The summer garden's plants are in their little starter pots right now (vaguely reminiscent of training wheels on a bicycle) really begging to be transplanted into the earth. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, the stalwarts of our summer garden are almost ready to hit the big time. In some years, it's too cool until after your taxes are done, but in many others, you may heed their pleas and put them out sooner.
It seems like the crops most of us think of as value crops are the summer garden crops. Back in March, if I got to it, I sowed a couple of short rows of purple snap beans. I know folks that swear they are 'purple green beans, ' but that seems a little contradictory to me. They aren't green, they're purple – until you cook them. Purple beans turn green when they are done to a toothsome crunch and so the beans tell you when to stop steaming them!
They are good, but in my book, they aren't the real deal of the bean world. In April, gardeners put out their main crop of snap beans. Most folks plant green beans, including, Blue Lake, Kentucky Wonder, Romano and others, either as a pole bean or a bush bean, depending on need, so check the package to make sure you know what you are buying. I like to plant yellow beans, also called 'wax' beans. I hated yellow beans as a kid, mainly because they were different and I never saw them for sale in the grocery store; I didn't want anything on our table that wasn't on someone else's table. As an adult, I've come to love the yellow beans pickled. The yellow ones are like 'sunshine in a jar' that I can put on sandwiches and in salads all year long. Yum! I look for Pencil Pod or Gold Crop are delicious and good croppers. A little different, look for Dragon Langerie, a Dutch variety that has purple strips down the large flat yellow bean. They can be quite large and still tasty.
In the first half of the month, start planting beans directly in the garden, I don't bother with transplanting from beans in starter packs. You can put out any bean from this point on, but I usually wait yet another month for the beans I want to dry, like the famous Italian Cannelini, or the American Cranberry Bean or Black Turtle, to insure they will ripen when the garden is basking in the dry heat of late summer/early fall. There are a lot of drying beans, but a gardener of a small plot can be forgiven if they pass on the dried beans – it can take a bit of space to get a decent crop. For drying beans look into Native Seed/SEARCH in Arizona or Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa.
Beans can be climbing or bush, or 'runner beans' which are somewhere in the middle. Runner beans will bear over a longer period of time, which is good if you want to have beans over several weeks or more. If you plan on freezing or pickling your beans, bush beans will bear their crop pretty much all at once. Runner beans are a compromise, being a bush bean that throws out 'runners' that look like they would climb if they could just get a little caffeine or something. They do not climb, and they produce a crop very similar to the all at once nature of bush beans. Look for Scarlet Runner which will give you plenty of red flowers and some really good eating. You can tell I like beans, huh?
About the same time you are putting your green and yellow beans into the garden, set out a couple cucumbers. I like Armenian and Japanese cucumbers which have the same mild flavor and awesome crunch, even though they couldn't look any more different! The Armenian cucumbers are a light green almost bordering on yellow, with smooth skin covering a straight fat cucumber while the Japanese are a very dark green, with massive prickles on a furrowed and absolutely convoluted twisty narrow cucumber. Both are delicious. The Japanese cucumber will bear over a longer period but there is much more eating on each Armenian cuke, so it probably ends up with both being about the same. Give both of them plenty of room! If your garden is small, allow these gangling fellows to climb up rather than out.
The beans and cucumbers aren't alone in being planted out about now. Tomatoes. However you say it, cucumbers and tomatoes are the number one plants gardeners think of when they think “Summer Garden.” There are more varieties of tomatoes than there are potholes in the greater Los Angeles area. Just check out a catalog called Totally Tomatoes, or Tomato Growers Supply! Thirty or more pages of tomatoes. They come early, mid-season or late. Tomatoes are cherry, saladette, plum and beefsteak as well as black, cream, green, red, striped, yellow and many shades in between. Tomatoes come as hybrids and open-pollinated, and (had enough choices?) determinate and indeterminate. It's a complete overwhelm of choice. Determinate tomatoes are similar in growth to bush beans, giving you short plants that bear all at once (more or less), while indeterminate are like pole beans that bear over a long stretch and get quite large to boot.
Here are a few common ones to consider:
Sweet 100 – a great productive and sweet little red tomato that is as dependable as a beach day in July.
Orange Sunshine – lots and lots of very sweet little tomatoes! Cute
Golden Nugget – a ton of cream colored little guys that are sweet with low acid – always a bonus in my book.
Yellow Pear – lot of folks like these, but I think they are mushy. Very productive though.
Jaune Flammee – a lovely bi-colored tomato (give it something to climb on!) that is red outside and gold inside – good tasting and beautiful!
Green Zebra – yup, it's ripe when it's green. I think they are little to acidic, but lot's of my friend like 'em.
Moonglow - Solid orange meat, few seeds and wonderful flavor. One of our favorites since we first grew it in 1996.
Black from Tula – not really 'black,' but a very deep red. Delicious, though not a heavy producer – the skin is so thin I think it's best to take your plate and fork to the garden and eat it right at the plant!
Stupice – a small early plant that is worth growing because they also taste good and come in quick!
Plum (or paste tomatoes)
Black Plum – almost a mahogany tomato – tasty and meaty, an indeterminate tomato than produces
Cream Sausage - A unique colored variety with creamy white to light yellow sausage-shaped fruit, very productive bushy plants do not require staking; a really different tomato sauce!
