GROW THE BAKER CREEK WAY
Each and every year the garden presents a new set of challenges. Baker Creek is here to help from seed to harvest! Our garden experts have put together a brief growing guide to help you have a succesful season. Lets get Planting!
JUMP TO VARIETY:
About/History/Special Notes--Amaranth was a staple crop of the Ancient Aztecs who cultivated it for sustenance and considered it a sacred crop. Statues made of amaranth seed and honey were worshiped, broken apart and eaten at religious ceremonies. Conquistadors attempting to dismantle Aztec culture banned the cultivation of Amaranth threatening serious punishment to those who broke the rules and grew the sacred seeds. The seeds could not be totally eradicated as the plants continued to grow wild as weeds. Amaranth eventually resurfaced as an easy-to-grow and protein-rich grain. A truly radical seed!
Seed Starting--Amaranth is a warm weather crop that needs soil temperatures of 65-75 degrees to germinate. Surface sow seeds directly in the garden and cover with a very fine layer of soil. Thin seedlings to 18 inches apart.
Growing--Amaranth is easy to grow. The plants grow best in moist, well drained soil, but they will tolerate poor soil quality and drought. Amaranth thrives in full sun and will grow to be 5 to 8 feet tall in ideal conditions. Can be planted in rows or used as a natural trellis for beans or used in place of corn in a three sisters garden.
Pests/Special Considerations--Keep up with weeding around young seedlings. Once plants become well established, they will be able to out compete weeds. Flea beetles can be a nuisance to amaranth when seedlings are young and tender; try covering seedlings with floating row cover until plants have reached 2 feet tall and can better handle insect damage. Diatomaceous Earth or Kaolin clay can also be applied for extreme flea beetle infestations.
Harvest--The young leaves make an excellent spinach substitute and are highly nutritious; pick individual leaves off to allow the plant to continue to grow. The seeds are high in protein and delicious and can be stored for later use. It is time to harvest when you can gently shake seeds off of the flower stalk. You may notice small birds starting to harvest your seeds; this is a good indicator that it is time! Cut entire flower stalk down when plants have matured; place in a large bag and shake vigorously to remove seeds. You can also place a colander on top of a bowl and massage the flower heads until the seeds drop; gently shake the seeds back and forth while blowing the light-weight plant pieces away from you. This leaves only the seeds and removes all of the unwanted plant pieces.
Seed Saving-Amaranth is pollinated by the wind; different varieties should be 1000 feet away from other types in order to avoid cross pollination. Also, keep related plants like celosia, cockscomb, lambsquarter and pigweed away to avoid cross pollination. Amaranth seeds remain viable 5-7 years after harvest.
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About/History/Special Notes--Asparagus is a perennial hailing from Europe. Establish a good asparagus bed and you can harvest tasty shoots every spring for up to 20 years without replanting! Asparagus can be grown almost anywhere but really thrives in the North, especially when buried under a cozy blanket of snow in winter. It was beloved by the ancient Romans who would transport a large harvest to the Alps delivered by fast chariots to store until the feast of Epicurious that took place in the winter when the spears were out of season.
Seed Starting--While asparagus can be grown from crowns (bare roots) for a quicker harvest, starting from seeds is much more economical.You can harvest asparagus three years after sowing seeds. Start seeds 2-3 months in a warm, sunny location before the last frost of the spring. Sow seeds ½ inch deep and 2 inches apart in loose, well-drained soil.
Growing--Prepare a loose, well-drained bed in full sun to transplant seedlings into once the last frost of the season has passed. Place seedlings 6 inches apart in the bed. Be sure to keep weeds under control and keep the bed well watered. Transplant seedlings to their final bed in the early Fall or following Spring. The final bed should be well worked, amended with plenty of good compost and located in full sun. Plants should be set 2-3 feet apart and 2-3 inches deep. Mulch around plants and allow to grow undisturbed for 2 years in order to let plants become established. Keep well watered but not soaked.
Harvest--Though it can be tempting, avoid harvesting asparagus until plants are 3 years old. When third year’s shoots emerge in the spring, cut with a sharp knife when shoots are below 10 inches tall (any taller and they lose quality).
Pests/Special Considerations--To avoid rot and fungal issues, plant in good quality soil that is well drained, and try to orient your row or bed in the direction of the prevailing wind to keep foliage dry.
Seed Saving--When plants go to seed, collect the red berries and squeeze to extract seeds. Be sure not to ingest the seeds as they are poisonous! Squeeze seeds out of berries into a bowl and gently rinse clean with water. Air dry and place seeds in the refrigerator for winter to cold stratify the seeds. They can be planted indoors in early spring or outdoors after frost has passed.
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Artichoke & Cardoon
About//History/Special Notes--Originally from the Mediterranean region. Artichokes are perennials that do not typically survive winters north of Zone 7 without some special care, and take two seasons before producing a harvest. However, there are growing techniques that allow you to trick the artichoke into flowering in its first season! These tender, delicious and large thistle flowers can be grown outside of California.
Seed Starting--To get a crop of artichokes in one year, start seeds indoors in pots 2-3 months before last frost date in spring. Move the pots outdoors when four leaves have developed. When temperatures are occasionally freezing, protect plants if temps fall below 29 degrees. Two to four weeks of exposure to cool temps “vernalizes” young seedlings, preparing them to bloom later in the season after plants have grown large. Cardoon may also be started early indoors, but vernalizing isn’t necessary.
Growing--Both artichokes and cardoons are best grown in very rich soil in full sun. They need excellent drainage but ample moisture. They may benefit from some mid-afternoon shade in hot-summer areas.
Harvest--Mature plants produce many buds over a long season. Simply cut off each bud, with an inch of stem, when it has reached its full size but before the “scales” begin to separate, which signals that the bud is about to bloom. After harvest you can cut the plant down to the ground and mulch it. Mulching can allow artichokes to act as a perennial in zones 6 or 5 where there are usually not sustained periods of deep freezes.
Pests/Special Considerations--Artichokes require frequent irrigation in order to produce large, tender heads. At the same time, make sure that the soil drains well as the plants do not like waterlogged soil and will have a tendency to rot in these conditions. Mulching can help keep moisture in and reduce the rate at which you need to water. Common pests with artichokes include armyworms and aphids.
Seed Saving--Artichokes and cardoons produce big thistle flowers that once open, display an electric purple colored flower. In order to collect seed, let the flower dry on the stalk. If you have harsh winters, harvest it partially dry and continue drying the flower inside. Once dry, you will pull out what were the purple stamens. Below the stamens you will find dandelion-like seed heads with a seed at the bottom. In order to select the largest seeds, you may need to dig down further into the center of the flower. Using scissors or tweezers can help extract the seeds. Once the seeds are extracted from the dry flower head, finish air drying them and then store them in a cool dry place for the winter.
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About/History/Special Notes--It is no wonder we have considered this a staple crop for thousands of years; beans are high in protein and inexpensive to produce. Ancient Native Americans grew beans along with corn and squash in their famous 3 sisters gardens. Other bean relatives have been cultivated all around the world for thousands of years. Dry beans have been found in ancient Egyptian and Aztec tombs. Ancient Asian cultures have cultivated soybeans for over 4,000 years.
Seed Starting--Beans are very easy to germinate. Keep in mind that they must have warm weather in order to germinate; cool weather will cause beans to rot in the soil. Direct seed or sow indoors; soil must be above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Sow seeds 1 inch deep and 2-4 inches apart. Keep seedlings moist but not soaked.
Bush green beans do not need support and should be thinned to 4 inches apart. Continuously pick to keep plants productive.
Pole green beans will need support. Try growing them up a fence or constructing a trellis. Thin pole beans to 6 inches apart.
Dry beans are grown just like green beans. They can be harvested when immature and used like green beans or left on the vine to dry.
Long beans are the best choice for hot climates; they can handle extreme heat. Most varieties need a trellis and should be harvested when beans reach 12-18 inches long.
Soy beans are grown just like green beans and can be harvested when pods reach 2-3 inches long or have completely dried. Important note: Soybeans should not be eaten raw! Dried soybeans mature all at once.
Fava Beans are different from most other beans because they prefer cool temperatures; a long, cool season is best. Sow fava beans as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. They do not like temperatures over 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pests/Special Considerations--Use drip irrigation to keep leaves dry and disease free. The Mexican Bean Beetle can be a difficult insect pest. Apply organic insecticidal soap to the undersides of leaves to control the eggs.
Harvest--Continually harvest fresh eating beans to keep plants productive. Dry beans should be left on the plant until frost causes all of the leaves to fall off of the plant; pull entire plant and shake well in a large bag to release the beans from their pods.
Seed Saving--Perhaps the best seed saving project for beginners, beans do not easily cross pollinate and can be grown close to one another. Save seeds from the best looking, best tasting, and most vigorous beans. Store in a cool, dry place for the winter. A glass jar in the refrigerator works well.
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About/History/Special Notes--Native to the Mediterranean, beets were once celebrated by the ancient Greeks as a sacred crop and a powerful aphrodisiac. In modern history the noble beet has been an unfortunate victim of the industrialization of our food system. Most Americans’ only experience eating a beet is out of a can--the worst possible preparation of this complex and nutritious root! Generations of youngsters forced to eat soggy canned beets at the behest of their parents have tarnished beets’ reputation. Fortunately, beets are finally being rediscovered as a nutritional powerhouse and culinary delight as they are prepared properly and celebrated by home cooks, foodies and chefs alike.
Seed Starting-Direct sow beets 3-4 weeks before last frost and again 2 weeks later. Plant seeds a ½ inch beneath the soil and thin to 4-6 inches apart. Each individual beet seed is, in fact, a cluster of several seeds; thinning will be necessary. Sow again 10-12 weeks before the first fall frost date.
Growing--It is best to amend the planting site with well rotted compost, to work the soil deeply, and to remove rocks. Beets grow well in mild weather and can handle frost much better than excessive heat.
Pests/Special Considerations--Cutworms can be a pest of beets, chomping the plants at the soil level; sprinkle wood ash around plants to control cutworms. Keep plants evenly watered to avoid cracked roots.
Harvest--Excellent storage crop; pull beets from the soil after a light frost when roots are larger than a golf ball. Store in a cardboard box lined with sawdust in the basement or other cool, dark, dry location.
Seed Saving--Beets are biennial, which means they don’t flower until the second year of growth. Grow beets like normal in the first year. When frost approaches, you can either try to overwinter them in the ground with floating row cover (a bit risky if you live in the North) or you can dig the choicest plant up before freeze and store indoors in a cool, dry, dark location until spring. Replant after last spring frost and allow to flower. Beets are wind pollinated and will easily cross with other beet varieties that are flowering and with swiss chards (luckily they very rarely flower without assistance). Properly stored seeds should remain viable for 5 years.
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History-Romans grew the ancient precursor to Brussels sprouts as far back as the 1200s. It was in Belgium that the plant was developed into the plant that we recognize today. The delicate and delicious sprouts were introduced to the U.S. in the 18th century by the French. An antiquated superstition warned that evil spirits lurked between the leaves of Brussels sprouts and that one had to cut an X at the base of each sprout to release the spirits before eating.
Growing--Brussels sprouts love cool weather and can tolerate frost, but they cannot handle excessive heat. It is best to keep this in mind as you plan your crop. For regions with hot summers and mild winters, they perform well when grown over the winter. For those with harsh winters, try planting very early in spring and again for a fall harvest. Start seeds indoors several weeks before the last frost date and set plants out after chance of hard frost has passed. Brussels struggle once the temperature surpasses 75 degrees. Do your best to harvest before summer’s heat intensifies and ruins the quality of the sprouts. At the Baker Creek trial gardens in Southern Missouri, we take steps to start Brussels sprouts super early in late winter to avoid the spring heat. Starting this early means that we have to increase our pot size indoors before final transplant outside. Transplant into the garden at 2 foot spacing, optimally in the coolest part of the garden. Keep plants well watered and well weeded, being careful not to disturb the shallow roots. Apply a thick layer of mulch around plants to keep the soil moist and cool. Pull lower yellowing leaves off of plants to promote large sprouts. For fall harvest plant seeds mid- to late summer in a shade house or other cool, protected location. Transplant in late summer when the extreme heat has died down. The tastiest Brussels sprouts are the ones harvested just after a touch of frost.
