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, heed their pleas and put them out sooner.
It seems the crops most of us think the 'value crops' are the summer crops of the Southern California garden. Back in March, I sowed a couple of short rows of purple snap beans, so I have some lovely little summer plants already up in the garden, about five inches promising the goodies to come. Some folks swear they are 'purple green beans, ' but that seems a little goofy to me. They aren't green, they're purple – until you cook them; when they are cooked to a delicious al dente 'done,' then they become a deep luscious green. It's a perfect veggie for someone learning how to not overcook vegetables.
They are good, but in my book, they aren't the real deal of the bean world. In April, we put out the main crop of snap beans. It's pretty common to plant green beans, including, Blue Lake, Kentucky Wonder, Romano and others, either as a pole bean or a bush bean. Pole beans need something to climb on and tend to produce more beans over the entire season. If you want to eat your beans freshly picked at a number of meals over the season, pole beans are your bet. If you plan on pickling, canning or freezing a bunch of beans for the cooler months, bush beans with their tendency to put on all their crop in the space of three or four good pickings will be the ones you go for.
I plant a lot of bush beans for drying – the plants stay in the garden until they are withered brown stalks with the bean pods still on them, until the beans begin to fall out from the dried pods. Then I pick them.
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 to eat anything that wasn't 'normal.' As far as I can determine, this is the only instance of conformity I've ever committed. Now that I am an adult, I've come to love the yellow beans, especially when 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 Carson, both of which are straight, delicious and good croppers. When it comes to pickling or canning, you only have to pack one jar with beans to appreciate the importance of a quality like 'straight!'
In all of this, I don't want to miss noting that I did an experiment a few years back putting a row of Romano beans up against Kentucky Wonder which had been my standard for a good many years. Romano won hands down so hard I've not planted Kentucky Wonder or any of the round green beans since! Some folks don't care for the taste of Romanos, but I find them as delicious as any bean I've ever had. And they are 'meatier' and, for my money, more productive over a longer period of time.
For something a little different, plant Dragon Langerie, a Dutch variety that has purple stripes down the large flat yellow bean. They can be quite large and still tasty. And showy! Or, Scarlet Runner beans. What a showy vegetable! First they have a bright red (scarlet, get it?) flower. The green beans can get what large, about ¾ inch across, and up to 12 inches long! Even at that stage they have a crunchy deliciousness that the size belies. After getting a little tough after a while, you can pick them and shell out the soft bean seeds – called 'shelly beans' in the south – and cook with a little butter. If you wait a bit longer, the seeds get hard and you have a dried soup bean – all this production in a plant you would be proud to put on a trellis at your front door! I didn't even tell you that the seeds are a brilliant purple splashed with black – this is one of the stand out plants of the bean world. Can you guess if I'll grow it again this year?
In the first half of the month, start planting beans, green, yellow and purple of all varieties, directly in the garden, I don't bother with transplanting from beans in starter packs, it's a lot more work for a very dubious gain. You can put out any bean from tax day on, but I usually wait yet another month for the beans I want to dry, like the famous Italian Cannelini, American Cranberry Bean or Black Turtle. I want these to 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 many dried beans – it can take a bit of space to get a decent crop. For the best drying bean selections look into Native Seed/SEARCH in Arizona or Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa.
Don't forget Lima beans! These big meaty bean seeds are really a winner in soups and stews. The climbing Lima bean variety “Christmas” is perennial in our climate and produces loads of red and white (the reason for calling it “Christmas” I believe) year in and year out. These vigorous vines demand to be put on a really sturdy fence – they will pull down anything less (as I can attest). If you can only afford one or two plants, they'll still make it worth your while. Keep them picked – it can be a bit of a chore to keep after them.
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,each of 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 them plenty of room! If your garden is small, make these gangly fellows climb a fence, a trellis or something up versus over the ground – and your other plants – which they will do with impunity!
At some point, everyone is tempted by the Lemon cucumber. This is an heirloom that looks so cute in catalogs. I have grown it several times and each time I've found myself asking, “Why?” It's not all that good, it's a labor to peel (five Lemon cukes equal less food than one Armenian or Japanese) and the vines can engulf a small home! OK, that's a bit much, but I've seen it cover a ten by ten foot garden bed without looking back. And it does produce well, but not like some of the more traditional cukes. Too much labor per bite. That should be a veggie growing matrix: Labor Per Bite; the LPB is too high.
The beans and cucumbers aren't all we are planting out right now. 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. And demand space or something on which to climb!
