In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
June, 2012
Regional Report

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Red ribs of Swiss chard offer powerful support to huge, ruffled leaves and keep them elevated for easy picking.

Bridesmaid Vegetables

There are some vegetables that are seriously overlooked, like bridesmaids at a June wedding. Even though they are simple to grow and taste much better when you grow them yourself, we pass them by on the plant rack in favor of garden stars like tomatoes in summer and broccoli in winter. But these plants are much more than just pretty maids all in a row.

Jilted by Gardeners
I have been a bridesmaid and chosen some, too, and I know the drill: ugly dress, silly hat, dyed-to-match pumps that you will never wear again, all in the name of love. Generally speaking, the prettiest bridesmaid is still not the headliner, and the same can be true in the garden.

Because we so love tomatoes or hot peppers, we leave out what could be our new best thing. Sometimes it is because we ate the vegetable once, or tried to, and did not like it; but homegrown has much more potential to please. Fresher flavors and more palatable textures can come from backyard varieties that do not ship well, are favorites of local cuisine, or are particularly well-suited to the local environment.

If you grow jalapenos and cayenne peppers, add sweet and hot banana varieties for diversity. Be adventurous and grow orange or purple sweet peppers in addition to the traditional greens. Banana peppers bring 5 inches of bright yellow in each fruity package and ripening peppers go through a lovely progression of shades as they turn from green to purple, orange, red, or yellow.

If you love red tomatoes, color up with green striped, rich gold, perfect pinks, and yellows from pale to bold. Tomatoes and eggplants are shape shifters and you can grow them all: round, oblong, cherry, and pear tomatoes; eggplants from finger sized that are great on the grill to long or round, egg or teardrop shaped.

If your vegetable garden plot is running short on space, make some room for these more unusual vegetables in a sunny bed and border, where they'll add a bright seasonal "pop." I told you these were pretty, and it is true, but you can easily search an online photo gallery to see their named varieties to help you envision how they'll look in your garden.

Fall for These
The entire fall garden season gets overlooked by gardeners busy with the sports and festivals that occupy every weekend until the winter holidays and tourist season. Perhaps a bigger challenge is that this excellent growing opportunity actually begins in mid-summer when heat and humidity can evaporate all gardening initiative.

Gardeners who do put in a fall garden seem hopelessly enamored of turnip greens and broccoli. Their incredibly delicious kin are often only the province of gourmets in this country but should be in every garden. Broccoli is related to cabbage and Brussels sprouts, but also to the slender broccoli rabe and crunchy kohlrabi. Even among cabbages there is diversity of red and green, curly Savoy and flat Dutch heads, as well as Napa cabbage and bok choy. Each has a slightly different flavor profile and culinary use.

To foil pest problems, mix up your crops. Block plantings of a single crop are more vulnerable to pest attacks and more likely to succumb entirely than a crazy quilt planting design that incorporates a variety of different vegetables in one bed.

Good to Grow
There are three "bridesmaid" vegetables that I urge you to try, two now and one in a few months. Summer salads need the crunch and nutrition of spinach, but it is too hot to grow in the summer garden. Fortunately, alternatives exist in Malabar and New Zealand spinaches. The first is a fleshy leafed vine that will go to seed quickly if allowed to dry out, and the latter forms a neat clump of leaves that look and taste more like classic spinach.

Swiss chard tops my list of fall and winter vegetables that no one grows. Sweeter than its relative, beet greens, it produces waffled green leaves with stiff ribs that steam delightfully on their own. The beauty of this bridesmaid lies in those ribs, which may be red, orange, yellow, or any shade in between depending on variety. Swiss chard is stunning as the centerpiece of a large planter, tucked in between shrubs, or grown in a square foot garden with other greens and lettuces. Start the first seeds in August for transplant in September and plant seeds monthly after that. You'll reap a long harvest of a great alternative to collard greens and spinach, a fine addition to winter soups, and lovely leaves to wrap around your favorite stuffing.

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