Pests/Special Considerations--Cabbage worms are a major pest of the cabbage family; a row cover will protect plants. You can also apply BTK (Bacillius Thurengiensis var. Kurstaki) a naturally occurring bacterium that is organic-approved every 1-2 weeks. Purchase beneficial wasps and release in the garden to keep the population down. Interplant thyme with your plants; cabbage worms hate the smell!
Seed Saving--Brussels are biennial, which means that they will not flower until their second year of growth. They will readily cross with other brassica relatives that are flowering at the same time. It is best to isolate Brussels from other relatives by 1 mile, or use a bagging technique. Brussels will die in temperatures below 20 degrees F. Mild-winter gardeners can mulch or protect with row cover to keep plants alive over winter. Northerners will need to dig plants up and place in buckets with soil covering the roots in a cool, dry location over winter. Replant next spring and allow to flower. When seed pods are fully dried, pick pods and place in a cloth bag. You will need to step on or hammer the seeds free from their stubborn pods. Separate seeds from chaff (leaf, pod and stem trash) and store in glass jars in the refrigerator
Harvesting--Harvest continually starting from the bottom moving towards the top of the stalk. Sprouts are best once they have been exposed to a light frost.
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About/History/Special Notes--A cabbage relative grown for its unopened flower buds, broccoli is a Mediterranean native that thrives in cool (not cold) weather. Prior to the turn of the century, purple broccoli was more common than green.
History--Descended from wild cabbage native to the Mediterranean coast, broccoli was bred by the ancient Etruscans. Although Jefferson grew it at Monticello, broccoli would not become commercially grown in the U.S. until the 1920s.
Seed Starting--Sow seeds indoors about 4-6 weeks before last frost. Sow seeds ½ inch deep in trays filled with good quality potting mix. Germinate at about 75 degrees; seeds will germinate in 8-10 days. You can also direct seed 2-3 weeks before last frost.
Growing--Remember that broccoli does not like extreme heat or cold; plants grow best between 65 and 80 degrees. Transplant out into garden or thin to 1-2 feet apart. Avoid deeply cultivating near plants as they have shallow roots; try instead a thick layer of mulch to retain moisture and suppress weeds. Keep plants moist, as plants do not tolerate drought. You can plant a fall crop of broccoli in most regions of the U.S. Sow 80-100 days before first fall frost date.
Pests/Special Considerations--Broccoli, like other cabbage relatives, is very susceptible to cabbage worm, cabbage loopers and diamondback moths. To keep the pests at bay, you can apply BTK (Bacillius Thurengiensis var. Kurstaki) a naturally occurring bacteria that is organic-approved every 1-2 weeks. Purchase beneficial wasps and release in the garden to keep the population down. Interplant thyme with your plants; cabbage worms hate the smell!
Harvesting--When heads are firm and 3-4 inches across, use a sharp knife to cut stalks. Cut main stalk and leave the plant intact to encourage the growth of side shoots (smaller heads that will grow after the main stalk has been harvested).
Seed Saving- Broccoli is considered a more challenging crop for seed saving, not to say that it can’t be successfully done by beginners. Broccoli is a biennial and will not flower until its second year of growth. For those with mild winters, it is easy to keep broccoli alive over winter. Northerners will need to get creative; established broccoli is not tolerant of tempatures below 20 degrees.
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About/History/Special Notes--The carrots’ origin of domestication is in central Asia. The crop was first cultivated for its storage root in Afghanistan about 1,100 years ago. The first domesticated carrots were white, forked and hairy. Many years of breeding and refining have brought us to the diversity of colors, shapes and flavors that we enjoy today.
Seed Starting--Sow spring seeds 3 weeks before last expected frost and every 2 weeks after that. Carrots that mature during the heat of summer will have a bitter taste. Fall carrots should be sowed 75 days before first hard frost is expected. For those northern gardeners, try sowing seeds 3-4 weeks before first frost and cover with a floating row cover or heavy straw mulch; carrots will stay in suspended animation for the winter months. When spring breaks, remove row cover or mulch and enjoy the earliest and sweetest carrot harvest possible. It can be a gamble, but the rewards can outweigh the risk! Keep germinating seeds consistently moist, as they are prone to drying out. One trick is to cover rows with a wooden board after watering; just be sure to remove the board as soon as the seedlings emerge. Sow carrots densely, you can come back and thin plants to about 1-2 inch spacing once they have reached about 3 inches tall.
Growing--Carrots require a light and fluffy soil. Prior to planting, it is best to double dig the carrot bed and amend with well-composted manure. Pick out any rocks that would cause your carrots to become forked. For heavy soils, try growing round or short varieties such as Parisienne or Oxheart. Try inter-planting carrots with spring radishes; the radishes will be pulled out just about the time that carrots will need to be thinned, giving you twice the harvest that you would get in a carrots-only bed!
Pests/Special Considerations--A main consideration with carrots can be the weeds! Doing a stale bed method before planting your carrots can help with weeds. To do this, water your carrot bed before seeding; let the weeds come up; pull weeds or use a flamer. Black tarps can also be used over winter to kill the first weed emergence. Then seed your carrots, water and flame again or weed by hand again before seedlings emerge.
Harvesting/Storage--Due to their impressive frost tolerance, you have a few very convenient harvesting and storing options for carrots. Harvest carrots after a few light frosts but before a deep freeze. The roots can be stored in a root cellar or between layers of damp sawdust in a cardboard box. Alternatively, roots can be left in the ground with heavy mulch to protect from rotting and can be pulled throughout winter whenever needed. Carrots will store for months in a root cellar.
Seed Saving--Carrots are biennials; they will flower in their second season of growth. Carrots are insect pollinated and will need to be isolated from other varieties, including wild relatives such as Queen Anne’s Lace, by about a mile to ensure pure seed. Leave just a few carrots in ground over winter (each plant produces a lot of seed); the next season, they will produce an umbel of flowers. Leave them on the plant in the ground until they are completely dry; the seeds will easily shake from the plants and can be stored for up to 3 years in refrigeration.
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About/History/Special Notes--A refined cabbage relative, cauliflower is often confused with broccoli; indeed they are closely related. But where broccoli is harvested when the flower buds are distinctly developed but unopened, cauliflower is harvested when the buds have not yet developed. The undifferentiated, grainy mass is referred to as “curds.” Cauliflower comes in a range of colors from white to yellow, to purple and green. Cauliflower has been mentioned all the way back to the 6th century B.C. It has long been considered a delicacy because of its superb flavor and high price.
Seed Starting--Sow seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost. For multiple successions sow once a month until July, or grow varieties that mature at different times. In milder climates cauliflower can be sown in late June/early July, and be transplanted in August. With at least 4-6 sets of leaves, cauliflower can overwinter in a mild climate and set heads in early spring March/April.
Growing--Cauliflower is grown much the same as broccoli, with the same spacing, climatic and nutrient requirements. Some varieties splay their leaves more than others. When the white head is exposed for long periods before being harvested, the head can be damaged by the sun or extreme rain. One way to secure a tight, white cauliflower head is to “blanch” the heads by loosely tying the leaves up above the curds to block sunlight. Exposure to sunlight will cause the heads to turn green and develop a strong, bitter flavor. Any major temperature swing can cause curds to become loose or leaves to sprout through the curd. The best way to ensure perfect heads is to succession plant in early spring and again in mid-summer for a fall harvest.
Pests/Special Considerations--Cauliflower, like other brassica crops, can experience cabbage worm damage that can be managed the same way as with the other brassicas. Another common cauliflower problem is bacterial soft rot. This appears on the curd in the form of what looks like a wet spot or darkened area, eventually the spot gets darker and soft, eventually rotting. This bacteria can be spread through tools and water irrigation. It is common in warm, moist conditions. There are cultural practices, such as crop rotation or harvesting when it is dry, that can help mitigate the bacterial soft rot.
Harvesting/preserving--Depending on your region, curds are typically cut at 6-8 inches across. Some climates, like the Northwest, will allow cauliflower to get to be 1.5 feet across before cutting! Unlike broccoli, they will not grow side shoots after cutting the main flower stem. Cauliflower can be blanched and frozen for winter use, or it can be pickled; it does not have a long shelf when kept fresh.
Saving Seeds--Isolation distances and seed shelf life are the same as broccoli. You will need to select your best plants to keep for seed. Leave cauliflower in the ground over winter, with heavy mulch and a row cover in harsh winter areas. In the second season, the curd will shoot out flowers. Collect and store seeds exactly like you would broccoli.
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Celery & Celeriac
About/History/Special Notes--Woven garlands of celery were found in Egyptian tombs. Celery was considered a holy plant during classical times in Greece. Celery stalks were used in ancient Ayurvedic medicine to treat colds and flu. Celeriac is a European favorite that is especially loved by the French. These two crops are both the same species and originated in the Mediterranean basin. Celery was selected for succulent stalks, while celeriac was selected for a large sweet root. Celery and celeriac are related to carrots and parsnips.
Seed Starting--Celery and Celeriac are long-season crops, needing to be sown late winter/early spring and harvested in the fall. Sow celery and celeriac seeds 10-12 weeks before the last frost. Celery likes moisture from sprout to harvest. Keeping consistent moisture throughout the growing cycle will aid in achieving upright, large stalks. Celeriac can handle extreme temperatures a little better and can survive some mild frosts.
Growing--Before planting celery, it is highly recommended to add plenty of well-composted manure to the bed. Some growers will dig a trench in celery rows to retain moisture during times of drought. When stalks begin to splay out, loosely tie them together to keep upright and off the ground. Plant celery 2 feet apart. Celeriac can be planted closer together, about 8-12 inches apart. Keep celeriac moist and plant in a rich bed heavy with organic matter for good root growth. In zones 7 and higher, celeriac can be planted in summer for a winter and spring harvest.
Harvest/Storage--If you cut about 1-2 inches above the base of celery, new stalks will eventually grow in its place. Celery can be chopped and stored in freezer bags for future use. Celeriac should be pulled after a light frost to allow the root to sweeten up. Celeriac can also be stored in a root cellar, uncleaned, for a few months.
Seed Saving--Celery and celeriac are insect-pollinated and should be isolated by 1 mile from each other to ensure seed purity. Both plants are biennial and must either be dug and stored or be left in the ground to overwinter and flower the following spring. Harvest the flowers when they have completely dried on the plant. Celery and celeriac seeds will last for 5 years or more when stored properly.
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About/History/Special Notes--Corn played a major role in Ancient Native American society. About 80 million acres of corn are planted in the U.S. each year. Much of the corn planted in the U.S. is genetically modified; that’s why we have all of our corn seed tested to ensure that it has not been contaminated by genetically modified corn pollen. Countless varieties of heirloom corn exist; many more have been been lost over the years. Corn is believed to have been first domesticated in Mexico. Ancient Native Americans from South America to Canada depended on corn as an important food source and as a material to make essentials like sleeping mats and baskets.
Seed Starting--Corn cannot tolerate cold weather; plant corn directly in the ground after all chance of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to at least 50 degrees. Do not transplant corn; the delicate roots cannot handle it.
Growing--Corn is a heavy feeder; plants need a rich soil with plenty of organic matter. Add well rotted compost to the corn bed before planting. Plant in blocks as opposed to rows for better pollination. Because corn matures all at once, succession plant every other week for 6 weeks to ensure a steady supply. Each plant needs 1 square foot of space. Fertilize with a balanced organic 10-10-10 at one cup per ten feet. Fertilize just before planting and again 6 weeks later. Mulch plants to retain moisture and suppress weeds.
