March 11, 2010

When depends on what -- and in some cases, how often comes into play

— A sign of the boom in vegetable gardening is that whenever I write a column about vegetables, I get calls telling me that I omitted important details.

The most basic information that I have left out is when to plant. In Maine there are two basic dates: April 19, the original Patriots Day, and May 30, the original Memorial Day.

Cool-weather crops can be planted April 19 if your soil is dry enough. Today is May 10, but that does not mean you are too late. If you are going to do succession planting (which I will explain a bit further in the column) it just means that you missed the first planting. These vegetables will thrive, and in some cases do better, if you plant them now.

I checked out Amy Sinclair's ''Just Add Water'' garden Web site for New England Cable News at www.newengland gardener.com and found a picture April 30 of a tractor stuck in the mud at the Yarmouth Community Garden. That section of the garden was obviously too wet to plant.

Sinclair, who formerly worked at Channel 13, will grow a 10-foot-by-10-foot garden this year, and you can follow her progress at the Web site.

Anyway, early vegetables (cool-weather crops) are spinach, lettuce and similar greens, radishes, beets, Swiss chard, carrots, peas, potatoes, onions and leeks, and the cold crops -- including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts.

That being said, Ramona Snell of Snell Family Farm says that broccoli and cauliflower do better as fall crops (you plant in mid- to late-July and harvest them in the fall). All your perennial fruits and vegetables such as strawberries and asparagus can be planted early, because cold weather won't harm them.

The Memorial Day plants are beans, corn, squashes, cucumbers, pumpkins, eggplants, tomatoes and peppers. Eggplants, tomatoes and peppers in Maine really have to be planted as seedlings because it takes them so long to reach maturity. Corn and beans should be planted as seeds. Squash, cucumbers and pumpkins can be planted as seedlings, but it is cheaper and usually just as successful, I have found, to seed directly into the garden.

SUCCESSION PLANTING

Also called relay planting, succession planting is a way to get more produce out of your garden and be able to eat a wide variety of fresh vegetables all summer long.

Barbara Murphy, an extension educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's Oxford County office, says succession planting means simply planting the same vegetables every two or three weeks.

''A lot of people plant the vegetable garden Memorial Day weekend and then are done with it,'' Murphy said. ''But they have one lettuce crop and it's gone.''

She said you should probably stop planting lettuce in mid-June and start again in early August, because it does not like the heat of the summer.

Peas also do not like the summer heat, so you can plant every few weeks until mid-May.

Carrots work well with succession planting, Murphy said, but you should read the carrot seed packets because some carrots, the ones you plant early in the spring, are for eating fresh, and others, which you plant later, are for winter storage.

Murphy said that with early-maturing vegetables like lettuce, it is OK to plant the same crop a couple of times during the summer in the same spot. Just pull out the plants that have gone by and seed again. But you would not want to plant lettuce there again the next year, because that area may have become sensitized to diseases or problems connected to lettuce. Rotate your crops as much as you can.

Professional farmers do succession planting with corn so they have it available at the farm stands from late June until the first frost. With green beans, Murphy said, you can usually get a couple of crops.

Succession planting does not work well with such vegetables as tomatoes, peppers, winter squash and eggplant, because in Maine, they take the entire growing season to reach harvest quality.

FLOWERS GONE

One down side to all the interest in vegetable gardening is that Murphy's project of promoting cut flowers as a cash crop for Maine farmers, which I wrote about last August, has been pretty much rescinded.

The space at the South Paris office has been taken over by vegetables.

PRESERVING FOOD

The interest in preserving food is growing as quickly as the interest in growing the food.

Kathy Savoie of the Cumberland County office of the extension is offering courses on preservation all summer long, and they are more popular than ever. The cost is $10 for materials, and the classes last about three hours. Classes now scheduled are May 21 in South Portland, May 28 in Lisbon Falls, June 2 in Brunswick, June 11 in Gray, June 20 in Casco and June 23 in Westbrook. Registration deadlines are a week ahead of time by calling your county extension office.

You would think that preservation would have to wait until the gardens are producing crops, but the extension has publications on preserving such items as wild greens, fiddleheads and rhubarb. Go online to extensionpubs.umext. maine.edu.

I asked Savoie about preserving asparagus, and she and I agreed that you should eat it all fresh.

But if you have a huge amount of asparagus, go to the National Center for Food Preservation Web site at www.uga.edu/nchfp for some different preservation ideas, including canning and pickling.

CLARIFICATION

When I reported on an organic vegetable-gardening course, I said that David Buchanan, the instructor, does not like raised beds. That was a simplification.

''I wanted to encourage (the Cape Elizabeth gardeners) to use their own soil, if it's good, rather than buy something unknown,'' he said. ''Building frames can be expensive and time-consuming, so I try to encourage people to explore other options first.''

He would recommend raised beds ''in the city, in any areas with poor or contaminated soil, for people who need easier access, or simply to extend the season a bit (they warm up fast).''

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com

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