You say you want pumpkins for Halloween? Check the packet for the days to harvest. On the coast, we need to add almost a month to that which means you need to get them in sooner rather than later. You can skip the 'add a month' part, if you are more inland; but a pumpkin that is ripe before you need it, will keep. A pumpkin that isn't ripe until Thanksgiving can't be transformed into a Jack o' Lantern until the last minute because it will rot very quickly. “Early” really is more better than late in this case. And your dates to harvest could be slowed down if we get a heavy dose of June Gloom on the coast making that extra month essential. Without June gloom, you don't have to add that month.
Peppers and eggplants are easily grown once it has warmed up. They usually get about 3½' tall and need about 18” between plants. As with most vegetables, you need to give them all the 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 (my annual BLT) 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, I grow eggplant as an ornamental and give the produce to someone who cares to eat it. 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 practiced more patience. I like Anaheim, Early Jalapeno and 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. Very pretty.
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. There is a red variety called 'Burgandy' which is stunning! All okras, being mallow family members, have wonderful flowers and are stunning in the garden. I have been feeling better about okra as edible lately.
Not enough has been said yet about basil, but Genovese basil is the best in my book. Not just good production, but wonderful aroma and the taste is incomparable. Pinch the tips of each branch as flower buds begin to form all summer to keep it producing – once there are two pair of leaves on a stem, that stem will commence to flower. Pick the flowers before they have set seed, use them in cooking or making salads. Once the seeds begin to mature, 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! It's a win/win type of situation.
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. However, unlike the other grains, corn has male and female flowers. 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 blow onto the silks. It is best to plant corn as a block of plants rather than long rows. There needs to be a critical mass of male flowers to produce pollen to fall on the silks. You can shake the flowering corn stalks to cause the pollen to fall down and assist in corn sex if you're the adventurous type. Play some seductive music. “Was it good for you too?”
If you've ever eaten an ear of corn and found a spot where there was a space instead of a kernel, that shows that one silk was not pollinated: every kernel has its very own silk. To get a fully populated ear of corn, every individual silk must be fertilized.
Also at this time, you will put out plants of zucchini and soon afterwards, so-called 'Winter Squash.' Zucchini and the yellow crookneck squashes with soft skin are called Summer Squash because they are eaten in summer; while the hard rinds of squashes and pumpkins can be saved to be eaten in the cold (read 'non-gardening') months of winter. I usually set a plant or two of summer squash in the garden and plant seeds of the winter varieties. Both can be put out by seeds or by transplant, it's just the habit I've gotten into. Zucchini and summer squashes can be large leaved plants that don't ramble a lot, but get quite large. Winter squashes and pumpkins ramble everywhere – the larger the fruit, the larger the leaves and the greater potential with smashing other, not as large, veggies. Winter squashes resemble cucumbers in this way, except that cucumbers are more delicate than squash.
If you have an unused trellis, consider one of the climbing summer squashes like Zuchetta Trombonicino Squash. There are others with similar habits – but you'll have to grow them from seed! Check the seed catalogs for a description that matches this one. The fruit on these plants can get to be three or more feet long and when they are hanging down from a trellis they create a magical experience for children and the childlike as they walk between the hanging fruit – and mighty good eating too! Keep them picked and plan on having these gorgeous soft squashes to share with friends and neighbors. My catalog says they 'may be grown on a pretty strong trellis” and I would say that's just a bit understated. In our small gardens, growing these plants on the ground will take up too much of your gardening real estate and if you try a wimpy trellis, you'll get the plants growing on the ground as well, among the shattered parts of the wimpy trellis!
There is little hope of April showers in our area, although they are not unheard of. In many years, one or two will show up, although they don't usually provide us with much rain. Get your garden beds mulched as soon as you can. A lack of mulching will allow that water to evaporate and you will need to water all that much more. Add mulch to about three inches deep – don't cover your plants or freshly sown seeds, but all over the spaces between plants. And as plants get larger, add mulch around them. It will save you in weeding later on, the roots of plants will feel better and the critters in the soil are all much more happy!
It might seem early, but begin to think about saving seeds from some of the plants you put out now. Beans are easy in this regard, as are tomatoes and lettuce. Especially if you start your planting off with saving seed in mind. And it is NOT too early to think about seed saving; lets take a moment to think what you would need to do to save the seeds from some of the plants in your garden. Look elsewhere in this blog to find much more on seed saving!
Saving seeds from year to year only needs a little extra attention in what you already do and a little more record keeping so you can say 'this came from that and not from that' with assurance. This little effort will enrich your gardening in unexpected ways. The season I started to plant my garden with the intention of saving seeds for the future, both my garden and myself were changed in ways I did not anticipate. I have heard other folks describe a similar phenomena once they became parents – the future has new meaning and new importance and weight. In addition, I became more intimate with the phenomena of life that exists in the garden, feeding on the flowers and the seeds that I allowed to flourish. I don't, as I've said, use any pesticides in my garden and depend on a multitude of insects in the garden as my 'pest control.'