Opalka – Red 3" by 5" paste tomatoes with a lovely fresh flavor. They have very few seeds so make great sauces. Long unruly vines.
Brandywine – the taste that everyone is looking for in a big tomato, winner of many different taste tests. We can't really grow them very well in West Los Angeles because they need 85F through the night as well as the day. Pasadena and other points inland can grow them, though.
German Johnson – a large pink tomato that is really juicy and yummy.
Mortgage Lifter – there's a great story about the name of this tomato I'll tell you at a cocktail party one of these days. For now, I'll say it tastes great and is very filling, a lovely juicy tomato that rates.
Persimmon – this is the largest tomato I've ever grown in West Los Angeles. One sliced tomato could fill two dinner plates with meaty orange/yellow slices. However, the six foot plus plants only gave me one tomato each! Way too much space even though they were the sweetest and tastiest tomato I've had the pleasure of growing.
You'll notice I didn't include any of the Best Boy or Early Girl or other common hybrids. It is true they are productive and will give you a good crop of bright red fruits, but I think they are too acidic and have tough skin, so I don't grow them at all. There are so many delicious tomatoes in this world, to stick to those few seems silly to me. Check out Tomatomania (you can find it by searching the web) to find a lot of very unusual tomatoes to tempt your taste buds. Plant lots of basil at the same time you plant your tomatoes. Basil and marigolds make good companion plants for tomatoes.
When transplanting tomatoes from it's container to the ground, set them deeper in the soil than they were in the container. This is a great exception to the rule (almost all other plants should be set in the ground at the same level they were in the container) because a tomato stem will sprout roots all along the stem that is in contact with the soil. If the soil is really cold however, you'll have to resort to a more advanced technique. Tomatoes, being a tropical plant, do not like cold soil and the deeper you go, the colder it gets (and stays colder longer), so don't dig deep to plant tomatoes. Instead, if you have long plants, dig a shallow trench and lay the plant in on its side, gently bending the top to an upright position. The plant isn't deep in cool soil and yet it gets to make a lot more roots from the buried stem. (If you planted the tomato straight on down, the soil would not be warmed for a lot longer and the sulking tomato plant would refuse to grow until the warmth was felt that much deeper in the soil.)
And I haven't even mentioned later in the month! After the taxes are in, set out growing plants of peppers, eggplants, okra, melons, zucchini, summer squashes and tomatillos. Sow seeds of corn directly where they will grow. Pumpkins are a winter squash and all those hard skinned squashes should go out in May or so. They are really heat lovers.
Peppers and eggplants are easily grown once it has warmed up. They usually get about 3½' tall and need about two feet between plants. As with most vegetables, you need to give them all th sun you can. You can also try growing some lettuce in the shade of larger plants. Lettuce dislikes heat, but I like tomatoes and lettuce at the same time and it's easier trying to get lettuce in summer than tomatoes in winter.
I love peppers but I hate eggplant. Both however, are beautiful additions to every garden. Peppers come in a wild variety of colors – all start green and eventually change to whatever color they want to be – every green pepper you've ever eaten would have turned to some other color if we'd only practice more patience. I like Anaheim, Corno di Torno (Italian for 'Horn of the Bull') for warmer peppers and Cubanelle, Sweet Banana and Marconi for a sweet pepper. Eggplants can be Asian or Italian – I like the Italian Listada de Gandia or Rosa Bianca, primarily because they are very good looking in the garden. I have no intention of eating them. There are deep purple ones (almost black) and white ones as well as Turkish Orange and green eggplants.
Okra can be planted late in April/early May. Clemson's Spineless, Burgundy, Annie Oakley, and Star of David all are prolific producers. Put on a pot of gumbo in late summer! I'll eat 'em if I don't see 'em.
Not enough has been said about basil, but Genovese basil is the best in my book. Not just good production, but wonderful aroma and the taste is incomparable. Pick leaves all summer to keep it producing – once there are two pair of leaves on a stem, that stem will commence to flower. Once a flower has set seed, the plant begins the process of dying. If you keep it well picked, the plant gets bushier and bushier and you get a lot more basil from each plant. Throw the pickings in soup, salads or directly in your mouth!
Sweet corn is another delight of the summer garden. It is a little tricky to grow in our small gardens though. Corn, like all the cereal grains, is wind pollinated. The tassels atop the plant are the 'boy' flowers and the silks on the ear are the 'girl' flowers. The tassels produce loads of pollen that must reach the silks to fertilize them and create the corn seeds. This is hard to do if you don't have a lot of corn plants with pollen to be blown onto the silks. It is best to plant corn as a block of plants rather than one long row. There needs to be a critical mass of male flowers to produce pollen that falls on the silks. You can go out and shake the flowering corn stalks to cause the pollen to fall down and assist in corn sex if you're the adventurous type. If you've ever eaten and ear of corn and found a spot where there was a space instead of a kernel, that shows that one silk was not pollinated because every kernel has its very own silk. To get a fully populated ear of corn, every individual silk must be fertilized.
Boy are we busy this month! Don't worry. If you fail to get everything done, you can keep at it for the first two weeks of May. There is no need to rush in Southern California. Our climate forgives us for being too early or too late most of the time, so you can go wrong, but you have to work at it pretty hard.