Thursday, March 26, 2009

CUCUMBERS: What do they want?

If I could grow one plant only it would be a cucumber.  Cucumbers are my favorite food.  I like them cold, or at room temperature, fresh or pickled, skinny or round.  I love to dip them in yogurt or hummus, slice them into salads, eat them with sweet butter and bread.  This is very good food, indeed.
The plant is short lived so you may need to grow more than one.  Better yet, plant one or two now, and then fresh plants in early summer and again in late summer.  Keep them well watered but not swamped to avoid bitterness.  A little mid-day shade works, too, though they can take full sun.
There are many varieties of cucumbers and most people prefer the type with no seeds.  These are also known as 'burpless'.  To achieve a seedless cucumber though required a certain magic that you pay for when you buy the seed or the fruit.  The most expensive seed we buy is for the cucumber plant Rocky.  I think it is worth is.  The cucumber is a Persian type with delicate skin, minimal seed and a sweet, crunchy flavor.  We planted some late in the summer in the greenhouse in five gallon tubs and had a cucumber a day from each plant til Thanksgiving.  
Another favorite for garden growing in Suyo Long.  This is a Chinese variety that has a slightly drier texture.  The skin is rough but edible and the flesh is crunchy.  Left on the ground, they can grow a little curly; on a trellis they are straighter.
Diva is a hybrid plant developed by Johnny's Selected Seed.  It incorporates all the best features of the Japanese and English cucumber and produces dramatic fruit on a substantial plant when trellised.  The flavor is terrific and it is easy to grow.
Lemon cucumbers look like lemons, though I don't taste any lemon in the flavor.  These do well in smaller containers (3 gallon or so) and, if picked small, are very sweet and flavorful.  If you let them get too big, they develop large seeds and are a little bitter.  Their fans are very devoted.
The Armenian and the Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumbers are not really cucumbers; rather, they are members of the melon family.  You need a lot of nighttime warmth to grow the Armenian types.  The Mexican Sour Gherkins is tiny, about the size of a quarter, and has a sourness that is very refreshing in summer salads.  We grow ours in small hanging bowls and pick as needed.
If you only want a cucumber like the waxed kind you find in the grocery store, you will probably be better off buying them at the grocery store.  If you want fresh, sweet, crisp cucumbers with unique flavors and textures and delicate, edible skins, then try growing your own.  You may become addicted.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

In Search of the Best Zucchini

Most of what we read on the backs of seed packets is irrelevant to the gardening calendar we need to use here on the Central Coast of California. First of all, we have few frosts and the soil rarely freezes, so timing seed starting to coincide with planting two weeks after our last frost is meaningless.  Our last frost may have been in December.  What matters more to us is soil temperature, water retention, and nighttime air temperatures.  Lettuce that does well in cool weather is typically grown in early spring and later summer 'back East."  We can grow lettuce year round and may find that our cool, foggy July nights are perfectly suited to growing lettuce but not to the quick ripening of luscious tomatoes or big Italian eggplant.  While our climate is temperate, we lack the soft warmth of summer nights so beloved by basil and peppers.
So I say to you, think differently about planting your garden.  You needn't rush into a full planting on May Day because we have a long, long growing season.  You don't need to plant a whole row of broccoli - you can plant two every other week or so.  You can engage in succession planting to insure a continuous harvest of good food from February through December.
There are a variety of tomatoes, for example, that produce very early, mid-season, and very late.  An early planting of a hardy determinate in a large container in a protected area means you might start getting tomatoes in June.  The large heirlooms like Brandywine take longer and can be planted later for a crop in September and October.  And there are many plants that will ripen easily between those months.  If you plant carefully, you have have home grown tomatoes six months of the year and longer if you have a small greenhouse, cold frame, or lean-to.  The same can be said of cucumbers, squash, eggplant, peppers, onions, salad greens, peas and beans.
Herbs are incredibly hardy and can be planted out most any time.  Many are perennial and one or two healthy plants will provide you with ample oregano, thyme, rosemary, chives, sage and marjoram.  
Those of us in the seedling business what to provide you with pants that are ready for transplanting into your garden or container at the appropriate time.  We have experimented in our own gardens and had successes and failures that we are happy to share.  I have planted many a tomato plant in March.  Some have thrived and blessed me with early harvests but some have succumbed to horrid diseases caused by cold winds and saturated soils with a hailstorm or two thrown in for good measure.  If you are unsure about your soil, garden location with regard to drainage, wind and sunlight hours - start with the hardiest plants like kale and broccoli.  Invest in a soil thermometer and bring out your tomatoes when you soil is at a consistent 55 degrees and cucumber seedlings when the temperature rises to 60 degrees.  Talk to your neighbors and others who garden in your area - they will be more than happy to share their experiences.  But nothing beats your own.  Remember - you don't really want to have the biggest zucchini on the block.  You want to have the best zucchini on the block.