Pests/Special Considerations--Areas with very high wind may need to stake stalks or provide a windbreak to avoid plants blowing over. Corn earworm is a major pest of corn. Simply apply mineral oil to the silks once they have turned brown to suffocate the worm. European corn borer can be controlled with Bt. Raccoons are one of the biggest pests. Try leaving a portable radio in the garden playing at night to ward them off. You can also interplant trailing beans to run along the bottom of the plants, as it is believed that raccoons don’t like to get tangled in the vines.
Harvest--Sweet corn is approaching maturity when silks have dried and turned brown. To judge ripeness, open husk and pop a kernel--the juice should be milky. If the juice is clear, it’s not ready. Dent corn is ready when the husks have dried and turned brown; the kernels should be hard.
Seed Saving--Corn is wind pollinated and will easily cross with other varieties (including GMO corn!). You will need at least 1 mile of isolation to avoid cross pollination. You can also use staggered timing or caging techniques. Hand pick ears when fully dried on stalk. Seeds keep best if left on the ear; just remove at planting time. Sweet corn seeds will remain viable for 2 years; dent corn will last up to 5 when stored properly.
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About/History--Cowpeas are part of the legume family. They are super drought tolerant, and like other legumes, have the ability to add nitrogen to the soil. A staple in Southern cooking, they are also considered a life saving crop in Africa, being a dependable source of plant protein. “A splendid green forage or hay crop. Unexcelled for silage and fine for plowing under.” Isabell’s Seeds by S.M Isabell & Co. 1935 on the virtues of growing cowpeas. Native to Western Africa, cowpeas are believed to have been brought to America in the holds of slave ships. George Washington grew cowpeas as a forage crop. Confederate soldiers carried the clay cowpea in their provision sacks as a nonperishable food; some Civil War re-enactors will grow the clay variety for historical accuracy in their field provisions.
Seed Starting--Cowpeas love heat and cannot tolerate cold. Direct sow seeds when soil has warmed to at least 65 degrees. Seeds should be thinned to 4-6 inches apart.
Growing--Cowpeas are famous for thriving in poor conditions. They can tolerate excessive heat, drought, poor soil and humidity; they just don’t like cool weather. Plants can tolerate a bit of shade. Trellis plants to keep them neat and tidy, as they have a tendency to get out of control. Overhead watering can spread disease; it’s much better to use drip irrigation or soaker hoses.
Pests/Special Considerations--Cowpeas do not typically suffer from pests and diseases. Aphids can be controlled with a strong blast of water on the affected area or an application of neem oil.
Harvest--Pencil thin, immature pods can be harvested for fresh eating. Harvest dry beans when pods have completely dried and beans are hard. In case of a wet fall, cut down plants and hang upside down indoors to ensure even drying.
Seed Saving--Beans are self-pollinating and seldom have issues with cross-pollinating. You may grow different varieties for seed saving in the same small garden with very little chance of contamination. Simply allow cowpea pods to dry completely on the plants; shell the peas and store in an airtight container where they will remain viable for up to 4 years.
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History--Botanists believe that cucumbers are descended from a wild cucurbit native to the Himalayas. Cucumbers are believed to have been cultivated in Asia since about 1000 BC. Cleopatra is said to have credited her beauty to a steady diet of pickled cucumbers.
Seed Starting--Direct seed cucumbers when soil has warmed to at least 65 degrees, or 2 weeks after the last spring frost. Create one-foot mounds about 2.5 feet apart; plant 5 seeds in each mound. Once plants are 3-4 inches tall, thin to one in each mound, leaving the strongest plant. For an early crop start indoors 1 week before last frost date; transplant out when plants are 3 weeks old. Cucumbers that remain in pots longer than 3 weeks become stunted and will grow slowly!
Growing--The 1856 Comstock Ferre & Co farmers almanac recommends hog manure and wood ash as the perfect amendments to the cucumber bed. Trellis cukes to save space and make weeding, mulching and harvesting easier. Cucumbers will peak quickly and die off. It is best to succession plant cucumbers every 2 weeks until late summer. Radishes are a great companion plant for cucumbers. A layer of mulch will retain moisture and suppress weeds.
Pests/Special Considerations--Cucumbers produce both male and female flowers, but only female flowers produce fruit. At the beginning of the flowering stage, mostly male flowers will appear; you will have to be patient until the females start to flower and fruit. Rain or cold temperatures can inhibit pollination, which is necessary for fruiting. Pollination will resume when weather improves. Cucumber beetle is a pest common throughout the U.S. Often the beetles will chew small cucumber seedlings to the ground or damage the vines. Covering plants with a floating row cover when young will help, although you need to remove the cover when pollination time arrives. Interplant tansy and nasturtiums to repel the pests.
Harvest--Cucumbers for pickling should be harvested when small and spiny for crunchier pickles. Slicing cucumbers should be picked when smooth, before skin has turned yellow. Waiting too long will result in seedy cucumbers.
Seed Saving--It is very simple to save cucumber seeds. They are annual, so they will set fruit and produce seed in the first season. Cucumbers rely upon insects to pollinate their flowers; for this reason it is best to isolate each variety by 1⁄2 to 1 mile from other varieties to avoid cross pollination. For those gardeners in more densely populated areas with neighboring cucumbers threatening to cross pollinate, caging can help to ensure pure seed, although it will require hand pollination. Another reason why cucumbers are considered easy to save seed is that there are both male and female flowers on each plant. They can pollinate one another without greatly degrading the vigor of the seed stock. (Many other plants need to pollinate flowers from a separate plant). Just a few plants will produce lots of healthy seeds. Properly saved seeds should store for up to 10 years
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History--Eggplants come in so many shapes, colors and sizes, to never venture past the common grocery store variety while so many marvelous types remain undiscovered is truly a crime. It has been cultivated in Asia for over 2,500 years. The eggplant is believed to have originated in Sri Lanka and India. When first introduced to Europe, eggplants were believed to cause insanity and leprosy. They were mainly grown as an ornamental plant until it was discovered that they were completely safe to eat.
Seed Starting--Eggplant cannot tolerant cool temperatures, especially when germinating. Start seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before last frost in spring. It is highly recommended to use an horticultural heat mat or to place the seedling tray on your refrigerator. Soil should be warmed to 75-89 degrees to ensure consistent germination.
Growing--Transplant outdoors after all chance of frost has passed and soil has warmed to at least 65 degrees. Space plants 2.5 feet apart; they do not need staking. Keep well watered but not soaked, and mulch around plants to suppress weeds and retain moisture.
Pests/Special Considerations--Flea beetles are a common pest of eggplant. Thick mulch will help to bury the insects. A floating row cover over young seedlings will protect plants when they are most vulnerable; just be sure to uncover when plants are flowering for pollination. Aphids can be controlled with row cover as well, or neem oil for serious infestations.
Harvesting--Fruits are mature when just slightly soft; immature fruits will feel rock hard. Continually harvest to keep plants productive.
Seed Saving--Eggplants are not insect pollinated. Therefore, it is not necessary to isolate the plants very far to ensure pure seed; for home gardeners an isolation distance of at least 40 feet is sufficient for seed saving. Allow fruit to become over ripe; fruits will become slightly wrinkled and soft. Properly stored eggplant seeds will remain viable for up to 4 years.
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Endive and Escarole
History--Endive and Escarole are the sophisticated grandchildren of the wild chicory plant. Both greens are delightfully bitter and mellow, a perfect compliment to sweet fruits in salad. Popular cool weather greens in Europe, endive and escarole have long been considered gourmet greens. With the nutritional benefits of bitter greens being discovered by the public, they will no doubt find a place in home gardens and market farms across the globe. Endive was accidentally discovered by a Belgian farmer around 1830. At the time chicory root was a popular substitute for coffee; roots were dug and stored in root cellars over winter. The farmer forgot about his stored roots. When he returned to check on them, they had sprouted delicate white leaves in a conical tight shape. By the 1840s botanists had developed a commercial cultivation process, and endive became an overnight gourmet sensation in Belgium and France. Escarole is extremely popular in Italian cuisine. The frilly layers range from dark green to light yellow hearts, and the flavor becomes milder as the color lightens.
Seed Starting--Direct sow seeds and thin seedlings 6-12 inches. Conversely, you can start seedlings indoors to protect them from summer’s intense heat and then set transplants (careful not to let them become root bound) out in the garden when the heat has subsided.
Growing--These greens thrive in cool weather and suffer in intense heat; for that reason they are usually sown in mid-to late summer for a fall harvest. They can be grown as winter crops in mild climates. They prefer rich, well drained soil and they require good moisture. Blanching is optional if you do not want the greens to take a very bitter flavor. Blanching is easy. Wait until 3 weeks from harvest date; then tie the outer leaves together at the top with twine. Be sure to avoid rot by tying leaves when they are completely dry.
Pests/Special Considerations--Fungus can be a problem when warm weather and excessive moisture are a factor. To control rot, avoid overwatering or watering close to harvest time. Use drip irrigation and do not plant endive and escarole in the same garden location year after year. If flea beetles are a pest in your area, cover small plants with a floating row cover to protect from damage.
Seed Saving--You will need to over-winter endive and escarole, as they are biennial and will take 2 seasons to flower and produce seed. You may find that your plants bolt in the first season. Do not save these seeds; wait for the next season’s flowers. Cut down flower stalk when seed pods begin to dry. Place in a bag and crush the pods to remove the seeds. The minimum isolation distance for endive and escarole varieties is 10-15 feet. Endive and escarole are related; however, they will not readily cross with each other and can be grown side by side. They are self pollinating; therefore the chance of cross pollination is low. Seeds will remain viable in refrigeration for up to 5 years.
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Useful, decorative, and at times delicious, gourds are a thick-skinned relative of cucumbers and pumpkins. The productive vines have a wild and untamed quality to them that makes a really fantastic statement in the garden. Try growing long gourd vines up a trellis or pergola--unusual and beautiful! The gourd classification can be tricky at times, with some other cucurbit relatives being mistaken. True gourds have large seeds and white flowers that bloom at night.
History--Before the development of metals and plastics, gourds were an integral part of primitive society, serving as bowls, bottles, musical instruments, tribal garb and so much more. Ancient Native American tribes used bottle gourd birdhouses to attract purple martins to eat bugs that were considered agricultural pests.
Seed Starting--In longer season areas, you can sow seeds directly in the garden once soil has warmed to about 70 degrees. Gourds can have spotty germination; be sure to plant seeds in good soil with plenty of organic matter. Be patient; seeds can sometimes take up to three weeks to germinate! Growers with a shorter growing season should start seeds indoors three weeks before last frost.
Growing--Set plants out into good well drained soil after frost has passed. Set plants 24 inches apart; they will climb and trail, so be prepared for a garden takeover! Keep plants well watered. Gourds are grown much like squash, and thanks to their tough skin, they are often better at fighting off pests than other cucurbits. A thick layer of mulch is absolutely crucial; the vines will be very difficult to keep weeded once they start trailing. Mulch will help to keep weeds down and retain moisture.
Pests/Special Considerations--Although they are better at fending off pests than other squash relatives, gourds can be susceptible to a virus called cucumber mosaic virus spread by cucumber beetle damage. To avoid the virus, keep cucumber beetles off of your plants. Kaolin Clay is an organic method for deterring cucumber beetles. Beneficials like ladybugs and beneficial nematodes will also help to keep the pests at bay.
Seed Saving--Gourds are easily cross pollinated, so it is advisable to isolate different seed saving varieties up to 1⁄2 mile to ensure seed purity. A minimum of 15 plants of each variety should be grown to avoid inbreeding issues. Harvest fruits before they have dried out, when they still are green in color but have developed a tough skin. Scoop seeds to dry; they will remain viable for about 4 years when stored properly in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
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Baker Creek offers a miscellany of salad greens. Each is unique; some are warm-growers while others revel in very cool weather. What they all have in common is their diversity of flavors and textures.
