The Island Garden
With a foot-high pile of garden seed catalogs it is often hard to know what seeds to buy. But around here we have a fairly short season, from about May 15 to Oct. 15, give or take a week or two at each end.
That means we can grow at least one crop of vegetables that might take up to 100 days to grow. In this category I’d put leeks, Brussels sprout, some beans, kale and other plants. But I hate to tie up ground for more than half the growing season so I prefer to grow shortseason vegetables where possible, sacrificing a touch of flavor for the opportunity to get two or three crops from one patch of ground. I also gain on the season by starting a lot of plants in my basement germination chamber, which is a fancy name for four fluorescent lights located over four trays of seed.
Tomatoes, peppers, leek, eggplants and other long-season plants can all be started under lights, six to eight weeks before last frost, and moved into the garden when they are 6 to 10 inches tall around the end of May. I often start tomatoes even earlier and put them into the greenhouse where I may get tomatoes by early June.
Most gardeners are going to start their gardening career by growing tomatoes. There is a vast variety of tomatoes out there available in many colors. You can grow pink, red, white, yellow, green, striped, purple and even black tomatoes. You can grow pear, plum, cherry, currant or grape tomatoes if you like smaller ones. If you prefer large tomatoes plant beefsteak, Granny Cantrell, calabash or mortgage lifter. With these huge tomatoes, you only need one slice on your BLT, but you’d better grow a lot because you’ll eat the other pieces while you are waiting for the bacon to cook. You can also plant early tomatoes to get a crop about 58 to 62 days after planting, but these tend to be smaller. The larger varieties take 70 to 80 days to mature depending on the weather.
The most reliable that gives fruit about 2.5 inches diameter is Rutgers. This is an older tomato but one that still has a lot of taste. Another tomato with a lot of taste is Brandywine. There are a number of varieties of Brandywine and most are quite large and really delicious. However, Brandywine does not have the disease resistance that many of today’s hybrids have.
Another tasty heirloom tomato is Cherokee purple or chocolate. Both are dark skinned and moderately large heirloom types. It is so hard to decide what tomatoes to buy – I start with more than 20 varieties and end up giving a lot away. Each bush will give you many pounds of tomatoes.
If you plant determinate tomatoes, they all ripen at once, so this is the type to plant for sauces and soups. If you want to harvest tomatoes over a longer period for the dinner table, plant indeterminate types, which will often keep setting fruit until frost. You can get these tomatoes from most seedsmen, but Territorial Seed Company, Baker Creek Heirloom or Johnny’s Seeds all have a large variety.
After tomatoes many gardeners grow herbs. Basil, for example, is a favorite to complement tomatoes. (Hint: Plant basil and tomatoes together – they complement each other in the ground and in the kitchen.) Like tomatoes, there is a large range of basils, from the large-leaf Italian type to Asian basils such as Thai sweet and Thai hot. There are also lemon and lime basils, purple basil, and a small- or fine-leaf Greek basil. Each is delicious in its own way and can be used in a variety of dishes.
After basil, you might want to grow sage, thyme, chives, marjoram and oregano. All of these are perennial bushes so if you plant them once, they’ll come back time and again. You might also look at growing chervil, dill, coriander, fennel and cumin. They are annuals and easy to grow. However, they grow tall, up to four feet in many cases, so allow plenty of space. If you do use these herbs in the kitchen and grow them, remember to harvest and dry them (except for basil). Put dried herbs in small pots and you’ll find that the flavor difference over store bought herbs is huge.