One of the joys of this otherwise largely depressing year has been hearing the stories of first-time vegetable gardeners who took the step of growing some of their own food due to economic insecurity, extra time on their hands, a desire to give back to a community via food donation, or a need to be outdoors more. Welcome to the club! We would have a secret handshake, but that’s not such a great plan right now. Distance elbow bump pantomime!
The fall months are a good time to look back on the season and assess what worked and what didn’t. In this post I’m going to mention some of the plants and cultivars that produced well for me this year. I emphasize me and this year because a secret of vegetable gardening is that each year is different and each garden is different, so I’m not guaranteeing these will be as great for you, or even for me next year. But if the descriptions sound good to you, they may be worth trying.
Let’s start with spring. Last year I got interested in trying loose-curd cauliflower, which is a type frequently grown in Asia that matures more quickly than European-type cauliflowers and features lacy flower buds and stems that are tender and sweet. I got seed for a hybrid called Song TJS-65, and it grew very well for me.
It worked well in a stir-fry or just steamed and seasoned, and had a nice sweet nutty flavor. Very easy to grow and pretty too.
In the summer, I had a bumper crop of Pineapple ground cherries, grown in a raised trough planter on my driveway with plastic fencing wrapped around in case the deer wanted a snack. Eventually the squirrels figured out how to get to them and finished them off, but that was close to the end of production anyway. In the meanwhile we ate lots of them as snacks; I also found they were good thrown into other vegetable dishes at the last minute as a little burst of sweet-sour flavor. Also I made my first batch of bitters on finding a recipe for ground cherry bitters, though it ended up tasting mostly like the rye whisky that was its base spirit, so I’m not sure that was a total success.
Anyway, here is one of the tiny ground cherries next to what I think is one of my Big Beef tomatoes, picked early to ripen indoors. They are cousins – both part of the nightshade family.
Ground cherries will also ripen after picking. The easiest way to harvest them is to pick them up after they’ve dropped from the plant, or when they are just about ready to drop. They come in little husks like tomatillos. (My tomatillo harvest was a bust this year; I’ve had great luck previously, but this year various insect pests found them and moved in, pretty much ignoring the tomatoes right next door.)
My favorite tomatoes of the year were the heirlooms Eva Purple Ball, Big Rainbow, and Dr. Wyche’s Yellow, all of which have descriptive names. Here’s an early Dr. Wyche’s cut open:
They got bigger and more delicious as the season went on. Eva Purple Ball was a regular provider of medium-sized purple-red fruit free of blemishes; Big Rainbow came late but gave me lots of huge multi-colored flavor bombs.
The best producer in my pepper garden this year was Cajun Belle, which makes bell peppers on the small side with a burst of heat – unfortunately a bit too much for my husband who avoids spicy food, so we didn’t use most of our large harvest. We did really appreciate the late-starting but super-productive Gatherer’s Gold, a yellow Italian frying pepper. I just harvested the last of these before pulling my plants out; they’re beautifully shaped and delicious. I’ve grown these before and had them under-perform, so who knows what went well this year – soil? position in the garden? weather? Anyway, a gem.
And we (at least my son and I, who relish the one-in-ten heat risk) loved harvesting loads and loads of Shishito peppers and frying them up whole:
These are so easy to grow and so productive. I had four plants which ended up too much for the two of us who would eat them, so maybe three next year, or I’ll grow an extra for donation.
I didn’t have a whole lot of luck with cucurbits this year, but I did get a fair harvest of zucchini and had moderate success with a small-sized butternut called Butterscotch. It did get assaulted by the mosaic viruses endemic to our community garden, and eventually by powdery mildew (to which it has some resistance), but I was able to harvest at least eight fruits off of one plant, and they are so sweet it’s almost like eating dessert, but not in a sickly gooey way. Yum.
The fall season highlight for me has been Fuku Komachi turnips, which are baseball-sized smooth white roots with a rich flavor when roasted.
I still need to harvest the last of these for a November treat. I’ve also got lots of sweet potatoes still to eat, harvested in early October, and some Chinese broccoli and lettuce to get out of the garden before we have a hard frost.
All in all it was a pretty successful gardening season. What did well for you this year?
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener