Who can resist just picked home-grown summer vegetables? Not only are vitamins at their peak, but the taste is exquisite and wholesome, quite unlike vegetables that have been shipped hundreds of miles to your supermarket.
Our New World vegetables, so-called because native Americans grew them long before the New World was settled by Europeans, are some of the most basic, delicious vegetables we can grow. Best of all, they’re easy to grow! A bounty of sweet corn, snap beans and summer squash will satisfy the appetite like nothing else in the peak of summer.
These three vegetables are all true summer vegetables, requiring warm air, warm soil and plenty of sunshine for growth. In fact, cold temperatures may slow or prevent germination, slow vine and stalk growth, and stop flowering and fruit set. For the best performance, provide them with rich, organic garden soil, regular side dressings of compost or manure and plenty of water, especially while the fruits are maturing. Mulch with loose organic matter when the plants are for to six inches high, and you will be rewarded with a bounteous harvest.
After being pushed to the back of catalogs and grocery bins for years, squashes are finally coming into their own. There are many squashes being offered now, and their popularity is soaring. Some are new hybrids and others are heirlooms that have been around in home gardens but not available on a wide scale. Also available are the multi-use varieties. These squash, when harvested young, can be used raw or steamed like any other summer squash. If left to mature longer, they develop the hard rinds of early winter squash.
Even if you have only a small space, there are quite a few bush varieties available for gardens with space restrictions. It’s even possible to grow some bush types in a barrel on an apartment balcony, or vining zucchini and crooknecks on a trellis.
Summer squash can be started indoors in individual containers and transplanted after danger of frost has passed. However, the most common and usually successful method is to seed directly into the garden when the soil has warmed. Plant vining squash about three to four feet apart in rows six to twelve feet apart. Plant bush squash in mounds two to four feet apart with four to six seeds per mound. Tow to four plants per person should give you plenty for fresh eating all summer.
Green beans, called snap beans because they break with a loud snap, fit into almost any garden and any meal with grace. They were called string beans in older times because they had tough strings along the sides that had to be removed. The beans of today seldom have strings, and are tender and sweet, delicious steamed with a little butter, or as additions to stews, stir fries and soufflés.
The varieties are endless – you can plant pole beans on a chain link fence or bamboo teepee, or bush beans as a hedge around the garden. Green beans come in green, of course, but also in yellow (called wax beans) and purple. Not only are the yellow and purple beans easy to see for picking, but they are magic for children since they turn green as they cook. And, they have beautiful pale lilac flowers.
French filet beans (also called haricots verts), a gourmet delicacy, are bred to be harvested when very young. The taste is extraordinary, but be sure to pick them when only about an eighth of an inch thick or the begin to get stringy. Italian romano beans have flat pods, and a rich bean flavor that begs to be accompanied by garlic and oregano.
Beans naturally add nitrogen to the soil because of a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. Before planting, it helps to wet the seed and sprinkle it with inoculant containing the bacteria.
To assure yourself of tasty beans throughout the summer, seed bush beans every two to four weeks. You can extend your harvest by planting early maturing bush types and pole beans which mature later in the season. Allow 4-6 inches between plants and 18-24 inches between rows. Begin harvesting your beans when the pods are about four inches long.
There is nothing quite like the flavor of an ear of sweet corn picked from the field, dropped into a pot of boiling water for only a few minutes, and then savored as is or dripping with butter and salt if you prefer. Growing your own sweet corn can give you the freshest corn possible, and you can extend your harvest over several weeks merely by planting varieties with varying maturation times.
The newest additions to the corn repertoire are the super-sweet and sugar-enhanced types. These have more sugar and their sugar-to-starch conversion time is much longer than with older sweet hybrids, giving you more opportunity to taste the sweetness before the corn becomes starchy. The sugar-enhanced types are reputed to be creamier and more tender than the super-sweets. (For more information, check out our article on the different sweet corn types.)
Since corn is pollinated by wind, planting corn in patches by variety rather than in rows will increase your chances for a great harvest. Plant corn about two inches apart in rows about 16-18 inches apart. If you plant in wide row beds, you will have the best yields by planting corn on four inch centers.
Harvest sweet corn when the silks turn dark. Test a few kernels by breaking the kernel skin with your fingernail – creamy-white juice indicates ripeness, water juice means to wait a day or two for harvest. Get your pot of water boiling and twist off the ears from the stalk. Shuck, toss the husks on the compost pile, and drop the ears in boiling water for about five minutes. Enjoy!
Our thanks to the National Garden Bureau, and to Kate Jerome for this article.