve as anchor plants in ornamental potagers or edible landscapes. Seeds or starter plants for these summer-loving salad species are easy to obtain from garden centers or online vendors. Plant them in high-quality planting media, like Fafard Premium Topsoil or Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix, and you can raise a steady supply of cool greens in even the hottest weather.

Malabar spinach
Malabar spinach is both an attractive vine and edible green.

Swiss Chard

Swiss Chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla): Possibly the most glamorous member of the beet family, spinach-like Swiss chard has been fashionable for the last decade or so because it is as beautiful as it is delicious. Varieties like ‘Orange Chiffon’ or ‘Bright Lights’ dominate the vegetable garden with leaves, stems, veins or ribs that shine in shades of green, red, orange, pink, bronze, purple or silver. Chard is versatile and can be grown in-ground or in large containers. In the heat of summer, harvest the young leaves regularly for salads. Later on, reap mature leaves and stems for cooked dishes.

Malabar Spinach

Malabar Spinach (Basella rubra): Gardeners who crave greens and live with space limitations can harvest tasty leaves all summer by growing Malabar spinach, a twining, climbing plant, native to Africa. Though unrelated to true spinach, the mild-tasting, crinkled leaves thrive in hot weather and can be harvested young for salads. Striking reddish stems and older leaves lend a spinach or chard-like flavor to cooked dishes. Malabar spinach is a perennial, but can be grown as an annual in cold winter climates. Planted in-ground or in containers, the vines should be trained on trellises or pillars for best results.

New Zealand Spinach

New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides): Another good spinach or chard-like green is New Zealand spinach, also a vining plant that can reach up to 2 feet tall when tied to a support. Featuring thick, pointed, green leaves, New Zealand spinach thrives best in a consistently moist environment. Harvest leaves regularly throughout the summer to promote continued production of fresh, tasty foliage. The plants tend to be prolific self seeders, but removal of flower stalks will control this problem.

Tart purslane leaves
These tart purslane leaves have been washed and spun and are ready to eat!

Garden Purslane

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea var. sativa): Step on a crack in midsummer and you may find yourself right on top of one of the most nutritious and heat-tolerant summer greens. Known as “verdolaga” in Spanish, common purslane is a low-growing, plant with mild, lemon-flavored leaves. Cultivated varieties, like ‘Gruner Red’ and ‘Goldberg’ golden purslane, are larger than the wild types, with a somewhat upright habit. The species relatively diminutive nature makes it easy to grow in pots. Pinch back growing tips to stimulate bushy leaf growth and prevent the flower formation that leads to weedy proliferation. Harvest leaves regularly.

Vegetable Amaranth

Vegetable Amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor and other species): Related to the much-loved garden annual, love-lies-bleeding, vegetable amaranth is well known as an heirloom seed or grain producing plant. In many cultures cooks have long harvested the nutritious, edible leaves throughout the growing season for salads, as well as traditional soups and stews. Extremely heat tolerant, amaranth plants quickly grow 2 to 5 feet tall, depending on species and variety, thriving in warm weather with relatively little supplemental water. Amaranth leaves are often decorative enough to hold their own in a mixed-use, ornamental/edible planting scheme and may be marked with green, red, or a combination of the two colors. Terminal shoots should be pinched to promote branching.


Sea Purslane, Mountain Spinach, Orach (Atriplex hortensis): Annual orach is a slightly spicy green that will also add a colorful kick to edible landscapes. The tall stalks top out at 5 to 6 feet tall in summer, bearing pointed leaves that may be green, shades of pink and red, gold or purple. Eaten fresh or cooked, orach leaves grow on plants that are both heat and cold tolerant. Golden-leafed varieties are prized in Europe for fine flavor.

Standard salad greens
Standard salad greens are cool-season plants that won’t stand up to summer heat. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Hot New Vegetables for 2014

Pepper Mama Mia Giallo F1-NotHighRes
The pretty ‘Mama Mia Giallo’ is a new, AAS winning sweet pepper worth growing in 2014. (image care of All-America Selections)

Vegetable gardeners love seed selection time. The seed catalogs are simply brimming with good new things to eat.  New tomatoes and peppers are always at top on my list, with great new melons and squash coming in second, followed by root veggies, brassicas and so on. With seed starting time just around the corner, there’s no better time to get your list together and design those new vegetable beds for 2014.