History--One of our favorite wild greens, arugula, has been grown as an edible since ancient Roman times and was mentioned by such classical authors as Virgil. Arugula was listed in a decree by Charlemagne of 802 as one of the potherbs suitable for growing.
Seed Starting--Salad greens should be sown at the same time and in the same fashion as lettuce or spinach. For spring planting, sow seeds 2-4 weeks before the last frost. Fall sowing should be done once the heat has subsided, about 4-7 weeks before the first predicted frost of the season. You can seed densely for loose leaf varieties and thin to 4 inches per plant; for heading types space plants about 8-12 inches apart. For growers in mild winter climates, it is possible to plant in late fall for a winter harvest.
Growing--Make sure to plant in a location with full sun and moist soil. For baby greens, sow seeds thickly and harvest when just a few inches tall. For full-sized plants, leave several inches between seedlings.
Pests/ Special Considerations--Flea beetles have a taste for most salad greens. Use a floating row cover to protect plants. Since they do not require pollinators, you can grow them entirely under row cover no problem!
Seed Saving--Orach is a spinach relative and its seeds are saved in exactly the same way as spinach. Purslane and miners lettuce are related, and the seeds are saved in the very same way. There is no need to isolate them, as they are self pollinating. The seeds can be collected by hand as they mature and self drop from the plant when ready. Store in an airtight container, where they will last for up to 7 years.
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Bok choy and Tatsoi are turnip relatives grown for their spatulate leaves and succulent petioles (stems), which are often white and very juicy. Mustards are grown for their thinner, often spicy, leaves. Chinese cabbages and kale form tight heads, but of often quite unusual shapes compared to the usual Western ones. As a group, these types tend to be fairly early and tolerant to cooler weather.
History--The cultivation of Chinese cabbage dates back to 5th Century A.D. It is believed to be a natural hybrid of turnip and bok choy. It was introduced to Europe in the 18th century.
Seed Starting--Chinese Cabbage should be sown in late summer as the heat dissipates. Seeds can be started 6-12 weeks before first frost; sow seeds ½ inch deep and 4 inches apart. Pac choy, bok choy and other Asian greens are a bit more heat tolerant and can be started indoors or direct seeded into the garden in the spring and again in late summer for a fall harvest. Transplant out or direct seed when soil has warmed to 50 degrees. Sow seeds ¼ inch deep and thin to 12 inches apart.
Growing--Chinese cabbage can be transplanted to the garden when the heat has subsided in the late summer. Keep well watered and mulched to suppress weeds, and space 18 inches apart. Pac choy and other Asian greens can be spaced closer for baby greens or spaced out a bit further for whole heads. In very hot summer areas, try to plant in partial shade.
Pests/Special considerations--Heat can be the biggest trouble maker for these crops; be sure to plant early and late to avoid summers heat. Cover young plants with floating row cover to keep flea beetles at bay. You can remove the cover when plants are larger and can tolerate the damage.
Seed Saving--Asian greens are biennial. You will need to protect plants over winter, either by digging up and moving indoors or by covering with a row cover. When plants flower in the second season, hand pick tan, dried pods and remove the seeds from the pod. Store in an airtight container in the freezer or fridge. Properly stored seed will last up to 5 years.
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Kale and Collards
Kale and collards are cold-tolerant, easy to grow and highly nutritious. Collards and kale are very closely related; they are both members of the brassica family, along with broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kohlrabi.
History--Kale and collards, a.k.a the non-heading cabbages, are believed to be more similar to the original wild cabbage ancestor than more refined brassicas like caulifower and Brussels sprouts. Kale and collards originally hail from the eastern Mediterranean, as well as Asia Minor. The ancient Romans were responsible for dispersing kale and collards to Europe where they were quickly embraced as a cold loving crop perfectly suited to the Northern European climate.
Seed Starting--In the spring, sow seeds 8-10 weeks before last fall frost. For fall harvest, sow seeds directly from July-September for a late fall crop that will taste super sweet after a bit of frost exposure. Kale and collards require good moisture and full sun. Set plants out or thin to 12- 18 inches apart.
Growing--These primitive cabbage relatives are considered a perfect beginner gardener’s crop; they require very little care to thrive. Both crops can tolerate an impressive amount of cool weather. Collards, being a southern staple, are also heat tolerant. For mild climates, both crops can be grown year round, perhaps with a lull in the punishing heat of summer. In cooler climates, kale and collards are considered some of the best crops for season extension; with a bit of protection, they can be grown late into the fall.
Pests/Special Considerations--In some areas cabbage worms will wreak havoc on all cabbage relatives; try a homemade garlic and hot pepper spray to discourage these pests from munching your plants.
Seed Saving--Like all cabbage family members, kale and collards are biennial. Kale and collards are insect pollinated and will cross with some closely related cabbage family members; it is wise to isolate varieties at least a mile apart to ensure pure seed. Other techniques such as alternate day caging can be used if isolation is not possible. You will need to overwinter plants to harvest seeds. You can mulch plants heavily with straw or cover with row cover and greenhouse plastic in an attempt to nurse plants through the winter. You can also dig up plants and store inside to replant in spring. When the flower spikes emerge in the second year, let the seed pods dry to brown and cut o the entire flower spike. Hang flower stalk upside down over a tarp indoors to allow the seeds to drop onto the tarp. Seeds will remain viable for up to 4 years.
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Kohlrabi--Translated to “cabbage turnip” in German, kohlrabi is indeed a cabbage relative that was developed for its large, succulent stem. Kohlrabi is a popular fall crop in Northern Europe. Plants thrive in cool weather and develop an especially sweet flavor when exposed to a light frost. Also popular in India, Kohlrabi is the most commonly eaten vegetable in the province of Kashmir.
History--Relatively obscure in the U.S., kohlrabi is not a new vegetable but has been mentioned in Europe since the 1500s and been grown in the U.S. since the early 1800s.
Seed Starting--Sow seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before last frost. Set seedlings outside for 2 weeks before planting to harden off. For a fall crop, sow seeds 8-10 weeks before first frost.
Growing--Kohlrabi needs full sunlight and fertile, well-drained soil. Inconsistent watering will cause cracking of the bulbous stems. Use drip irrigation to water evenly. Plants are shallow-rooted, so avoid cultivating too closely to the plants. A thick layer of mulch will help to retain moisture and suppress weeds.
Pests/Special Considerations--Kohlrabi stands up to disease and pests better than most other cabbage relatives. Still, fungus can be an issue; be sure to rotate crops, provide good airflow, and avoid overhead irrigation. Cabbage loopers can be picked off by hand, or you can treat plants with Bt or with diatomaceous earth.
Seed Saving--Like its cabbage cousin, kohlrabi is a biennial and must be overwintered to produce seeds. Kohlrabi is hardy down to 20 degrees F. In areas with mild winters, you will have no issue keeping plants alive overwinter. Cooler regions will require you to dig up your kohlrabi to store in sand in the root cellar. Check to make sure the plants have not dried up; they may need a light watering in storage. After frost, replant and allow to go to seed. When seed pods are fully dried, pick pods and place in a cloth bag. You will need to step on or hammer the seeds free from their stubborn pods. Separate seeds from chaff (leaf, pod and stem trash) and store in glass jars in the refrigerator .
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A member of the onion family, leeks are grown for a tall and thick “stem” which is actually a bundle of flat leaves. Very cold hardy and more mellow in flavor than onions, leeks make excellent soups, gratin and so much more. Leeks are one of the national emblems of Wales, where they are a major staple in the culinary heritage of the area.
History--Believed to have originated in the Mediterranean, leeks were represented on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs. The emperor Nero, who was referred to as the leek eater, loved them in soups and believed that they improved his voice.
Seed Starting--Seeds do not need excessive heat or sunlight to germinate; temperatures at 60-65 degrees are best. Sow seeds ½ inch in deep pots (six inches at least). This is crucial; do not sow in shallow pots.
Growing--Harden plants off outside once soil can be worked in spring. Dig a trench 6 inches deep and place seedlings 6 inches apart in a row at the bottom of the trench. As the leeks grow, gradually fill in the trench; this is called blanching and will keep the “stems” white and tender.
Pests/Special Considerations--Leeks are relatively pest and disease free. The biggest challenge is to keep them free from weeds, as all onion family members are terrible at competing with weeds. Try mulching with plastic mulch or a thick layer of other mulch to keep the weed competition down.
Seed Saving--Leeks will not cross with any other allium (onion) family members and will just require 1 mile isolation from other seed saving leeks. Leeks are biennial and will need to be dug up and stored in a root cellar in areas with hard winters. In mild winter areas, simply allow to overwinter and protect with mulch if temperatures below freezing are expected. Dig plants and store; replant in spring, and allow to flower. Leek seeds can be stored for up to 3 years, but germination is usually only as high as 50 percent.
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The fantastic range of colors and flavors displayed by the lettuce family lends more than just a lovely splash of color to the dinner plate. These tasty greens pack a nutritional punch, and the more vibrant the color, the more nutritious.
History--Lettuce was first cultivated in the Mediterranean basin, where its wild ancestor is believed to have grown more than 4,000 years ago. Lettuce was first brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus in the 1500s. It was only available as a seasonal and locally produced vegetable because of its delicate nature and tendency to wilt until the development of modern produce transport technology in the 1950s.
Seed Starting--For spring planting, sow seeds 2-4 weeks before the last frost. Fall sowing should be done once the heat has subsided, about 4-7 weeks before the first predicted frost of the season. You can seed densely for loose leaf varieties and thin to 4 inches per plant; for heading types, space plants about 8-12 inches apart.
Growing--Lettuce is a very easy-to-grow beginner’s crop. It is very hardy and adaptable with one big condition: lettuce hates heat! Make sure to plant in a location with full sun and moist soil. For growers in mild winter climates, it is possible to plant in late fall for a winter harvest. Those in cooler climates can choose bolt resistant varieties and harvest throughout the summer. Lettuce grows great in containers.
Pests/Special Considerations--A successful crop of lettuce is most commonly thwarted by summer’s heat and drought. Try to grow in a shady location or under shade cloth to keep greens cool. Slugs can be an issue with lettuce,. Try setting out a shallow pan of beer beneath plants to draw slugs away from your tasty lettuce crop.
Seed Saving--Lettuce is a self-pollinating annual, making it an easy crop for seed saving. Do not harvest plants. Allow them to send up flower stalks. Once seed heads are dried and have turned a yellowish tan color, cut the entire stalk and place in a bag. Crush the seeds in the bag and separate the chaff. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 years.
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Melons range widely in appearance, climatic requirements and flavor. They are all members of the cucumber family, cucurbitaceae. For those growers with a short growing season, look for short-season varieties like Minnesota Midget. If you are interested in an ornamental variety for a unique display, try a vibrantly striped variety like Tigger. There are many unusual, long-season varieties like the Snake Gourd or the Cassabanana Melocoton for those adventurous gardeners who like a fun challenge.
History--Melons are believed to have originated in the Middle East and Central Asia. This comes as no surprise, considering the staggering number of varieties of melon still cultivated in Asia, which is in the thousands! Early melon fruits averaged no larger than an orange, but they have been bred for size over the years. Today there are gargantuan varieties, such as the banana melon. Melons spread from Iran to Egypt, where the fruit has been referenced back to 2400 B.C. Ancient Romans spread the fruit to the Mediterranean.
How to Grow--The climatic growing requirements can vary greatly in this diverse family of fruit; however, all melons are known for their love of sandy loam soil. Choose the best variety for your season length. Melons are very frost sensitive, so be sure to plant once the soil has warmed and the nighttime low has reached above 50 degrees. Melons grow best when direct seeded, but it is advisable for those folks with a very short growing season to start plants indoors. Just be careful to not leave plants in pots longer than 3 weeks; cucurbits hate becoming root bound! Plant seeds or thin seedlings to 2 feet apart with rows six feet apart; these vines love to sprawl!
