A Vegetable Grower Shares A Bounteous Crop Of Suggestions

Posted: July 01, 1990

For years, Ann and John Swan's Chester County garden has been one of my favorites because of the Swans' emphasis on vegetables. Onions, peppers, tomatoes and all kinds of lettuce and other leaf crops are beautifully grown with hardly a weed in sight, and there are always several new varieties under test. Long-season production is a hallmark of the Swan garden.

Here are some thoughts from John Swan to encourage you to keep your own crops going a little longer this season:

ONIONS. The leaves on the Swans' onions - the onions were planted in April - are now starting to lose their color. When they turn completely yellow and collapse, John Swan says, it's time to lift the bulbs out of the ground and start the drying process. If you don't get around to it for a week or so, don't worry - they'll keep just fine on the ground (provided we don't have a week of very wet weather).

Before lifting the bulbs, find a shady spot with plenty of air circulation. One year, figuring the bulbs would dry more quickly in the sun, the Swans left them in one of the warmest places in their garden, only to find that they were full of soft spots by midwinter. Having learned their lesson, they now place their onions in the shade of a tree. The onions rest on old window screens supported on bricks, and this allows them to dry thoroughly. If you have space in a well-aerated garage, use it. Leave all the old leaves on the bulbs until they turn the color of straw, and then cut them back to about an inch above the bulb and store the crop in an airy place.

TOMATOES, EGGPLANTS. At this time of year, John Swan fertilizes such full- season crops as tomatoes and eggplants with a side dressing of 5-10-5 or 5-10-10 to give them an extra boost to encourage late summer production. Crops with a shorter life - zucchini and beans, for example - don't receive this bonus because before long they'll be out of the ground.

BEANS. The Swans say that beans make a wonderfully rewarding vegetable, and they plan to replace some of their onion rows with bush beans for harvesting in September. Unlike some hardier crops, bush beans slow down when the nights turn cooler in September, so he recommends planting seeds between now and the third week of July for the last crop.

ZUCCHINI. Here is another candidate for a second crop, especially if the early plants have succumbed to wilt. John Swan says that zucchini wilt, unlike tomato and eggplant wilt, is not a soil-borne disease, and therefore it's safe to plant a second crop in the same place as the first. (I've never had enough space to test the theory, but some say that you should always try to replace a root crop with a crop grown for its top growth, and vice versa.)

LETTUCE. Another season-long crop in the Swan garden is lettuce, thanks to the shading the Swans provide seedlings from mid-June through late August. This year they're testing Victoria, a variety recommended by Johnny's Selected Seeds (Foss Hill Road, Albion, Maine 04910) as a "superb summer variety." So far so good, but John Swan says the acid test will be whether the harvest is crisp in the soggy days of August. Another of the Swans' favorite lettuce varieties for long-season harvest is Ruby, which they prefer to Red Sails, a more recent introduction with similar characteristics.

CARROTS. In late June, I recommended the first week of July as the last possible time for planting carrots for fall harvesting. But John Swan has had good success planting even as late as the third week of July, and we have concluded that the difference in our gardens is that the Swans' bakes in the sun all day, whereas mine is in shade by late afternoon. Carrots are slow to germinate and a real challenge to thin if you sow them too thickly. "Never," John Swan says, "try to transplant carrots because you'll end up with a bunch of forked roots."

RADICCHIO. This lovely designer leaf that's often served wilted and tired is another cool-weather crop that the Swans turn out each year with great flair. Giulio (also available through Johnny's) is their favorite variety

because it forms a good head; again, John Swan recommends planting and thinning, but not transplanting.

CHARD, CABBAGE. Swiss chard and Chinese cabbage are more Swan specialties; with the latter, John Swan recommends Jade Pagoda. In addition, tatsoi and mizuna are Asian greens that make a fall salad in the Swans' house an interesting experience. Mizuna has a tangy taste and matures 40 days after sowing; tatsoi, which the Swans admire for its mild flavor and neat appearance, takes about a week longer.

SEEDS. Germinating almost anything in midsummer is a challenge. The Swans make it as easy as possible for the seeds by keeping them moist under one layer of burlap. Secure the sides of the fabric with bricks, then soak it throughly on a regular basis if there is no rain. "Be sure to peek under the burlap from time to time," John Swan says, "and pull it off gently as soon as you see germination."

MULCH. The Swans are also strong advocates of mulch and always cover all the unplanted areas in their vegetable garden with a three- to four-inch layer of salt hay. "At $10 to $15 per bale, it's an expensive cover," John Swan says, "but it's the best looking of all mulches, and in addition it doesn't harbor weed seeds that will later sprout all over your garden." He cautions gardeners not to use grass clippings as mulch in the vegetable garden if the lawn has been treated chemically for weed or pest control.

WHAT TO DO IN YOUR GARDEN THIS WEEKEND

The flowers you cut from your own garden are twice as precious as any you might purchase from a florist, so treat them with special care. Pick as early as possible in the morning; if you miss in the morning, wait until later in the evening when the sun is off the garden. Make your cuts with a sharp knife, rather than pruning shears, which bruise the stems. As soon as you get them into the house, recut stems on a slant and put the flowers into a deep bucket or vase filled with warm water. Leave them there for several hours or overnight, and then create your arrangements.

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Unlike wood ashes, which provide a good source of potash, barbecue ashes are not beneficial and should not be placed into the garden.

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