Saturday, June 8, 2013

Not Too Late for Veggies

It's not too late to plant a vegetable garden. In fact, many of the most popular backyard vegetables will thrive best now that the weather is warm and settled. This weekend would be a great time to plant sweet potatoes, okra, beans, southern peas, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil. All these crops will be ready to harvest long before the first cool night arrive in September.

Soak okra seeds overnight before planting them out, about three inches apart, in well-drained soil that is not too rich. Excess nitrogen will delay blooms and thus reduce your harvest. When plants are six inches tall, thin them to stand about a foot apart. Okra has achieved new popularity with backyard gardeners in recent years, and breeders have responded with compact varieties, such as 'Baby Bubba,' that produce a good crop on space-saving plants. If you have the room, old standard varieties, such as 'Clemson Spineless,' have proven themselves over the years. Heirloom okras are also available, offering additional possibilities in flavor and plant growth habit. The only drawback to the heirlooms is that many of them retain the spines that cause itching and irritation of unprotected skin. If you are a sensitive person, you should wear long sleeves and garden gloves when working in the okra patch. Also remember that older okra varieties will grow to more than six feet in height.

Beans are among the easiest and most productive backyard crops. Although more work to pick, bush beans are less trouble to grow than pole beans. The latter require a sturdy support at least six feet above ground level, but once the begin bearing they continue all season as long as you keep them picked. Bush beans tend to produce one large crop and then taper off quickly. But you can find a greater variety of bush beans in most seed racks. Among our favorites is Romano, a flat Italian type bean with great flavor. Yellow wax beans, such as 'Goldrush,' are wonderful by themselves with just enough cooking to make them tender. They are also an essential component of that church supper staple, three bean salad. For gardeners with a little experience growing beans, the French filet types, also known as haricots verts, are among the tastiest and tenderest beans out there. A good bush selection is 'Fantastic Filet.' These beans are harvested when they are a bit smaller in diameter than a pencil, and typically are steamed whole and served with a simple dressing of butter or oil and fresh herbs.

Cucurbits will practically leap from the ground now that the weather is hot. Cucumbers for summer salads, gazpacho and pickling will produce a bumper crop about two months after sowing. Zucchini, crookneck and pattypan squashes, if planted around the first of June, typically avoid the onslaught of squash borers that plague earlier sowings. Research has shown that adult squash borer populations are at their lowest point during this time of year, allowing tender new shoots to toughen up before the borers go looking for a place to lay their eggs. For gardeners with plenty of room, now is also a great time to plant watermelon, pumpkin, winter squash, melons, and gourds. All enjoy the hot days and warm nights of Southern summers.

Basil is the quintessential summer herb, and it goes well with all the summer veggies, from beans to zucchini. We start basil several times in spring, spacing our sowings about two weeks apart. Plants are transplanted to the garden as they become large enough. This technique provides for a continuous harvest of the fragrant leaves from late June until frost. Repeated picking leaves basil plants looking "worn out." If appearance is important, try our succession method, and just pull up and compost the plants when they get ratty looking. Basil likes water, but grow it in not-too-fertile soil, perhaps at the corners of the sweet potato or okra patch.

June is also a great month for flowers. One of the best choices for the Tennessee Valley, and indeed most of the eastern United States, is the daylily (Hemerocallis). Available in any color except true blue, daylilies are hardy, easy and reliable perennials. They require at least six hours of sun in order to bloom well, but that is about the only hard and fast rule. Daylilies love water, but are extremely drought tolerant once established. They prefer a moist, well-drained soil enriched with organic matter, but will grow in poor, clay soils as long as they are not waterlogged.

Daylilies are also edible, but they vary somewhat in taste. Choose fragrant selections for the best flavor. Unopened buds can be added to stir fries, and the opened blooms can be battered and fried like squash blossoms. Flower petals can also be chopped and added to salads.

This year, whether you are a novice vegetable gardener or a veteran, consider planting a little more than you think you can use. (Most of us end up with extra produce each season, anyway.) Bring your surplus fresh produce to the UT Gardens Farmers Market on Wednesdays between 4:00 and 7:00 PM. UT staffers and volunteers will be available to collect your excess and distribute it to area charities that feed the hungry.

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