Plant beans apart from one another, at least a few feet with something taller growing between them. Although science says there is little chance of cross pollination between beans, their research is done in insecticide-soaked research plots. In your organic garden, you can get some crossing so planting your different varieties somewhat apart with something tall between them will help keep the beans self pollinated so they remain the same bean year after year. (The bean remains the same.) Designate a couple of plants from the beginning to be seed producers and mark them with some colored flags or colored tape found in hardware stores (this 'tape' is a lighter version non-sticky flagging tape, like a light version of 'Police Line – Do Not Cross' seen at crime scenes), buy a couple of colors to use for different purposes. Chose a plants of early, middle and late production. Chose plants with qualities you like (production, disease resistance or straight beans) if you want to carry those qualities forward. Tie the tape securely around the plants you will save for seed. Simply let the plant make beans and leave them on the plant until the pod is drying out. Gather in the dried up plants and allow to dry in as cool a place as you can find until they are really dry.
To insure there are no insects in the beans, put them in the freezer for a few days once they are dry enough (hit one with a hammer – if it shatters, it's dry enough!), pull them out, allow the condensation to disappear and put them into jars with extra head room (air space above the beans) and store them in a dark, cool place until needed to eat or to replant.
Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are a little more demanding because they produce over the whole summer, or at least that's what we hope for. They are mostly self-fertile, so if you're saving seed for yourself only, you might find it acceptable to have two plants of each flowering at the same time. If you plan on sharing the seed with others who might not have the same forgiveness gene as yourself, you'll need more rigor. I had a handyman build me a couple of frames that cover a typical eggplant or pepper. These frames are of 1 x 2 wood on to which I can staple some porous fabric, called 'spun fabric' or 'row covers' – sometimes you'll see the brand names Remay or Agri-Grow. This fabric allows air, water and sunlight to pass but no insects – in fact it is used over rows of plants like cabbage to protect the plants from the cabbage moth. It is rather inexpensive and can be used for more than one year. Just make sure the bottom of the fabric has solid continuous contact with the soil The frames should be good for several years especially if you coat them with linseed oil.
Start with these easy to save seeds – on down the road, you can learn to save seeds from the more demanding plants like squashes and cucumbers. Both of those are more promiscuous than any animal ever thought to be and are pollinated by bees. To get pure seed from them requires to manage their sex life and that can be really demanding.
Or corn, beets and chard which are wind pollinated. In fact, is is because they are wind pollinated that many folks are upset with genetically modified organisms grown indiscriminantly in America's fields. The pollen from GMO plants can easily be blown into non-GMO cropland contaminating those plants with the genetically modified material. The wind blown pollen has created a scarcity of corn varieties that are NOT contaminated with this unproven, and largely unwelcome, tehcnology.
Once you find yourself saving seed, you'll really feel a connection to your forefathers and foremothers! They saved seed all the time because it was their only source for seed other than neighbors – and I'm sure that sharing their seeds was one of the annual highlights of the community. It can become a part of your annual harvest festivals, of which Thanksgiving is the ultimate.
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.
Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
More basil, if needed
Beans of all kinds mentioned in the text
More summer squash, if needed
Squash (some folks prefer this to staring in containers)
Refer to the text for exact dates.
It is with trepidation I share the following recipe: I have often thought I need to enter this in the county fair because it is a winner for those of us who love rhubarb pie – you cannot find a decent one made commercially, that's for sure. A rhubarb pie cannot be made with a ton of sugar that covers the tartness of the rhubarb. This is a single-male modified Martha Stewart recipe and it is delicious.
I have not mastered making pie crust as of this writing – that is the only reason I have not sought a ribbon with this pie: it seems unfair to buy a crust for a pie that will be judged. I intend to learn how to make a good crust and then, look out! The blue ribbon will be mine!
David King's Most Beautifully Delicious Rhubarb Pie!
2 double pie crusts
2½ pounds fresh rhubarb, cut into ½ inch pieces, or 2 20 ounce packages of frozen rhubarb, thawed and drained (I have never used frozen rhubarb, it was in the original recipe however)
1 cup sugar, or to taste
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Juice and grated zest of 1 bright-skinned orange
Preheat the oven to 350 ° F
Cut the rhubarb into pieces to fill your pie crust. Combine all ingredients except rhubarb in bowl. Spoon this mixture over the rhubarb as evenly as you can over the rhubarb – the act of baking will take care of the distribution of the sauce.
Bake for approximately 50 minutes, until the filling has bubbled and thickened. Let cool on a rack before serving.
Makes one large or two smaller pies.