Pests/Special Considerations--Weeding around the vines without damaging the plants can be nearly impossible; for this reason most growers mulch around plants with straw. Black plastic mulch will suppress weeds and warm soil for those growers in northern climates. Do not overwater melons; they do not like wet feet. Instead, just water when the soil becomes dry. Related to cucumbers and squash, melons have the same insect pest issues.
Seed Saving--Melons are insect pollinated and will readily cross with other melon varieties; they will not, however, cross with their close relatives, watermelon or cucumbers. To ensure pure seed, isolate different melon varieties by 1⁄2 mile or try caging and hand pollinating. Harvest seeds by cutting ripe fruit in half and scooping the seeds into a large bucket; add water until the seeds and pulp are just covered. Allow this to ferment for 2-3 days; be sure to stir the mixture daily. After the seeds have fermented, add water, stir and pour off the pulp. Good seeds sink to the bottom; discard the nonviable, floating seeds. Continue to change fresh water and skim the rotten pulp off the seeds until water runs clear and good clean seeds are left. Spread clean seeds out on a piece of cardboard for 12-15 days to allow to dry. Store in a jar in a cool, dry location; seeds will remain viable for up to 5 years if stored this way.
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Synonymous with Southern cooking, okra, also known as gumbo or lady’s finger, is an Hibiscus relative grown for its immature seed pods. Okra thrives in hot weather and is often the last one standing in Southern gardens when the punishing summer heat has brought less hardy vegetables to their knees. Few northerners realize that okra will grow just fine in their area, as the plants grow and produce seed pods quickly once summer has set in. Okra is one of the most ornamental vegetables, which comes as no surprise considering okra’s glamorous close relative. Many people integrate especially striking varieties such as Jing Orange and Bowling Red, into the flower garden to showcase the mallow-like flowers, flashy red foliage and seedpods.
History--The exact origin of okra is unknown, although it is believed to hail from Ethiopia, Western Africa, and Southern Asia. Early accounts of the plant were mentioned in Egypt in A.D. 1216. Okra was introduced to the Americas in the 1600s, presumably carried aboard slave ships from Africa.
Seed Starting--Southern growers should soak seeds the night before planting, and direct seed after soil has warmed and all chance of frost has passed. Plant about 6 inches apart in rows 6 feet apart. Shorter season growers can start okra indoors 3-4 weeks before expected last frost date.
How to Grow--Growing okra is a breeze, especially if your summers are very hot. Okra will tolerate poor soil, little water. Plants will flourish with even minimal compost and irrigation. Keep in mind, okra does not like excessively rich soil. Set transplants out or thin seedlings to 15 inches apart. Mulch plants with straw, and water sparingly when plants just begin to wilt.
Pests/Special Considerations--Okra can be susceptible to aphid damage. A strong stream of water on affected foliage will knock aphids off of plants; insecticidal soap will also curb the population. Beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewing flies will also help to keep other pests away.
Seed Saving--Okra is a self-pollinating crop. However, insects may be tempted to cross-pollinate flowers; so to ensure pure seed, bag or cover plants with a row cover to protect the flowers. Harvest pods for seed saving when they have turned brown, split and have begun to dry out. Bring pods inside to finish drying. Once totally dried out, twist pods to release the seeds, which are large and round and usually come free without any chaff. Simply store the seeds in a cool, airtight container, and they will keep for up to 3 years.
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The Allium family is comprised of onion, leeks, shallots, garlic, and chives, to name a few. Alliums are revered for their signature pungent fragrance and impressive medicinal properties. As if these delicious plants weren’t incredible enough, growing them is super-easy and they will also deter certain garden pests!
History--Wild onions are native to many parts of the world, but most of the domesticated onions that we enjoy today are believed to have originated in Central Asia. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs were buried with onions as a symbol of eternity. European colonists brought onions to America, where they were surprised to find the natives using wild onions for food, as well as medicine.
Seed Starting--Start onion seeds indoors three months before the last frost date of spring. Onions prefer cooler temperatures (60 degrees is ideal), and they will start out slowly. Set out acclimated, stocky seedlings 4-6 weeks before last frost of spring.
How to Grow--It is important to choose the right type of onion for your location; this will ensure that you have a successful crop that yields large bulbs. Northern summers have drastically longer day length than locations farther south. Growers north of the latitude of Saint Louis, Missouri, should grow long-day varieties such as Ailsa Craig or Noorhollandaise Blooderode. Farther south, it is best to plant short-day varieties. Red Creole and Texas Early Grano are both perfectly suited for short days in the South. Some varieties are intermediate, or day neutral, and will form bulbs in any zone; however, they are especially suited for zones 5 and 6. Onions like rich, well-drained soil and require spacing 6 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart.
Pests/Special Considerations--The entire family does not tolerate competition from weeds, so be sure to mulch with straw or diligently keep up with weed pulling. Consider interplanting onions with cabbage relatives; the sulfur from the onions may help deter pests that love to munch on cabbage.
Seed Saving--Onions will cross with other onions, and occasionally they will cross with scallion types like Welsh onions and Hi Shi Ko bunching onions. Onions will never cross with leeks, chives or garlic. If you are growing types that will cross, try to isolate varieties by at least several hundred feet or ideally up to a mile. Onions are a biennial seed crop, so you will need to over winter your first-year roots, ideally by digging them up and storing them for the winter. Replant in early spring, and allow onions to shoot up spikes of purple owers. Let seeds become dry on the plants. Pick seeds when they are hard and dark black; then you can bring them indoors to finish drying. Once dry, separate the seeds from the husks or leave them on and plant them husks and all.
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This sweet root vegetable is a long-season member of the carrot family. The roots become sweet after exposure to cool temperatures.
History--Parsnips originated in the eastern Mediterranean. Before the adoption of sugar cane, they were primarily grown as a sweetener. Parsnips were very popular in American gardens in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Seed Starting--Southern gardeners should sow seeds in fall, to harvest in spring. Northern gardeners should sow seeds 2-4 weeks before last frost. Plant seeds 1⁄2 inch deep and seed densely. The seeds will germinate slowly, and germination is usually very sparse. Try interplanting parsnips with radishes; the latter will help mark the row and you will harvest them well before the parsnips become crowded. Thin parsnips to 4 inches; they like lots of space per plant and they won’t thrive under competition from weeds.
How to Grow--Parsnips do not like hot weather, yet they require a long season. This can present a challenge to some gardeners; however proper timing will ensure a sweet, successful crop. Dig soil 12 inches deep and remove all stones and dirt clods, as parsnips like rich, mellow, well-drained soil; site in full sun. Try straw mulch or careful cultivation, being sure not to damage the feeder roots.
Pests/Special Considerations--Carrot rust fly can be a problem. Be sure to pull all parsnips from the ground when harvesting to limit the larvae overwintering. Row covers can also be helpful.
Seed Saving--Parsnips are biennial; therefore they will not set seed until they’ve experienced a winter’s chill. Fortunately, they are very cold hardy, and with a heavy layer of mulch they can survive the winter and will flower in the spring. Allow plants to flower and the seeds to dry on the plant. Hand pick the dried seeds and store in an airtight container. Parsnip seeds have a short shelf life, often only one or two years!
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How can a crop that is so rugged and cold hardy taste so sweet and delicate? Peas thrive in cool weather. They are often the first crop of the season. Garden peas are grown for the swollen seeds inside the pods. Snow peas are grown for their edible pods and are picked before the seeds have swelled; they are delicious raw in salads or added to Asian stir-fry. Snap peas are a cross between garden peas and snow peas. They have more rounded pods than the snow pea, but they’re used in the same way; the succulent pods give you a lot of return even from a small space.
History-- Peas were originally cultivated for their dried seeds. The origins of the domesticated pea are unknown, but wild peas are native to the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. Peas were an important, protein-rich storage crop. By the 1600s, Europeans had begun to eat pods when fresh and green. Thomas Jefferson grew peas at Monticello and was known to participate in a neighborly contest to see who could grow the earliest peas of the season.
Seed Starting--Sow seeds directly in the garden four to six weeks before the last frost date in spring. For fall planting, seed directly in ground sixty days before first fall frost. (If your area stays above seventy-five degrees into fall, you may not have a successful crop, and it is probably best to just plant in spring.)
How to Grow--Plant peas in early spring or in late summer for a fall harvest; they thrive in cool weather. A trellis is essential to keep vining-type plants from trailing along the ground. Bush (dwarf) types do not grow so tall and, planted in blocks, hold each other up without need of additional support. Plant peas 1⁄2 inch deep and thin to 3 inches apart. Keep well weeded and be sure to mulch with straw or hay.
Pests/Special Considerations--Fungus is most common pest associated with peas. Simple measures, like cleaning up the garden after after harvest to remove all fungus infected plant tissue, are hugely helpful. Also provide good airflow in the garden; this means don't overcrowd plants and be sure to train them up a trellis if needed.
Seed Saving--Peas will self-pollinate. However, to ensure purity, it is best to isolate 25-50 feet between varieties to dissuade wandering bees from pollinating flowers. Allow pods to dry on plants, thresh and dry indoors for two weeks before sealing in an airtight container. Seed remain viable for up to 5 years.
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This crop originated in the New World and saw its greatest use in Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. These tomato relatives have an astounding range of flavors from spicy hot to super sweet, come in a wide range of colors, sizes and shapes, and they are very easy to grow.
History--Peppers are native to South and Central America. Once Christopher Columbus got his hands on them, they were quickly spread throughout Europe and beyond. Eggplants and tomatoes are in the same family as peppers; they, too, were introduced to Europe around the same time. Unlike peppers, tomatoes and eggplants were not warmly embraced as a food crop nearly as quickly, as many Europeans believed tomatoes and eggplants to be poisonous and relegated both plants to strictly ornamental status. The spicy chili pepper promptly became a staple in Indian and Thai cuisine. Peppers are found in Middle Eastern, French, Spanish and Chinese cuisines, as well as in their home- land in Latin America.
Seed Starting--Pepper seeds can be a bit challenging to germinate. However, once established they will flourish in most gardens with little fussing. Start seeds indoors eight to ten weeks before last frost date. It can be helpful to provide a source of bottom heat, such as an electric seed-starting heat mat, to encourage germination. Hot-spots around the house, such as on top of the refrigerator, also can work well. In good temps (80- 85 degrees F.) seeds sprout promptly. Grow them under good light or in full sun.
Growing--Set hardened transplants outdoors when temperatures have reached a consistent 65 degrees and all chance of frost is past. Plants should be set about 16 inches apart in full sun. Peppers love heat and sunshine; Northern growers should consider black plastic mulch to warm the soil in the spring.
Pests/Special Considerations--Blossom end rot is a common ailment of peppers. Fortunately, this is one of the most easily remedied issues. Inconsistent watering is usually the cause. Be sure to water consistently, and consider purchasing drip tape irrigation.
Seed Saving--Peppers are mainly self-pollinating, but bees occasionally work pepper flowers. To be absolutely sure that you will not have any crossing, different varieties should be isolated by 500 feet. To save seed, allow the fruits to mature fully; then simply remove seeds. Let them dry for a week before storing in a jar. Pepper seeds will remain viable for up to 5 years.
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A refined descendant of wild chicory, radicchio is also called Italian chicory. Varieties of radicchio are named after specific growing locations in the Veneto region of northern Italy. In order to achieve the tender, blanched red and white heads that are highly sought after in gourmet markets, you must dig the plants and blanch in a dark shed, much like Belgian endive.
History--Pliny the Elder lauded an ancient form of radicchio as a blood purifier and sleep aid (indeed, the plant contains a natural chemical that is a mild sedative). More recognizable modern forms of radicchio have been cultivated in northern Italy since the 15th century. The signature red and white heads were not developed until the mid-1800s when a blanching technique was developed to create the unique heads.
