It’s that time. Before you know it, you’ll be in the garden, planting your vegetables. If you are like me, while you are working, your mind is wandering off to all those wonderful meals you will be preparing with your harvest. One of the things I am always mindful of when selecting the plants I grow, is whether or not it will do well here in the South. Here is some growing information on a few of the more popular types. I will only go into more detail on the tomatoes and squash, because these seem to be the basic plants in any garden. Hopefully, this will help you determine if they are right for your garden.
Celebrity – On the market since roughly the mid 1980’s, this is a hybrid that was bred to withstand a long list of diseases. It’s one of the few tomatoes that can be grown in the heat of the Deep South and all the way up to the short growing season of Canada, taking approximately 60 days to maturity. It is a medium sized red tomato, and the plant itself is often considered semi-determinate. On the downside, the flavor is somewhere in the middle – it doesn’t taste like cardboard, but you also don’t get that rich flavor that is prized in homegrown tomatoes.
Beefsteak – There are a number of beefsteak tomato varieties, from the Mortgage Lifter Heirloom to the Beefmaster hybrid. But one thing is for certain – if you want one of the large, meaty tomatoes, you really need to grow them yourself. They are considered too large for commercial use as they don’t conform to the machinery. Considering one slice of a beefsteak might very likely cover your entire piece of bread, I can understand that. Most of these plants require heavy staking, due to the weight of the fruit. They also require fertilizing and at least 1” to 2” of water a week, and 70 to 72 days to mature.
Better Boy – this is a hybrid tomato that produces an abundant amount of almost 1 lb. tomatoes. It was originally bred to resist the common tomato viruses. It is indeterminate and the flavor is great. Considering it takes 70 – 72 days from seed to fruit, if you are growing it in a Northern garden, it would be wise to start it in the greenhouse and then transplant as soon as the ground is warm enough. This is one that needs to be well staked, due to the abundance of fruit.
Yellow Crookneck – Considered a summer squash, just a few of these plants can keep you in squash all year long, if you freeze or can them. They are best eaten small, around 2” in diameter, as the larger they get, the tougher the skin becomes. These are considered an heirloom, and take approximately 50 – 55 days to mature. Once they do, you need to watch/harvest them every day to get the best tasting fruit.
Lemon Squash – these are by far my favorite yellow summer squash. They are an heirloom variety, and the plant produces round yellow fruit approximately the size of a lemon. I found that the skins don’t get as tough as the crookneck variety, and these are an excellent size for frying. Like most squash, you are looking at 50-55 days to mature. Trust me – on day 50, I’m already pulling out my oil and frying pan!
Zucchini – if you have ever tasted zucchini bread, you will definitely want to plant this. Fair warning – unless you have a LOT of family and neighbors that love zucchini, don’t plant more than one or two. Even with that, you will have way more than a family of four can consume in a year. Okay. Make that three years. As with all squash, plant after the last possible freeze in your area, and if you need a jump start, plant seeds in your greenhouse and transplant after the ground is consistently warm – no cooler than 60 degrees.
Sorry, Northern folks. This is probably one of the true delicacies of the South. Okra of any variety, whether heirloom or hybrid, only takes 50 to 60 days to mature, but they thrive in our hot, humid summers. They are best picked when young – approximately 2” in length. A popular heirloom variety is the Clemson Spineless, and a good hybrid is said to be the Pentagon. Although they claim there are okra varieties that will produce up North, I’d have to see it to believe it.
Cucumber is actually a fruit, but has long been prepared and eaten as a vegetable. These come in several varieties – eating/slicing, pickling and burpless, to name three. Traditionally, cucumbers need a trellis to support the long vines. There are some bush varieties available, if you don’t want to go to the trouble of building a trellis. Cucs are a tender plant that can’t tolerate extreme cold or heat. It takes them approximately 65 days to mature, so start them as soon as your soil warms up, or start them from seeds in your greenhouse. Be careful when transplanting – they just barely tolerate root disturbance.
Regardless of if they are bell, jalapeno or Habaneros, peppers seem to be slow starters, but once they get going, they can produce an abundance of fruit. Depending on the variety, they can take anywhere from 70 to 80 days to mature. Since this takes them through the heat of the summer, watch for blossom drop, which can occur when the temperatures reach the 90’s and higher. Low humidity seems to make this worse. Although they can be grown in the North, the longer growing season seems to make them more suitable in the South. My favorite varieties are the California Bell (heirloom); Big Bertha (hybrid); Tam Jalapeno (hybrid); and the Sweet Banana (hybrid).
This is just a short list of what I would consider the basic garden plants. Most of these can be grown in pots as well, which makes them suitable for sunny apartment balconies, patio gardens, or homes with very small yards. Regardless of what you plant, I strongly advocate everyone growing at least one vegetable plant if they are able. There is nothing like biting into fresh food that you grew yourself.
I do have one question, though. Gary? With all my research, I find very little y’all can grow up North. What DO you eat fresh from your gardens?????