Favorite Vegetable Varieties and Cultivation Tips

This section describes my favorite vegetable varieties and cultivation tips that work best for me.

Beans

Fresh beans are a summer treat.  I think pole beans taste better than bush beans.  Italian Romano pole beans are my favorite.  I grow them vertically on my home made pole bean towers. They also produce over a longer period of time. Bush beans were bred for machine harvest, which means a short plant that produces all at the same time.   That is fine for canning, but for regular meals over the course of the summer, pole beans are the best for home gardeners.

Growing pole beans on a support saves a lot of space.  Many vegetable gardeners make tepees to support their pole beans.  I think my design for a pole bean support is more stable, takes less space and once it is made, takes less time to put up each year.  One bean supports provides enough beans for a meal for our family of three every 3-4 days.

The down side of pole beans is that they take longer to start to produce.  I plant some bush beans in the spring to get my first crop until the pole beans start producing.

Romano Pole Bean

Romano Pole Bean

Beets

I’m not a huge lover of beets, but an occasional side dish of them is a treat.  There are two things I like about beets. They grow in cool weather and they store well.  I usually plant some early in the spring and again in mid- summer. The late crop is ready when most of the other crops have finished.  They will keep in the ground until it freezes.  If I have some left in the ground when it is about to freeze, I put a plastic bag full of leaves over them. That will give me a few more weeks to harvest them.

I don’t have a real favorite beet variety. I just buy whatever type is on sale.  Since I only grow enough for about 6-8 meals per year, I don’t use a full package of seeds in a year.  I save the unused seeds for the next year.

  

Corn

To be honest, with my 25’ X 30’ garden, growing corn really does not make a lot of sense.   Sweet corn is definitely my favorite vegetable, and the taste of fresh sweet corn can’t be beat, so I plant it anyway.  The variety I grow is Mirai®, from Twin Garden Farms.  It is very tender and sweet. Its claim to fame is that it keeps longer than probably any other super sweet variety.

Like the other super sweet varieties of corn, Mirai®,  needs to be sown when the soil is warm.  This actually works well for me.  I always seem to be short on time at normal corn planting time.   I usually plant it a couple of weeks later than normal corn planting time. The farmer’s market growers always try to get the early crops because the price is the best then. At the end of the season when the farmer’s market corn is past its prime, my garden’s corn is just perfect.  

Cucumbers

A summer staple in most vegetable gardens are cucumbers.  I raise them on a trellis made from electrical conduit and concrete reinforcing wire.  Growing them vertically increases the yield, reduces space, and you get perfect cucumbers without yellow areas or slug damage. I don't have a real favorite slicing variety, and grow a couple. In recent years I have started making dill pickles.  I have tried a few different varieties and so far National Pickling is my favorite. It has a good combination of producing fairly large yet crispy pickles and good yield.

A favorite way to eat cucumbers is in a sandwich made with soft white bread, slices of cucumbers and a little bit of raw onion with mayo and freshly ground black pepper.

Cucumber growing on trellis
Garlic

Garlic growing in late May (left). Note the heavy layer of dried leaf mulch. For best productivity garlic needs to be kept weed free and in moist soil. Garlic curing before storage (right).

Garlic

Garlic is a high value, easy to grow crop that does not take much work.  I plant some hard neck variety that I was given years ago plus a few elephant garlic bulbs. 

In Wisconsin, the garlic cloves need to be planted in late September or early October.  After the ground freezes I put a thin layer of leaves over them.  They are one of the first plants to emerge in the spring.  After the soil warms a bit I put grass clippings or other mulch around the plants.  The soil needs to be kept moist and weed free for the best crop.   

At about the end of July the plants start to turn brown and it is time to dig them out.  If you wait too long the bulbs start to split apart and don’t keep as well.  I wash them off in a bucket of water then let them dry for a few days.  Next I pick the best bulbs and separate them so I get about 40 garlic cloves for planting.     These are set aside for September planting. The rest are put in mesh bags and hung in the basement.  I usually run out of garlic in late May, about the same time that they dry out and are not very good. I only have to buy garlic at the grocery store for a couple of months every year.

Garlic types

Regular (left) and elephant garlic (center). The small brown bulbs (lower right) were formed with the large elephant garlic bulb. If planted the following year, they will form a single bulb like the one right above them. If that is planted it will form a a large regular bulb with multiple cloves.

Given space, cool weather and mulch, it is possible to grow large tender heads of leaf lettuce. This Oak Leaf Lettuce is over 18" in diameter.

Lettuce

There is no salad better than one made from a variety of leaf lettuces fresh from the garden.  Most people don’t do well with lettuce because they try to plant every seed in the packet.  The plants are crowded and get stunted. You need to spread them out. 