Seed Starting--For spring planting, sow seeds 8 weeks before last frost date and transplant out 4 weeks later. (The plants can handle the cold!) Sow seeds indoors ½ inch deep and 1 inch apart. For fall planting (which usually yields better results) sow seeds into trays in the very same way in August.
Growing--Prepare bed with quality compost, and be sure to keep plants consistently moist. Transplant into the garden at 8-10 inches apart. Mulch around plants to suppress weeds and control temperature swings. In order to achieve the perfect red and white blanched heads that are so sought after, you will need to carefully dig the plants and place them in a dark shed or root cellar where they can remain cold and completely free of sunlight.
Pests/Special Considerations--Fungus can be a problem when warm weather and excessive moisture are a factor. To control rot, avoid overwatering or watering close to harvest time. Use drip irrigation, and do not plant radicchio in the same garden location year after year. If flea beetles are a pest in your area, cover small plants with a floating row cover to protect from damage.
Seed Saving--You will need to over- winter radicchio, as it is a biennial and will take 2 seasons to flower and produce seed. You may find that your plants bolt in the first season. Do not save these seeds; wait for the next season’s flowers. Cut down flower stalk when seed pods begin to dry. Place in a bag and crush the pods to remove the seeds.
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Whether grown for a small, piquant pop of color in a spring salad or for a mellow and meaty winter root vegetable for cooking, these highly nutritious root veggies can’t be beat. They are easy to grow and highly nutritious, not to mention they can be used to improve your soil.
History--Radishes are believed to be native to Southeast Asia. They were first mentioned by the ancient Greeks in the 3rd century B.C. In 1544 a German botanist reported seeing radishes over 100 pounds. Radishes were one of the first crops brought to the New World by European colonists.
Seed Starting--Radishes like rich, well-drained soil and plenty of moisture. Amend beds with compost, and sow seeds 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch deep. Direct-sow spring radishes starting 4 weeks before last frost date. You can succession plant every two weeks for the quick growing varieties like French Breakfast or Purple Plum. Sow winter radishes in late summer, about 2 months before expected first frost. Direct-sow and thin to 4-6 inches apart, for the roots need plenty of room to make a good bulb.
Growing--Radishes are the perfect beginner’s crop, as they are so easy to grow. There are two main types of radishes: spring types and winter types. Spring radishes are small and quick growing; they can be harvested in as few as 3 weeks! Winter radishes take longer to grow, but they can be stored for up to 6 months. Radishes are a cool-weather crop and will grow best in spring and fall, but they can be grown throughout the summer except in the hottest parts of the country. Radishes are often inter-planted with carrots or parsnips: the radishes will germinate and mature well before their planting partners which need just about a spring radish distance between their roots. The idea is to harvest the radishes within 30 days and let the other root crops continue growing.
Pests/Special Considerations--The most common issues with radishes are related to heat and water. Radishes do not like excessive heat. It will hinder root formation or cause woody roots, and the plants will go directly to seed. Inconsistent watering will cause cracks and splits in the roots. Low sunlight will cause slender roots that do not bulb up. Consistent watering is key. Do not plant during the heat of summer; radishes much prefer spring and fall.
Seed Saving--Radishes are insect-pollinated; therefore, you’ll need to isolate varieties by up to 1⁄2 mile or stagger plantings to avoid flowering at the same time. Staggering can be easy because of the radish’s quick maturity. Allow flower stalks to shoot up and seed pods to dry on the plant before picking pods and opening by hand. Seeds will remain viable for up to 5 years when stored in an airtight container.
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Sometimes considered a fruit because it is often prepared sweet for dessert, rhubarb is actually a vegetable. Rhubarb is a perennial that thrives in cool weather. The stalks are crisp and tart, perfectly complementing strawberries, which happen to ripen at the same time in late spring--how convenient! Be sure not to eat the leaves, as they are mildly poisonous.
History--There are several species of rhubarb; one type is believed to have originated in Siberia while the other originated in China. Rhubarb was mentioned as a treatment for constipation in The Pehn King , a Chinese herbal guidebook that dates back to 2700 B.C.
Seed Starting--Start seeds indoors 4-8 weeks before the last frost date, or direct-seed in the garden 2-3 weeks before last frost. Seeds benefit from soaking for 1-2 hours before planting.
How to Grow--Rhubarb is a perennial plant that loves cool weather. For those in the North, a sunny location with plenty of manure will do just fine for a rhubarb patch. Southern growers will want to choose a place with afternoon shade. Set transplants out at about 4 feet apart after danger of frost has passed. Keep plants consistently moist, but not soaked. It can help to mulch the plant with straw, but be careful not to mulch too close to the plants; otherwise the crowns will rot. After a few years of growth, the plants will begin to crowd. At that point you’ll need to dig up and divide plants.
Pests/Special Considerations--Pests are not usually a problem for rhubarb. The leaves are not eaten, so a bit of insect damage will not hinder the plant. Slugs can be a problem in heavily weedy rhubarb patches; this is easily solved by keeping plants weed free.
Seed Saving-- Rhubarb will send up flower stalks. The flowers will yield papery seeds that you can pick as they dry on the plant. Allow seeds to dry in a cool place; then store in an airtight container. Rhubarb seeds will remain viable for 2-3 years.
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Sorghum is native to Africa, and the grain feeds up to a half billion people each year. Sorghum is grown in more than 30 different countries. It is more popular in the Southern U.S. than in the North, because sorghum thrives in heat. Sorghum has a bright future in the U.S.; it has recently increased in popularity because it is a gluten-free grain that can be made into flour and porridge. Some sorghum varieties have been bred for grain, others for syrup. Finally, grass sorghum is a fodder crop for livestock.
History--Sorghum originated in Africa and was brought to the U.S. by African slaves. Sorghum was popular in the Southern U.S. with homesteaders who pressed the stalks into a sweet syrup similar to maple syrup or molasses. Sorghum syrup was a dietary staple in the American South until the 1950s.
Seed Starting--Sow seeds directly into soil three to four weeks after the last frost date or when soil has warmed up to 60-65 degrees consistently. Sow seeds one inch apart; thin to four to six inches apart in the rows.
How to Grow--Straw mulch can be used, but sorghum grows quickly and usually shades out and out-competes weeds. Sorghum is drought tolerant, but if leaves begin to curl in super dry conditions, give them a drink. This is a carefree plant; it does not take much except heat to thrive. Expect your plants to grow from eight to twelve feet high.
Pests/Special Considerations--Sorghum demands hot summer weather. Northern growers should try Red’s Red sorghum; it’s a short season variety and will usually mature even in the North.
Seed Saving--Sorghum is wind-pollinated, but it will not cross with anything except other sorghum varieties. It is wise to grow just one variety a year to avoid contamination; otherwise, caging techniques can be employed to avoid crossing varieties. Allow seeds to dry on the plants. They can be hand picked or you can cut the flower head off , place in a bag and hit with a rubber mallet or stomp on it to release the seeds from the chaff . Seeds will remain viable for up to 5 years.
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This bizarre-looking relative of the sunflower family is also known as goat’s beard and oyster plant. Popular during the Victorian era, the strange, hairy roots have a unique taste, which some liken to that of an oyster; others consider the flavor akin to parsnips mixed with artichoke. Salsify has been regaining popularity among chefs and culinary enthusiasts in America, who have breathed life back into this mysterious crop from yesteryear.
History--This scraggly root is native to the Mediterranean. It was originally foraged by the ancient Romans and Greeks until the 1500s when people began to cultivate it. It was introduced to the Americas in the 1700s, where it remained a popular root crop due to its great keeping quality. Salsify was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and was included in the Joy of Cooking in the 1930s. With the advent of modern refrigeration and the availability of perishable foods out of season, this useful root crop fell out of favor.
Seed Starting--Sow seeds directly into the soil one half inch deep and 1 inch apart just following the final spring frost, Seeds take up to 3 weeks to germinate but usually pop in the first week.
How to Grow--This is a long-season crop that is sown in the spring to harvest in fall. Be sure to prepare a slightly alkaline bed for these roots which prefer a pH of 7 or above. If you have more acidic soil, you can lime the bed several months before planting to raise the pH. Thin plants to 2-4 inches apart and mulch with straw.
Pests/Special Considerations--Weeds are the biggest threat to a productive salsify crop. Salsify is a slow grower and can become quickly overtaken by competitors; be sure to keep up with hand weeding. Consistent moisture will keep roots from becoming tough. Avoid excessive heat by planting in part shade; flavor and texture will suffer in temperatures above 85 degrees.
Seed Saving--Salsify is a biennial and will send up pretty, daisy-like flowers in its second year. In most regions a heavy layer of mulch will work to keep plants alive until the second season for seed production. For those areas that experience hard freeze, dig roots, cut tops to 3 inches in length and store in a root cellar in sawdust. Replant in spring. Pick dried seed heads as they mature. Dry out of direct sunlight for a few days. Salsify seed will remain viable for up to 4 years.
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Spinach is a leafy green vegetable that grows best in cool weather. True spinach is very cold tolerant, one of the first crops planted at winter’s end, and one of the last in early fall.
History--Spinach comes from central and southwestern Asia where it may have originated from Spinacia tetranda, which is still gathered as a wild edible green in Anatolia. Spinach was unknown to the ancient Mediterranean world. The first references to spinach are from Sasanian Persia (about 226-640 A.D.), and in 647 it was taken from Nepal to China where it was, and still is, known as the “Persian green.” The first written evidence of spinach in the Mediterranean is in three tenth-century works. Spinach became a popular vegetable in the Arab Mediterranean and arrived in Spain by the latter part of the twelfth century.
Seed Starting--Spinach, whether true or warm-season substitutes, requires lots of nitrogen and water. It is a fast-growing plant and yields many leaves in a short time in the mild weather of spring and fall. Although it prefers full sun, spinach will still produce a decent harvest in partial shade. Plant about 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost in the spring, and again 6 to 8 weeks before the first frost in the fall. Space plants 12 inches apart; this gives leaves room to reach full size.
Growing--In zone 6 and above, leaves can sometimes be harvested all winter long. Farther north, it may be possible with row cover or high tunnels. We offer some warm-weather spinach substitutes, as well, and these are quite the opposite: they yield abundant greens in summer’s heat, when growing true spinach would be out of the question.
Pests/Special Considerations- Several fungal diseases, like downy mildew (blue mold) and fusarium wilt, can become problems. Space your spinach plants so they get good air circulation, and try to keep water off the leaves in the evening.
Seed Saving--In the spring, plants will grow tall and bloom (called bolting) as soon as the days are longer than 14 hours. Heat also speeds up bolting, since spinach prefers temperatures between 35 and 75 degrees. Commercial spinach seed crop is separated by 5-10 miles. Its pollen is so fine that it easily penetrates mesh screen, but is severely restricted by spun polyester fabric. Plants are either male or female. Maintain a ratio of one male to two female plants, though this is hard to determine until the seed stalks have formed. Close plantings in wide beds will provide the greatest chance that the ratio will be hit. Starting at the bottom of the plants, strip off the seeds (using gloves for the prickly type) in an upward motion, letting them fall into a bag. Allow to completely dry and store. They will retain 50% germination for up to 5 years when stored in ideal conditions.
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Squash is a beautiful and tremendously important crop. Many winter types will store in cool, dry conditions for up to 1 year when cured properly. The small, quick-growing forms that are eaten before the rinds and seeds begin to harden are called summer squash.
History--Our word “squash” comes from the Massachuset Indian word askutasquash, meaning “eaten raw or uncooked.” Although the Indians may have eaten some forms of squash without cooking, today we like our winter squashes cooked. The Pilgrims considered the winter squash a life-saver during those first few hard winters.
Seed Starting--Plant in spring or early summer; harvest in fall before a hard frost. You can direct seed or start squash indoors; just be extra careful not to let plants become pot bound! All cucurbits will not tolerate outgrowing their pots; it will stunt their growth. Sow seeds or put out transplants about one to two weeks after the chance of frost has passed, as these plants absolutely cannot handle frost.
