Editor’s Note: This is part 2 in an occasional garden season series of what to plant, when to plant it and how. Find part 1 here: pressherald.com/2021/04/18/vegetable-gardening-season-is-here-ready-set-go/

Next weekend you can plant whatever you want. But I’d still check the weather forecast.

The traditional date to begin putting seedlings in your vegetable garden is on the traditional Memorial Day, which, until 1970, was May 30. A 1971 federal law changed the holiday to the last Monday in May. Last year, that happened to fall a little earlier, on May 25, and some gardeners got in trouble when they put their tomato seedlings out, then were hit with a late frost. Hence my advice: first, watch the forecast to see if the temperatures are predicted to drop below 40 degrees, and second, maybe best to just wait until next weekend.

If you haven’t grown your own seedlings, that gives you another week to figure out what you are going to buy and where you are going to buy it. Here are a few suggestions of what to grow and some basics on how to grow it.

Cherry tomatoes ripen in Tom Atwell’s garden in Cape Elizabeth in July, 2020. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Tomatoes

For many vegetable gardeners, tomatoes mean summer. They are a technically a fruit, but are eaten mostly as a vegetable. Still, I regularly pick smaller cherry-sized tomatoes off the plants and pop them in my mouth right in the garden, just as I do with strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Because we use no pesticides and only organic fertilizer in our vegetable garden, I don’t worry about washing the vegetables, as long as they ripen a foot or more above the ground.

Select some varieties that are cherry-sized – our favorite is Sungold but there are many good options (we test a new one each summer) – and some, like Celebrity and Brandywine, that you can slice and put in a sandwich or cut into wedges for salads. If you want to make sauce or can tomatoes in late summer or early fall, it’s a good idea to plant paste tomatoes, too.

Tomatoes come in two types: determinate and indeterminate.

For new gardeners, the determinate varieties are easier to grow. They are called determinate because they grow to a certain size and then stop growing. Though they can be grown with no support, it helps to tie them on a pole or put them in a cage to keep the fruit off the ground, where it may rot from the moisture or get eaten by insects (pecked by birds, sampled by chipmunks, stepped on by deer, etc.). Determinate tomatoes produce a single flush of fruit, which all ripen over a period of a few weeks. If you grow determinate varieties and want tomatoes from July to first frost, you’ll need to plant different varieties or do succession planting, placing the seedlings in the garden several weeks apart.

Almost all cherry tomatoes and a majority of heirloom varieties are indeterminate, which means the vine keeps growing longer and producing more fruit as the season progresses. Indeterminate tomatoes require support, but they get overcrowded in typical tomato cages. Traditionally the vines are tied to stakes; use something soft for tying — I use old flannel shirt strips — and tie lightly so you don’t injure the vines.

Green bell peppers. You can eat them when they’re green, or wait until they ripen, change colors, and sweeten Melinda Fawver/Shutterstock

Peppers

Peppers are related to tomatoes, but need a lot less support – although tying the plants to small stakes will prevent high winds from damaging them.

Again there are plenty of varieties to choose from. Sweet bell peppers are standard, though banana-shaped peppers may also be sweet.
I like hot peppers more than my wife Nancy does, but we don’t eat a lot of them so we don’t grow them. Whichever you choose, place the pepper seedlings about 18 inches apart so they have room to spread out. Fertilize when you plant, and every three weeks or so after that.

Many gardeners pick a few peppers green as soon as they reach a decent size. Many, me among them, like to leave some peppers on the plants until the end of the season so they turn red or, for other varieties, yellow. At that point, their flavor is far sweeter. If we have enough peppers to eat both green and ripe, I consider the pepper season a success.

Cucumbers from a local garden in 2020. Plant now and think of the harvest you’ll have. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Cucurbits

You can grow cucurbits – cucumbers, squash and pumpkins – from seed or you can transplant seedlings. Many people say the plants develop just as quickly if planted from seed. I’ve found that true for summer squash, but not for winter squash or cucumbers.

All three want a lot of room, so plant them three to five feet apart, about an inch deep, putting two or three seeds at each spot. Some squash ripen more quickly if allowed to climb an angled support.

We eat summer squash (both yellow and green and black zucchini; the last is really a very dark green) and cucumbers as soon as they start showing up in the garden. For the winter squash, we put each developing vegetable on a small plastic stand to keep it from rotting during the (now rare) wet years. We grow mostly butternut, which is our favorite to eat, but gardening methods are the same for the other winter squashes.

You can plant cauliflower now, but Ramona Snell of Snell Family Farm says it’s better to wait until July, so the vegetable can ripen in the fall: it prefers the cool weather. Shutterstock/DUANGJAN J

Brassicas

Are you wondering when you should plant the brassicas – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts? Some gardening publications recommend that you plant them in late May and early June, but Ramona Snell of Snell Family Farm in Buxton says they ripen better in the cool weather of fall, which means you’d plant them in July. They work best as seedlings: give them about a foot of space, add a lot of nitrogen and make sure they get plenty of water.

All of this should keep you busy for the next few weeks. Look for the next in our summer’s series on vegetable gardening on June 20. I’ll be writing about harvesting and on succession planting. By then we’ll be well into the rhubarb and strawberries and, with luck, pie.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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