Blue Gold tomatoes
The beautiful ‘Blue Gold’ tomato is an exciting new slicer from Wild Boar Farms. (Image care of Wild Boar Farms)

Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes! There’s never a shortage of great new cultivars to choose from. So where do you start? I always go for flavor and utility (a paste, a cherry and a slicing tomato or two). Good looks are also welcome but only if the fruit has flavor to match.  One great new selection with all the bells and whistles is ‘Blue Gold’, bred by Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms. The golden-fleshed, medium-sized fruits are flushed with blue-black, and the dense, juicy flesh is said to be sweet with a full tomato flavor. Two other Wild Boar tomatoes I’ll be trying include the super sweet, small fruited ‘Yellow Furry Boar’, which has lovely yellow stripes and fuzzy skin that I know my daughters will love, and the delectable looking ‘Amethyst Cream Cherry’, which bears lots of purple-kissed creamy cherry tomatoes.
Of the new sauce or paste tomatoes, Burpee’s giant ‘SuperSauce’ hybrid is one I cannot resist. Its huge sauce tomatoes are supposed to be bountiful and delicious—just what I need for midsummer sauce canning.

Numex Suave Oranges
‘Numex Suave Orange’ is a milder habanero with fruity flavor and great color. (Image care of The Chile Pepper Institute)

Many new hot and sweet peppers are available this year. Two sweets are on my list: the 2014 AAS winning golden sweet pepper ‘Mama Mia Giallo’, which bears lots of long, golden sweet peppers on compact plants, and the big, blocky, red bell pepper ‘Currier’, which is highly disease resistant. Hot peppers are increasingly popular, and the famed ‘hottest of the hot’ ghost pepper (bhut jolokia) is popping up as a new introduction in practically every seed catalog, but at 20,000 Scoville units it won’t have a place in my child-friendly garden. Instead I plan to grow the relatively mild, orange habanero ‘NUMEX Suave Orange’. This New Mexico State University Chili Pepper Institute introduction is sure to be a winner for hot sauce making.
Romaine lettuce is satisfying to grow, and super crisp dwarf varieties tend to have extra dense, sweet hearts, so I was excited to discover the compact, crispy ‘Dragoon’, offered by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. In addition to good texture and flavor, it boasts resistance to downy mildew and lettuce mosaic virus. Another nice new salad green is arugula ‘Dragon’s Tongue’,  offered by Park Seed, which has spicy, red-veined green leaves.

Tronchuda Biera Kale
‘Tronchuda Biera’ kale is a Portuguese heirloom that stands up to heat. (image care of Renee’s Garden Seeds)

Heart-healthy kale has become more and more popular, and the newer, heat tolerant kale ‘Tronchuda Biera’ is a Portuguese heirloom that gardeners can continue to grow through summer. Offered by Renee’s Garden Seeds, it produces many large, blue-green, paddle-shaped leaves that are said to remain tasty and mild during the summer months when most other kales flag and start to taste bitter.
No garden is complete without root vegetables, and the purple daikon radish ‘KN-Bravo’, also offered by Johnny’s, is a crisp, sweet, eating radish that I can’t wait to harvest. Johnny’s also offers a red, baby beet, aptly named ‘Babybeat’, which looks and sounds delectable for the spring garden.

Pink Porcelain Doll Pupkin pack of seeds
The pinkish ‘Porcelain Doll’ pumpkin is perfect for kids and delicious to eat. (image care of Renee’s Garden Seeds)

We always make space for pumpkins. This year, my girls are very excited about the new pinkish ‘Porcelain Doll’ offered by Renee’s Seeds, among other vendors. Not only are the blocky pumpkins pretty, but their deep orange flesh is said to be great for cooking and pie making. Many of the proceeds also support the Pink Pumpkin Patch Foundation to cure breast cancer.
Sweet, seedless watermelons are always expensive to buy, so I’ll be growing my own this year. The new, small, seedless, red melon ‘Sorbet’ is a Johnny’s exclusive that looks perfect for my family’s needs. Each vine yields two to three ice-box melons with sweet, crisp fruit.
No garden is complete without zucchini or summer squash; the golden, round ‘Summer Ball’ looks cute and tasty. The space-saving, compact bush squash is offered by Harris Seeds and looks ideal for stuffing.
These are but a few of the great new vegetable offerings for 2014. And before planting any of them, I will be sure to amend the garden soil with Fafard Premium Organic Compost. It’s the best way to give vegetables a great start each year.

Yellow Furry Boar Tomato
‘Yellow Furry Boar’ is a fuzzy yellow striped tomato with exceptional sweetness. (image care of Wild Boar Farms)

Amethyst Cream Cherry Tomatoes
The unique ‘Amethyst Cream Cherry’ is a lovely new cherry tomato. (image care of Wild Boar Farms)