Growing--Squash plants like rich, well-drained soil and plenty of sun. If you do not have a lot of space in your garden, be sure to choose bush type squash varieties; otherwise you will have a trailing vine that may crowd other plants. There is a major bonus to growing vine types, however: Squash vine borer has a much more difficult time killing them than bush types. Sow seeds one foot apart in rows, and rows should be six to ten feet apart if vining types are grown. When plants get to be about 6 inches tall, you can thin to two to three feet apart in the rows. It can be very tricky not to disturb delicate vines if you have to weed around mature plants, so weed often when plants are young. As they get older, their massive leaves will help reduce weeds. Winter squash are left on the vine to harden and have a long storage life.
Pests/Special Considerations--The primary pests found are squash beetles and vine borers. We take a multi-step approach to combatting the issue. Aside from crop rotation, we delay planting until after the squash bug season has peaked in late June, and we spray with pyrethrum and neem oil
Seed Saving-There are four different species of squash: Cucurbita maxima, C. Pepo, C. moschata, and C. mixta. These will not cross pollinate with each other. Therefore, it is possible to grow one of each species for seed saving and not have to worry about cross pollination. If you are planning to grow several varieties of more than one species, you can bag the blossoms and hand pollinate to avoid crossing. Whether it is a summer or winter squash, you must let the fruit completely mature before extracting the seeds. You will want to cure the squash for at least two weeks as well. Scoop the seeds, place in bucket, and add just enough water to cover. Let sit at room temperature for 2 days before rinsing off the pulp. Lay seeds out to dry on newspaper or paper plate. Seeds will remain viable for up to 4 years..
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History--Alpine strawberries are a close relative of wild strawberries. They are a small but flavor-packed fruit. The large grocery store varieties that we are familiar with today are a cross between two wild varieties, and their flavor pales in comparison to the Alpine strawberries. Alpine strawberries are unique in that they can be started from seed and will produce fruit in the first year. A delicious, larger fruiting, everbearing type, Fragaria x ananassa, better known as the garden strawberry, is the most commonly cultivated species worldwide. The species itself dates back to early 18th century Europe where Fragaria Virginiana (wild strawberry), a flavorful Eastern North American species, was accidentally crossed with Fragaria Chiloensis (Chilean Strawberry), a large fruiting species from Chile. These perennial plants are native to much of the Northern Hemisphere. Strawberries were foraged and used as a medicinal plant in ancient times, and the fruits were also considered a delicacy when available. By the 1300s the French began digging up a local wild strawberry and transplanting it into their gardens. Europeans dabbled with crossing wild varieties and finally crossed a North American variety found in Virginia with a Chilean variety brought back to Europe by a French explorer. This accidental cross made a large garden strawberry. Through diligent back-crossing and breeding, we have the large hybrids found in the store today. Thomas Jefferson grew Alpine strawberries at Monticello.
Seed Starting--For Alpine strawberries, start the near-microscopic seeds indoors in early spring with cool temperatures, around 65 degrees, and plenty of sunlight. Let them grow to about four to six inches high before transplanting. Set transplants outside, just after chance of frost has passed.
Growing--Alpine strawberries prefer soil that is rich in organic matter and nutrients, and a sunny location. It is important to position the plants with the leaves above the ground and the roots totally covered. If the leaves are buried under soil, or if the roots are exposed, the plants will die. Set plants 15 inches apart; apply mulch just after planting. Alpine strawberries are ever-bearing, and harvest begins in the first season. Garden strawberries should be planted outdoors after chance of frost has passed in spring. Place plants 14 to 18 inches apart in rows 2-2 1/2 feet apart. Garden strawberries will send out runners and become crowded and require dividing. You will need to dig some up to make room. However, the alpine types do not make runners and do not become crowded. They may be divided periodically to increase the strawberry bed. Garden Strawberries will not bear fruit in the first year.
Pests/Special Considerations- Strawberries are relatively pest free, keep plants mulched to avoid drying out, drip irrigation is ideal as damp foliage can lead to fungus. Be sure to avoid crowding plants, they need good airflow.
Seed Saving- To save alpine and garden strawberry seed, allow the fruits to become very ripe, mash fruit in a bowl and wash the pulp away through successive rinsing. Spread seeds out on a paper plate to dry. Strawberries are insect-pollinated, so alpine strawberries will cross between varieties. It is wise to grow just one variety at a time or isolate by at least 1⁄2 mile to prevent mixing. Strawberry seed will remain viable for 2 or more years when stored properly.
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Chard is actually the same species as beets, but these varieties are grown for leaves rather than roots. The plants put all their energy into making large, tender leaves, with succulent mid-ribs massive enough to be a vegetable in their own right. The range of colors comes as a spectacular bonus!
History--Although Swiss chard was known by the ancient Greeks, it is not always recognized in historical literature because of the enormous variety of names in various languages by which it is and has been called.
Seed Starting- -Chard is usually direct-seeded into the garden as early as a couple of weeks before the last frost. It can be sown anytime until mid-summer, since the plants tolerate both heat and moderate cold of late fall. I can even grow into the winter in milder climates.
Growing-Swiss prefers rich soil, full sun and ample moisture.
Pests/Special Considerations--Keep plants properly spaced to promote good air circulation, and promptly remove any leaves with light brown patches surrounded by purple halos indicating a fungal disease. Surround chard plants with egg shells to help with slugs.
Seed Saving--Like other biennial plants, chard produces flowers and seeds in the spring of its second year, after it has been through winter. Chard is only winter-hardy to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit, so in most areas you must dig the plants in fall and replant them in spring if you want to save seed. Through winter, keep the trimmed plants packed in damp sand in your basement or another cool place. Set them out four to six weeks before your last frost date.
Chard is wind-pollinated, so at least six closely spaced plants are needed for good seed set. Look for greenish flowers followed by seed capsules clustered close to the stem. When the stems dry to brown, crush them inside a paper bag, and gather the largest seeds that fall to the bottom. Store them in a cool, dry place. Chard seeds will keep for at least three years, and often longer.
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Sweet potatoes are a delicious and nutritious member of the morning glory family. The roots of this cold-sensitive vining plant become massive and swollen, full of starch and delicious. Plants are heat tolerant as well as fairly drought tolerant and uafflicted by insect pests, making them a super reliable crop.
History--Sweet potatoes are native to Latin America, exactly where is up for debate. Spanish conquistadors brought tubers back to Europe where they were embraced and quickly spread throughout the east.
Growing--Sweet potatoes are not grown from seed but from live plants. Set plants outdoors after all chance of frost has passed in spring. Sweet potatoes are a long-season crop, and black plastic mulch to warm the soil in northern climates can be helpful. Set plants 12-18 inches apart in beds that are mulched with either plastic mulch or a thick layer of straw mulch. It is so important not to skip this step; the vines will become out of control quickly if not weeded. The mulch will also warm the soil and retain moisture.
Harvesting and Storage--The tubers can be dug and eaten at any time once they are large enough; however, a nip of frost will sweeten them up and allegedly increases the vitamin content of the roots. Wait until the vines have yellowed or blackened from frost. Harvest as soon as vines begin to blacken, as the roots will rot very quickly after leaves turn black. Dig with a spade, then leave the fresh tubers out in the sun to dry for the afternoon. Next you will want to cure the sweet potatoes to ensure good storage quality and reportedly a better taste than uncured roots. The best way to cure is to place dry roots in a box lined with newspaper in a warm room at about 85-90 degrees. The humidity should be at around 85 percent. Let roots cure for about 10 days. After curing they can be kept for months in a root cellar at about 55-60 degrees.
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Also called “husk tomato,” for the paper-like calyx or husk that encloses each fruit. They are grown much like tomatoes, except that they are seldom staked. They do tend to grow a bit faster from seed than most tomatoes and are a little more tolerant to cold weather. Tomatillos are used in fresh salsas and cooked in any number of sauces, including Mexican-style chili verde.
History-Native to Mexico and domesticated by the Aztecs around 800 B.C., tomatillos played an important part in the culture of the Maya and the Aztecs, and was more important than the tomato.
Seed Starting- (see tomato)
Growing--Grown much like a tomato, but it is a lighter feeder. In order for the tomatillo flowers to set fruit, you must grow at least two tomatillo plants. They are incredibly prolific and fruit nonstop until killed by frost. They are moderately drought tolerant but do best with an inch or so of water a week.
Pests/Special Considerations--Flea beetles are a common tomatillo pest. Trap plants, such as bok choi, horse nettle, and datura will take on a good bit of the flea beetle damage for you, but be sure to manage their seeds carefully. Some people also use sticky traps.
Seed Saving--Fermentation is not necessary. Allow to ripen for a week or longer after picking, remove the husks, and select the ripest for seed. According to Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, the paper husks are removed and the berries are placed in a blender or food processor with enough water to cover them. When the fruits are totally blended, empty the contents into a large bowl. Add enough water to double the mixture; stir vigorously, and allow the good seeds to settle to the bottom. Gently pour off the debris and hollow seeds. Add more water and repeat the process until only clean seeds and water remain. The clean seeds are poured into a strainer, but always be sure the seeds are not small enough to pass through the strainer’s holes. Wipe the bottom of the strainer on a towel to remove as much moisture as possible and dump the seeds onto a glass or ceramic dish to dry. They will remain viable for three years when stored in a cool, dry, dark place.
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One cup of fresh tomatoes can bring you an average 10% of your potassium daily recommended value. Purple and black tomatoes surpass in very significant numbers the nutritional value of all other categories of tomatoes. Varieties tested also came on top of the list for sweetness. Based on our study, we can say that purple, black and brown tomatoes have the best nutritional completeness scores. This is part of the reason that “black” tomatoes are among our most popular, as all that nutrition translates to loads of flavor. A few heirloom varieties have plants that don’t get quite so large; called “determinate” varieties, these get to a certain size and then set all their fruit more or less at once. Determinates may be a better choice where tomatoes are grown in a very small garden or in containers. All varieties are believed to be indeterminate unless specified determinate. The best tasting varieties tend to be indeterminate, as most of ours are, unless otherwise noted.
History--While it was thought to be poisonous by Europeans and American colonists, the tomato is, in fact, a very healthy food low in sodium and high in carbohydrates. This crop, native to the Americas, has become the most popular garden crop over the last 200 years. The name is derived from the Aztec word “tomatl,” and it was principally in Mexico where the tomato was widely used for food. The Spanish distributed the crop worldwide through their trade and colonies in the Caribbean and the Philippines, from which the crop spread to the Asian mainland. They also brought it to Europe, where it was initially regarded as a new type of eggplant. (The two are closely related.) The fruit was early embraced in Spain and Italy but met with suspicion in much of Europe, due to its resemblance to the poisonous nightshade plant, another close relative. It was nevertheless grown as an ornamental and was widely distributed by the time its culinary virtues were recognized. Tomatoes were grown in this country starting in the Carolinas, possibly appearing there from the Caribbean. Thomas Jefferson grew and ate them. Modern breeding work began only in the late 1800s, beginning with Alexander Livingston, an early seedsman who released ‘Paragon’ in 1870. We offer an amazing selection of many of the finest old varieties in lots of delicious colors!
Seed Starting- -Being a tropical crop, tomatoes need plenty of warm weather and a long growing season. (Days-to-maturity figures count the time to first harvest from setting out transplants, which in turn take 6-8 weeks to grow before reaching transplant size.) In long-summer climates, they may be direct sown as soon as frost is past, but most gardeners start the tiny seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost date. Either way, the seeds are just barely covered and germinate most rapidly in temperatures of 70 and above—80 degrees is best. (Use a heating mat indoors if necessary).
