In this, my last garden column for The Eagle, I’d like to thank the paper for devoting space to gardening and to readers for your interest in this most adaptable of hobbies.
We may all be feeling a little stir crazy by now, but a trip out to the garden or an hour tending to our potted plants can transform boredom into wonder. Spring, after all, is breaking out all over, inviting us to grow the vegetables and the flowers we would otherwise order sight unseen and have delivered to our doorsteps. We could venture out to a big box store or nursery, but staying home is the quickest way to get us over the worst of this pandemic. And tending to our edible gardens is both a necessary and relaxing way to celebrate social distance.
There’s no getting around it — the safest strategy for edible gardening this season is to grow from seed and/or to order transplants delivered directly to our doors. The eggplant and tomatoes I ordered online this week arrived a little rumpled but basically happy and healthy. They’re getting the full spa treatment — water and a diluted fertilizer mix — while I find a spot for them with at least 6-8 hours of full sun and support for future heavy stem growth. Growing from seed in late March is also an option, as long as we keep in mind that it will be getting hot about eight weeks from now.
So what edibles can we plant this week? For starters, pole and bush beans. It’s worth looking for disease-resistant varieties at Cornell University’s website: vegetablemdonline.ppath.cornell.edu/Tables/TableList.html. For an especially beautiful display, you can plant tender, green filet beans (e.g., Maxibel), purple beans (Royal Burgundy) and yellow beans (Pencil Pod) together in the garden. Spoiler alert: All of them will revert to a green color during cooking.
Sweet corn can be planted now, too. Gardeners tend to have strong favorites among sweet corn varieties. I like Kandy Korn, which produces about 2.5 ears per stalk. But corn is always a bit of a gamble: If a strong spring storm arrives, or if raccoons get hungry, your entire stand can end up broken or horizontal on the soil. Over a week or so, the blown over stalks may gradually pick themselves up, unless they’re already silking and have become too heavy. Garden writer Barbara Damrosch has a solution for “lodging” (the term used to describe fallen or broken stems of grain): grow grain in a protected spot or behind a windbreak. Slatted fences are better than solid walls. She grows corn in clusters of three, allowing 18 inches between clusters. Her row of clusters runs down the center of 30-inch-wide beds. Planting in multiple groups of three will ensure good pollination and ear development.
Cucumber and eggplant also can be planted now — the cucumber from seed, and the eggplant from transplants. Cucumbers are prolific, so consider carefully how many plants you might actually need. Fortunately, cucumbers can be pickled quickly and simply and kept in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. More ambitious cooks might want to can them for a longer-lasting supply. Eggplant is believed to have originated in India, where it’s been cultivated for more than 1,500 years. Of the many colors, shapes, and flavors available to grow, the most popular in the US seem to be the mild-flavored Black Beauty (a large, teardrop-shaped fruit) and Ichiban, a slender, curved fruit. Black Beauty is best suited to grilling and casseroles, while Ichiban, with proportionally more skin to meat, works best for stir-frying.
Swiss chard, collard greens, mustard greens and turnips also can be planted now. Transplants for all but the turnips will speed up the harvest date, but seeds should mature in time for a harvest. A striking variety of Swiss chard sometimes called Bright Lights or rainbow chard has stems of bright yellow, crimson, orange and white. These colors fade during cooking but can be sliced thinly and used raw in salads. A variety of mustard called Red Giant makes a gorgeous purple-toned addition to the vegetable or flower garden and grows quite easily from seed. For turnips, consider the small and creamy-tasting variety called Tokyo Cross, which matures in 60 days and can therefore be planted every two weeks through mid-April for a long-lasting harvest.
And last, but hardly least, there’s still time to plant tomatoes. Consider trying three types to ensure that at least one thrives and to help you decide which type you like best: a cherry tomato (Sweet Chelsea, Sweet 100, Red Cherry), a hybrid slicing tomato (bush Champion or Celebrity) and an heirloom tomato (Cherokee Purple or Brandywine). Plum tomatoes for cooking are also widely popular. Try Roma or Amish Paste.
Gardening allows us to be amateur cooks, physicists, doctors, artists and designers. The great thing about plants is that they want to grow; we simply need to help them follow their inner instructions. So good gardening to all. Eat well and stay safe.