I plant lettuce in a grid with about 4” between plants. I plant one or two seeds.  As the plants come up and start to get a few leaves I transplant some of them so the remaining plants are about 8” apart. The lettuce transplants go between tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other plants that get fairly large.  The lettuce will be harvested before these plants need the room.  Transplanting sets the lettuce plants back a bit, which is fine because that will spread the harvest out.

Given enough space, water, and a reasonably cool spring, I get some really nice lettuce heads, often a good foot in diameter.   Extras are given to friends and relatives who can’t believe the size.

My favorite varieties are Prizehead, Oakleaf, Simpson Elite, Green Ice, and Red Sails.  A bowl with a mixture of these lettuces is very colorful and tasty.   I usually try a new variety or two every year.

Onions

There are only a few secrets for growing onions. The first is to select the right variety. In the north it is important to grow long day types. I usually plant Stuttgarter onion sets. Long day types grow their tops until the day length reaches its maximum at the summer solstice around June 20.  After that they start to form bulbs. To get the best bulbs you want to have good vegetative growth before late June. This means planting early. I have a rule, "Taxes and onions must be in by April 15, but you can file for an extension on the taxes."

Onions also need fertile soil so I add lots of compost before planting. They don't compete well with weeds, so I mulch heavily and try to keep the weeds pulled. In mid-late July the tops fall over and start to yellow. That is when it is time to dig them up and let them dry.  They will last until late April in my basement.

I also grow multiplier onions.  These don't form large bulbs but are harvested and eaten as green onions.  They come up very early in the spring and in late April are usually the first harvest of the year. In June they start to form clusters of small bulbs half way up the stem.  At this point the onions become woody and not good to eat.  The bulbs on the stem continue to grow until mid-July. The stems start to yellow and fall over. At this point the small bulbs can be separated and planted for next spring's crop.

Onions curing before storage in the basement.

Pea pods growing on a home made trellis. 

Peas

Peas are another crop that I don’t think are worth the trouble to grow. They take a lot of space to get enough to make a meal, and frozen peas taste pretty good and are not that expensive. The exception is pea pods. They are very expensive and usually poor quality at the grocery store. I like Oregon  Sugar Pod peas.

I plant them in early spring and another crop a couple of weeks later. Peas are one of those crops that need a long cool spring. Some years are great and others are bad. That is just the way it goes.

One of my favorite spring vegetable dishes is fresh pea pods, mushrooms and onions sautéed in a little olive oil and fresh garlic.  

Spinach

Spinach is a great crop in early spring before anything else is ready. I don’t really have a favorite. I just buy seeds that are on sale. For the earliest crop plant I plant them in early October, and sometimes even later if I don’t get around to it. They will sprout but won’t get very large before winter arrives. I cover them with leaves in early December. They will overwinter that way and once the weather starts to warm up a bit they start growing again.  They are usually the first thing I get out of the garden in the spring.

Unfortunately the fall planted crop tends to bolt very early. I plant a spring crop as soon as the ground can be worked, and that crop will be ready shortly after the fall planted crop is finished.

Summer Squash

I have grown a lot of different types of summer squash, but now generally just plant regular zucchini.  I plant a few plants in late May and some more in mid-July.  About the time the first plants are spent or  killed by the squash borers, the second crop takes over.

My favorite way to fix zucchini is on the grill. I cut them into wedges and cover with olive oil and crushed garlic for about 20 minutes. Then they go on the grill until they are done.  A light sprinkle of Parmesan cheese finishes them off properly.

Tomatoes

There is not a lot I can say about tomatoes. I grow 6-8 varieties each year. I grow Roma types to freeze for making chili in the winter.  I think Brandywine is the best tasting tomato.  I like Yellow Pear for putting on salads and snacking on while in the garden. Jung’s Wayahead is my favorite for the early crop. I start Wayahead early, and set them out a few weeks before the rest in a Wall-O-Water for protection. I usually plant a couple of large tomatoes like Beef Steak for BLTs. The rest are usually something new that catches my eye or some type given to me by a friend.

The only thing special about the way I grow tomatoes is the industrial strength cages I make.

First tomato of the season. Jung's Wayahead variety.

Tomato plant in home made tomato cage.

Winter Squash

Winter squash is a great crop since it keeps well into the winter without canning or freezing.  I usually only grow Mooregold, a variety developed at the University of Wisconsin and maybe Waltham Butternut.  It is very flavorful and never stringy.   Winter squash takes too much room if allowed to sprawl on the ground, so I grow them vertically on my home made squash supports. I leave them on the vine until the first frost kills the vines then put them in the basement.

  

Mooregold Squash

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