June 28, 2017

Some Years You Get Just What You Planted

Summer squash, peppers and tomatoes had a good year in 2012.

Faith Pineo Photo | Summer squash, peppers and tomatoes had a good year in 2012.

• By Janine Pineo •

After contemplating the swaying buds of Mexican sunflowers high above my head — and wondering if frost would hit before they bloomed — I glanced down at the waist-high okra plants and oddly enough saw okra.

Then I laughed.

My vegetable garden has been funny that way. I despaired when I thought my beans would never blossom. I worried that the tomatoes would never ripen. I was certain the watermelon would fail again. And I never saw the okra flower.

Then one day, the beans blossomed, the tomatoes ripened, the watermelon grew and the okra, well, you know.

Summer’s early drought stressed some plants, but most recovered rapidly come August. What surprised me was the hardiness of the unusual and heirloom varieties.

Peppers were plentiful all summer long. The Ace hybrids grew by the dozens, and a couple of the heirloom types I bought from Burpee were outstanding. Chinese Giant, introduced in 1900, resembles the bell peppers available at the supermarket, with thick flesh and large fruits. The 1941 award-winning Sweet Banana pepper has a pointed shape and yellow hue, which matures into a bright red if you can leave them alone long enough. Both heirloom plants had good yields, which meant plenty of extras for the freezer.

Another Burpee heirloom that lived up to its billing of “by far the largest and finest of the sugar or edible-podded peas” was Mammoth Melting Sugar, a snow pea that has the lengthiest season I’ve seen. While my Sugar Snap peas are the sweetest (and unbeatable raw), I think Mammoth Melting Sugar is one of the best snow peas. After the first wave of peas matured, I expected the plants to wither away, but the flowers kept coming right into September with the quality of the harvest never suffering.

The summer’s mostly cool nights weren’t the best for heat-loving eggplant, but the Dusky variety set quite a few fruits that matured nicely. My test was on a Burpee Italian heirloom, Rosa Bianca, a globe-shaped, white eggplant with a generous blush of purple. The plants I purchased were small on arrival, but did catch up in height; by then, however, the hot days had passed and only a couple of blossoms set fruit. Maybe next year will be better.

The pole beans gave me fits early on, climbing scarcely halfway up the trellis by mid-July. After the rains came, the vines recovered, with a new variety producing furiously long before my old standbys started blooming. Rattlesnake from Pinetree Garden Seeds is a green bean dotted with purple splotches that turn green when it’s cooked. The plants provided plenty of beans for about a month before tapering off.

The happiest plants in the vegetable garden were the summer squash and the cucumbers. I went a little overboard and grew 14 squash varieties, although I held back and tried only nine different cucumbers. Conditions were ripe for both vegetables, and I have witnesses to prove it, not to mention a full freezer and a peck of pickles.

The squash came early and often, only slowing to a trickle by late August. My favorite yellow summer squash did well, and the zucchini multiplied rapidly. Two new varieties, Sunburst and Costata Romanesco, easily proved their worth.

Sunburst is a patty pan variety, a scallop-edge squash shaped like a bowl. This Pinetree selection is a brilliant yellow with a green spot on the bud end. The flavor was excellent, and the plants steadily produced fruits that stayed sweet and tender even when I overlooked a couple that grew into monsters.

From Johnny’s Selected Seeds, I grew the Italian zucchini Costata Romanesco, an elegantly ribbed squash that resembles a flower when sliced. The catalog said this variety produced fewer zucchini, although I would dispute that. Unlike regular zucchini, Costata Romanesco remained tender even when the it reached the oops-how-could-I-have-missed-that size.

Despite being raised on green-skinned cucumbers, I’ve found the flavor of the white or yellow varieties easily rivals that of the old favorites. Once the plants get some age on them, the green ones often turn bitter, but that isn’t the case with two offbeat types. From Pinetree is Bianco Lungo di Parigi, an Italian cuke that’s pure white from its knobby skin right to the tip of its spines. This cuke stayed sweet into September, much like another odd variety, Lemon cucumber.

This heirloom, once again available through Johnny’s, starts late but produces numerous fruits the size and color of lemons. In a sandwich or as a pickle, you couldn’t find a better cucumber.

In between the corn and the soybeans, in a little spot I considered the dessert section of the garden, I attempted to grow watermelon and cantaloupe — and I succeeded. So what if only a couple of decent-sized Sugar Baby watermelon grew; it’s better than none. The perfectly round fruits suffered only from too much rain, which watered down the flavor.

I also discovered the joy of fresh cantaloupe. The ones planted from seed didn’t do well, but the Super Sugar Scoop plants from a local greenhouse did superbly. Fortunately, I learned the test for ripeness: Lift the melon up and if the stem breaks from the fruit with no tugging, it’s ripe. The plants can be a little touchy, with too much rain lessening the flavor and causing ripe melons to split. After harvesting more than half a dozen from two plants, I know nothing beats a melon still warm from the sun.

And one more thing about that okra. Of the two varieties I planted, Clemson, a 1939 All America winner, didn’t show any signs of blossoming; Cajun Delight, the 1997 titleholder, did all the work.

That could be called progress.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in September 1997.

2012 update: Another year with less-than-ideal water weeded out the varieties that require more moisture. It was another good year for squash, peppers and tomatoes, especially tomatoes. The corn, on the other hand, was lackluster.