Vegetable Smarts

Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Beans about beans
Green beans, yellow wax beans, pole beans, butter beans…everybody likes at least one and you can grow them all in big containers. Mix soil for growing potted beans with more bark and less fertilizer than other vegetables that need supplemental nutrition. Beans and peas are legumes that work a form of garden‘magic’ – they are able to take nitrogen from the air around them and use it to grow. If their soil is too nitrogen-rich, their leaves will be big and plentiful, but flowers and beans will be few and far between. You can grow up to 3 bush bean plants, such as green ‘Contender’ or ‘Bush Blue Lake’ or ‘Golden Wax’, in a 15 gallon container. Visualize a triangle on the soil in your container and plant 3 seeds at each point on this imaginary triangle. As soon as they come up and have 2 sets of leaves, snip off 2 at the soil level. That will leave 1 plant at each corner of the triangle without disturbing the soil. To grow pole beans, such as ‘Kentucky Wonder’ or pole butter beans like the heirloom ‘Lynch Mix’, you will need to support the vines. Use the imaginary triangle again, but this time put a bean pole or tall bamboo pole at each of the 3 points. Tie the tops of these tipi poles together, then plant seeds as described for bush beans. Keep the pots watered regularly and help the climbers stay on their poles if necessary. Remember: bush beans begin bearing sooner, but pole beans usually bear longer and produce more beans.
Big containers, bigger squash
Some vegetables are just big plants, and thrive in large pots full of well-drained, fertile container growing mix. The challenge for you, the gardener, is to keep them in their space. Each plant grows best with enough space for its particular root system, but the need for enough space around each plant to allow for good air circulation is equally important. Crowded vegetable leaves shade one another and stay wet longer, creating good conditions for fungus diseases to develop and insects to hide. Summer squash plants can be bulky things, sprawling around but not quite vining like their cousins, the cucumbers. Straightneck and crookneck yellow squashes, green zucchini and creamy, ufo-looking patty pan squash can all be trellised, though not quite in the same way as tomatoes or beans. Plant 3 squash seed in a ‘hill’ raised slightly in the center of a 10 gallon pot. As soon as you water them in, stick 3 stakes in a triangle around the hill. You can use bamboo or tomato stakes or any clean wood about an inch in diameter. Cut each stake long enough to plunge all the way to the bottom of the container and stick up 4 feet above the soil surface. When the seeds sprout, choose the best one and cut the others out with scissors – do not pull them up or the best one’s roots will be disturbed. Once the squash plant grows a few sets of leaves, begin to train it towards the triangle. Use something stretchy and soft, like pantyhose, to create a ring around the stakes that surround the plant. As the plant grows, add rings to support it and keep it from flopping over onto the surrounding vegetables. Not only will you save space and provide good air circulation to the growing plants, squash that is elevated retains its lower leaves and may take on a more compact form and put more effort into producing fruit than leaves. Since getting more squash is the point, it’s nice to know that staking container grown squash generally results in more and better produce. 
Bountiful basil
Herb growing has become a big part of many food gardens, especially container gardens. It’s important to have some salt in our daily diets, but most of us eat way too much. The problem is that salt is a wonderful taste itself and its presence in food brings out other flavors as well. Many of us grow herbs for their bold flavors and find that using herbs in cooking helps cut down on the amount of salt needed to make food taste good. Of course, the bold and subtle tastes in herbs are exciting to our tastebuds, too! Not too many people would know what to do with borage or savory, but everyone eats basil even if they don’t realize it. If you eat pizza or spaghetti or marinara sauce, you eat basil. It is one of the main components of Italian red sauce and is sometimes included in processed tomatoes, too. Basil is the easiest herb to grow and is a summer annual. Grow 2-3 plants in a 5 gallon container and fertilize it lightly when you feed the tomatoes and squash. We plant basil in April and harvest for weeks if not months by snipping off leaves as we need them. The process of snipping keeps the plants growing and branching so there’s more to harvest in no time. Snipping also prevents flowering and seed set, which would signal the end of the plant’s year and is to be avoided. Try basil in your own tomato sauces, ground with pine nuts for pesto and freshly picked with vine-ripe tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. When lots of basil leaves need to be harvested, it’s easy to freeze them for future use. Wash the leaves, cut them into shreds with scissors and fill ice cube trays with the leaves and just enough water to cover them. Once frozen, pop the basil cubes into a freezer bag and store frozen. Try these basils: Genovese, aka pesto basil, is the traditional herb for Italian cooking; Thai basil is sweeter and used in Asian cooking; cinnamon basil has rich, robust flavor. Enjoy them all!
Peppers in Pots
The most perfectly suited plant for container gardening must be peppers. Bell peppers, sweet peppers, hot and hotter peppers must have very well-drained, very warm soil. Peppers grow best in hot weather, and planting them in the ground too early often leads to stunting. But in a big, black container, their soil is warmed daily and pepper roots respond with great growth. That means more leaves, flowers and peppers! In the Deep South, we can plant peppers in pots from early April through May and still expect to get a full harvest long before frost threatens. Peppers need regular watering and fertilizer, two factors easily handled by container gardeners. Let their soil dry out just a bit before watering again. Fertilize every other week until flowers begin, then wait to fertilize again after the first peppers are ripe. These peppers are shaped as their name implies, like bells, usually 3”-5” wide and a little longer than wide. We eat the thick flesh of sweet peppers, and to encourage that strong cell wall, some gardeners spray the plants with Epsom salts when they are in bloom. The seeds inside the pepper’s cavity are edible but not particularly tasty, while the white lining is downright nasty to taste. Discard both when preparing the pepper to cook or eat raw. Bell peppers are a staple of cuisines around the world, the result of export from their native South America by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. Nowadays, Mexico is among the largest producers of bell peppers commercially, primarily for the fresh market. Green peppers are the most popular by far, but yellow, orange, purple, brown, black and red have slightly different flavors and niches in the market. Particular varieties of red sweet peppers are processed for pimentos and dried for paprika that spices Creole, Mexican and Portuguese dishes everyday of the year. Bell, or sweet, peppers are genetically different from their hot cousins like jalapeno and chili peppers, and have a gene that turns off the capsaicin that deliver the hot punch to our taste buds. You’ll grow no better source of Vitamins C and A than bell peppers, which have no fat and ve
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