This column was published in the Idaho Press
Timing is everything in a vegetable garden. Missing your window to seed or transplant spring lettuce means no spring lettuce that season. Vegetable gardeners (not to mention real farmers) are kept on their toes, habitually planning and calculating days to maturity so they can maximize their space and yield. As a brand new backyard gardener, that pace and information overload can feel overwhelming.
Thankfully, there’s a handful of edible plants that are more forgiving about their timing. Some of these plants are nutrient packed, some can sit in a pantry for ages, and others take up less space in your yard. They are “Super Veggies,” and there are advantages for choosing them over others if your goal is to supplement trips to the grocery store.
IMHO (In My Horticulturist Opinion), all of us should be growing onions. Grow as many of them as you can pack into floral containers, flower beds, and in between other spring crops. Onions store well. Their tops are edible, and you can cut them back several times as they regrow new leaves. They’re simple to seed or transplant via bulblets or young plants. (Tip: trim long roots to 1-2 inches so they sit straight(ish) in the soil rather than curled up). It’s obvious when an onion has reached maturity, and they are forgiving if harvested a little early or a little late. (Tip: their stems will yellow and flop over when they’re ready to harvest). Americans use onions in a thousand different dishes, in a thousand different ways. My favorite is skewered on the grill, which almost requires no effort. Store whole onions and shallots (their sweeter, French cousin) in a mesh bag or nylon stocking in a cool (32-40 degrees ideally), dry and dark place. Cut off the tops and eat them in a scramble. It’s getting a little late to seed and transplant onions in southwest Idaho. Do it now!
2. Acorn Squash
Bush-type acorn squash are fairly compact members of the squash (Cucurbitae) family, compared to other sprawling cucurbits like watermelon, pumpkins and vining acorn squash. This is another plant to seed in your front AND backyard. They’re rich in vitamin C, carotenoids, polysaccharide fibers, and minerals like potassium and magnesium. Acorn squash couldn’t be easier to cook — carefully chop them in half, slather them in oil, salt and pepper, and plop them on a cookie sheet in the oven. Squash bugs terrorize backyards and farms every season, but acorn squash are more resistant to their attacks than others (like yellow summer squash, which shrivel upon sight of squash bugs). Harvest them when the skin is so thick that you can’t puncture it easily with your fingernail. Store them for 5-8 weeks in a cool (50-55 degrees ideally), dry, dark spot. You can try sowing squash within the next 1-2 weeks, now that soil temperatures are climbing above 60 degrees. Check for germination (sprouting) one week after you sow them. If nothing pops up, try again until you’re successful. Or throw out that old seed and get something newer.
3. Green Beans
These slender beauties are a gift that keeps on giving — and giving. Beans and peas will produce higher and more quality yields if harvested regularly. What a convenient morning task for energetic children! Tell your young gardeners to harvest beans that are tender and sweet (raw sampling encouraged). Climbing green beans (AKA pole beans) maximize space in your garden, using third dimensional growing space as they weave up trellising. Canning or pickling green beans increase their longevity in your pantry. I don’t have a canning set in our small apartment, so I throw excess beans in a jar of vinegar, water and spices for a few weeks. “Slenderette” is an Idaho-bred cultivar that doesn’t thicken up as quickly as other cultivars do. Seed these lovelies with the same timing approach as squash (see above).
4. ‘Tromboncino’ Squash, ‘Costata Romanesco’ Zucchini, and Armenian Cucumber
I fully expect a deluge of zucchini to hit neighborhoods across Boise this summer. Baseball bat-sized zucchini are often the one vegetable that you can’t give away. Zucchini seem to grow at fantastic speeds, suddenly appearing ready to harvest when your back is turned. Unfortunately, they often become pithy, seedy and downright unappealing when left to ripen above standard grocery-store size. This problem is the reason that we’re selling “Costata Romanesco” zucchini during our annual plant sale, which grow a reasonable yield, and are still delicious at a larger size. Their flowers are tasty, too. I recommend Armenian cucumber for the same reason. Amernian cucumber (Cucumis melo) are a different species than typical grocery-store cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), and seem to encounter less pest problems in the Treasure Valley. Finally, no “best-of cucurbit” list is complete without “Tromboncino” or trumpet squash, a summer squash that looks like it’s name suggests. They are crisp and flavorful when harvested young (12 inches), and sweet when left to harden like a winter squash. Tromboncino are excellent climbers! Utilize that additional growing space by vining these up a trellis. Ditto for seeding (see above(s)).
And for those vegetables that won’t fill the dinner plate …
To learn about four vegetables that DON’T really feed a family, visit our blog at idahobotanicalgarden.org.
Laverty is the assistant horticulture director at Idaho Botanical Garden.