Growing- -Once the sprouts appear, they require good light to grow well. They may need to be fed once or twice to make good growth prior to transplanting outdoors, which happens after last frost. Tomatoes tolerate a wide range of soil conditions but do best in deep rich soil and in full sun. Plants are usually staked but may be allowed to sprawl; spacing depends upon variety and which method is to be used. Staked plants can be grown 18” apart in rows 3 or more feet apart; space 2-3 feet apart in rows 4 feet apart if the vines will be allowed to sprawl. Determinate plants are usually smaller, requiring less space, and often need less support than indeterminate varieties.
Pests/Special Considerations--Soil should be amended with plenty of compost; a little bone meal or other calcium source wards off blossom-end rot. Hornworms can be controlled by daily hand picking; chickens love them. Their excrement looks like small grenades and they will be nearby, though very camouflaged. “Hiding” the tomatoes in a polyculture planting with chili peppers, marigolds, borage, chives, nasturtiums, basil, calendula, sage, onions and garlic; and keeping tomato plants as far away from each other as practical in the garden, have been found useful. If you find a hornworm that appears to have grains of white rice glued to it’s sides, it’s been parasitized, and that means the beneficial Braconid Wasps have arrived to the rescue! Leave this hornworm in place as a nursery, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae will eat the hornworm.
Seed Saving- Most tomatoes are self-pollinating and crossing isn’t likely; separating by 25 feet is sufficient for pure seed, except for the so called potato-leaf varieties like Brandywine. On a small scale, seeds may be scooped from the fruits and dried on a paper towel; for larger quantities or cleaner seed, fermentation for 1-2 days is recommended. Once dry, tomato seed can be stored at room temperature, and good seed retains viability for 5 years or more.
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Turnip & Rutabagas
Turnips and Rutabagas (Swedes) are closely related cabbage family members. Turnips have a great pungent bite to them and are roughly the size of a baseball. Rutabagas are set apart by being larger and sweeter. These large root veggies are also used as a fodder crop for animals. They are a popular root crop in Europe. In Scotland, they are referred to as neeps and are served with haggis.
History--The turnip was cultivated by the ancient Romans and brought to the Americas in the 16th century by a French explorer. Rutabagas are believed to have originated in Russia. They were first mentioned by a Swiss botanist who observed them growing wild in Sweden in the 1600s. Although they are a popular vegetable in Europe, they are not as cherished in Germany. This is because rutabaga stew, consisting of just water and rutabagas, was a staple during the food shortages of World War I and World War II.
Seed Starting--Turnips and rutabagas like rich, well worked soil, so try double digging to ensure a fluffy root zone. Sow seeds 90 days before first frost date for rutabagas, and 50-60 days before first frost for turnips. Thin plants to about 8-12 inches apart. Keep plants moist and well weeded.
Growing--Turnips and rutabagas are mostly grown the same way, the only difference being that turnips are harvested earlier than rutabagas. Rutabagas are a long-season crop, requiring 90-120 days. Both are cold-tolerant and taste best when harvested in late fall.
Pests/Special Considerations--Both plants are are insect-pollinated, so they will need ¼ mile spacing from other varieties to ensure pure seeds. (Turnips cross with other turnips but not with rutabagas.) Flea beetles, leaf miners and the cabbage maggot can be controlled in spring crops with row covers. Cover at seeding and seal the edges with soil to exclude the cabbage maggot fly.
Seed Saving--Like other cabbage family members, these crops are usually biennial, which means they flower in the second year. You will need to either overwinter plants with mulch or row cover, or dig the roots up and replant in the early spring. Digging is preferred because it allows you to select only the largest, choicest roots for seed production. Cut flower stalks when pods have dried, place into a bag and shake seeds loose. Seeds will store for 5 years.
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Watermelon Watermelons come in all sizes, from tiny single-serving types only a few inches across to behemoths weighing upwards of 250 pounds! Flesh color is diverse: in addition to the familiar pink-red, watermelons can be orange-fleshed, yellow, and even white.
History--This crop originated in the Kalahari Desert region of Africa, where its ability to take up water and deposit it into the developing fruits made it an invaluable “living canteen.” First domesticated thousands of years ago in south-central Africa, watermelon was depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings, but may have been grown in India and other Old World locations outside of Africa only since about 1000 AD. The crop reached the Americas more recently, carried here by African slaves. Appreciated by Native Americans, it was quickly traded throughout the Americas. Today, watermelon is cultivated worldwide.
Seed Starting--Watermelon loves heat. In most climates, watermelon can be direct-sown into the garden after frost-season ends and soil is warm. Soil should be rich and well amended with compost or manure. Sow in full sun, preferably where no other melons, squashes or cucumbers have grown for at least three years, to reduce the likelihood of diseases. Sow one-half inch deep and 12 inches apart, in rows 6 feet apart. If the soil temperature is right, sprouts appear in just a few days. In shorter-summer climates, or to get an earlier harvest, seeds may be started indoors, 3-4 weeks prior to setting-out date. Warm conditions yield fast germination; hold at 80 degrees or so. (Use a heating mat if necessary.) Once seedlings appear, they need good light—at least half-day direct sun through a south-facing window or good artificial lighting. Timing is critical—held in pots for too long the seedlings may become root-bound, which slows the plants down.
Growing--Thin if necessary to stand 2-3 feet apart in the row. The vines soon begin to “run” and easily travel 6 feet from the roots as they grow. During this time, control weeds, keep the patch well watered, and watch for watermelon pests.
Pests/Special Considerations--Cucumber beetle is possibly the most common pest. Spray with Spinosad as needed. Watermelon plants also attract squash bugs. Pyganic or other pyrethrum-based insecticide is a good organic control.
Seed Saving--Watermelons won’t cross with any other member of the squash family, but they will cross with other watermelons. Bees carry the pollen up to one-half mile, but adequate purity can be maintained by isolating parent plants by even 1000 feet or so. When your watermelon is fully ripe, the seeds are mature as well, although higher viability is obtained by leaving the fruit on a week or two longer. Simply extract the mature seeds and dry fully before storage.
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Many people have depended on herbs for medicine, nutrition, or to spice their foods. Many of the herbs humans have come to love are hardy, drought and poor soil tolerant, and grow without much help from us.
History--Like flowers, herb history is intertwined with religious significance. Herbs were credited with bringing luck or blessings, and even warding off evil. Herbs are mentioned in the oldest holy and medical books. Awareness of herbs for medicine is making a come-back, and many of our popular culinary herbs and spices are just as useful for medicine or nutrition. Some herbs are also great as companion plants in the garden, attract pollinators, act as trap plants, and can repel unwanted pests.
Growing--Many culinary, yet medicinal herbs, like sage, oregano, thyme, rosemary, flowering carrot, yarrow, sorrel, cilantro, lemon balm, purslane, monarda, evening primrose etc., are incredibly easy to grow, and just disturbed ground is enough to get a large number of them going. Herbs, like basil, oregano, rosemary, lemongrass and thyme are also great for container gardening. Many herbs grow like weeds and do very well in garden edges and walkways.
Basil is a tender and aromatic herb that grows wild in West Africa and is loved by home gardeners. Though it will do well sown directly in the garden after fear of frost, you can also start herbs like basil indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost in rich, well draining soil between 70-90 degrees. Other herbs that can be grown like basil are lemon balm, lovage, sorrel, and thyme.
Oregano was first used by the Greeks, and the name is derived from the Greek phrase, “Joy of the Mountain”. Herbs like oregano can be started indoors 8-10 weeks before the last frost in poor, but light and well draining soil. It can take 10-14 days to germinate and needs warm conditions. It likes to be watered and heated from the bottom of the pot. Other herbs that can be grown like oregano are chamomile, parsley, rosemary, rue, sage and even thyme can also tolerate poor soils.
For some popular herbs like lemongrass, start indoors in rich soil and place the seeds about 1” apart. Lightly cover with starting soil and gently water. Wrap the seed tray in clear plastic and keep at 70-75 degrees. Mist or gently water daily; remove plastic wrap when the seeds sprout, and place in full sun. Water once every three days. Transplant outdoors after fear of frost, when they are about 12” tall. Stevia can be started in a similar manner but does best with temps not much over 70 degrees. Stevia is also planted out after fear of last frost, and when it has a good bit of foliage.
Dill does not do well being transplanted and prefers to be directly sown outdoors after the danger of frost. Plant in full sun and well draining soil for the best results. Other herbs that do best started directly outdoors are chervil, coriander, lavender, mints, tarragon. Many other herbs, even some mentioned above, will do just fine direct-sown in the garden.
There are a huge variety of perennials or easy self-seeders in the herbal family. Most like full sun, but some will tolerate partial shade. Some perennial herbs are anise, chives, coneflower, dock, echinacea, evening primrose, fennel, dandelion, horehound, hyssop, lavender, lemongrass, oregano, sage, mallow, rosemary, sorrel, tarragon, thyme, valerian and yarrow.
Uses--Besides their use in cooking, herbs have been in liquid herbal products (infusions, decoctions, and teas), or infused in oil, vinegar, or alcohol. These menstrums were used to preserve the herb harvest, and it also made some of the medicinal compounds and minerals found in the herbs easier to digest. Herbs are used to strew on floors and animal bedding to repel bugs, stored with linens, for dyes, and a number of other purposes.
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Though they may be fun and fanciful, flowers are hardly just a frivolous ornamental. Many have earned their keep in the garden as potent medicinal plants, tasty edibles or effective pest deterrents. All flowers have the uncanny ability to attract pollinators and beneficial insects to the garden and to put a smile on our faces, which is certainly worth a lot!
History--Flowers have long held religious importance in some ancient cultures. The ancient Aztecs held marigolds in the highest esteem; the flowers were considered a powerful medicinal as well as a symbolic flower to honor lost loved ones. Safflower was found in garlands adorning King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and flower crowns were worn for religious ceremonies in Ancient Greece.
Growing--Most flowers are a breeze to grow. Some of the most notably easy to grow that can be great for kids’ gardens or first time growers include calendula, zinnias, marigolds, bachelor’s buttons, cockscomb and celosia and morning glories and sunflowers.
Edible Flowers--Edible flowers are most commonly employed as a garnish, in salads, or anywhere that they may be employed without cooking. (Cooking would spoil the brilliant colors and amazing visual forms!) Some species, like dahlias, produce edible tubers that can be great cooked, and celosia that is great cooked green. While many flowers may be used in this fashion, here is a list of some of the most widely used types. Ornamentals--calendula, dahlia, dianthus including carnations, nasturtium, pansies, sunflower.
Caution: Not all flowers are edible, and some are downright poisonous. Before eating any flowers, be certain that you have a solid identification, and then proceed cautiously. Even edible types could cause an allergic reaction in some sensitive individuals.
Naturally Pest Repellent Flowers--Insect pests can ravage your vegetable garden and leave you desperate enough to resort to harsh pesticides. However, before launching all out chemical warfare, consider planting a trained assassin among your vulnerable vegetables. Certain flower varieties will lure insect pests but contain toxins in their foliage that kills the insect when they eat the flowers’ leaves. Other flowers simply act as a trap by distracting pests from your prized vegetables. Calendula is effective at deterring tomato hornworms, Mexican bean beetles, aphids, cabbage maggots and the asparagus beetle. Interplanting with pest-susceptible plants is the easiest way to deter unwanted critters. Four o’ clocks are possibly the most sinister of the pest repellent flowers. Japanese Beetles find them irresistible, but the plant is deadly poisonous to them. Try accenting your particularly susceptible crops with a few four o’clock plants as a trap crop. Beware that four o’ clocks are also poisonous to humans, so keep children away from them and do not try to eat them!
Seed Saving--Zinnias and sunflowers are some of the best beginner seed saver crops! Zinnias will cross with other zinnia varieties; it is best to only grow one type a year for seed saving or to isolate by ¼ mile. Simply cut blooms when they have turned brown and dried up, crush the blooms to release the seeds and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Sunflower seeds should be saved when the heads have fully turned brown and dried out. You can easily shell the heads by hand and store the seeds in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
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