As I noted in this space a couple of weeks ago, this is the time of year to order seeds and plan your garden. If like me, you are snowbound, thinking about gardening makes for pleasant thoughts.
So, what follows is a list of some of the varieties I’ve had success growing as a market farmer in Western North Carolina. They’ll work wonderfully for the home gardener, too.
Planting dates vary according to elevation. I trialed these at less than 2,000 feet on a southern-facing slope. Keep trying different varieties until discovering those that work best for you.
• I’m a fan of greasy beans for good, old-fashioned taste, and they’ve been grown for a long time here in the Southern Appalachians. Beg some seed off a neighbor, or visit the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center at www.heirlooms.org and order a pack. Greasy beans need trellising, and you also have to string them before they are cooked, but in my book the great taste outweighs any inconvenience.
• Looking for ease of growing and for a prolific return — plus a purplish-red bean that actually retains its beautiful color when cooked? Grow red noodle beans, an Asian yard-long bean. I grow these on a teepee trellis. Be forewarned, like many Asian varieties, red noodle beans are short-day plants. This means they won’t start producing until after mid-summer. I like them raw, stir-fried or sautéed with onion and garlic.
• A good bush haricot vert is Maxibel. I grew these early last year, and enjoyed the taste and abundant production. Pick when skinny and you don’t need to string.
• Soybeans: Easy to grow, and hard to beat in the taste department. I steam them green, unshelled, and scrape the beans out of the pods with my teeth — delicious. The only variety I don’t like is the one most farmers here grow and swear by — butterbean. I like any of the others, though, and there are plenty to choose from.
• Early Wonder Top. The best beet for early planting — and I do mean early, as in mid to late February. These have been bred for good cold emergence, though they are also fine for later plantings. I seed with no cover or other protection. Every few weeks, I sow again, for spread-out bounties of beets. Cook the leaves like you would any other green.
• Bull’s Blood beets, despite the somewhat off-putting name, produces beautiful purple leaves that are perfect when cut small for salads. Bull’s Blood produces an OK beet, but grow this one primarily for the leaves.
• If you can, start early broccoli inside or in a greenhouse in mid January, transplant to the garden toward the end of February or early March — be prepared to cover against the cold when temperatures threaten to drop below 20 degrees. Early broccoli is worth the effort. Tendergreen works well for this. In the fall, use Arcadia.
• I like mini cabbages, such as Gonzales or Caraflex. Perfect for one or two people, with no waste. I use the same planting schedule and methods as outlined for broccoli. I cover both broccoli and cabbage with insect barrier just before the bug invasion to avoid using spays.
• I grow Chinese cabbage in the fall, using in the place of winter-finicky lettuces. My favorite variety has no name, and is known only by WR-70 Days, Hybrid, available through the Asian vegetable seed specialists, Kitazawa Seed Co., www.kitazawaseedcom. This produces a large, beautiful head from a plant that is forgiving of various soil and weather conditions. I direct seed into the garden in August. You can grow Chinese cabbage in the spring, but be prepared to fight an insect invasion if you do. The same holds true with bok choi (pac choi).
• Mokum for early carrots, Nelson for late spring, Sugarsnax for summer and Scarlet Nantes for the fall and winter (buried under mulch or protected by two layers of row cover).
• When it comes to corn, I like the old standby Silver Queen for my sweet corn, Merit for pickling and Hickory Cane for grits and cornbread. Space issues this year might prevent me from planting corn — it needs to be planted in blocks, not single long rows, to ensure good pollination. I’m not sure there’s anything much more beautiful than the sight of honeybees working corn tassels in the morning sunlight, or any more glorious sound than the contented buzzing roar they make when doing so.
• I planted Suhyo last year, a burpless Asian type, and liked it. You need good honeybee activity for success at cucumbers. No bees, no cucumbers. Also, a good steady supply of water is required.
• These are transplanted to the garden after it gets warm, so you need to either buy plants or start them inside during early March. I like to pre-germinate the seed by placing them in moist papertowels tucked into an open plastic sandwich bag in a warm place (the top of a refrigerator is good). Then, using tweezers, plant the seed in cups when germinated. I’ve had decent success with the Asian types, but plan to try something more traditional this year.
• This is an endless subject, and starts by defining what one means by “greens.” In this case, I’m referring to cooked ones. Some people plant greens such as kale and Senposai (a wonderful, hardy and productive Asian green, do try it) in the spring. I prefer to do most of my cooked-green plantings in the fall, however. Then I also plant collards, Georgia Southern or Vates, and mustards (green wave and red giant). Turnips such as seven top, grown for the top and not its root. When it comes to kale, Red Russian grows well in WNC, as does most any other variety.
• One of my market specialties was a pre-mixed, pre-washed salad. I love growing salad greens by broadcasting the seed thickly on top of a prepared bed, scraping it about using a rake to lightly cover with dirt. Then cut with scissors when the leaves are no larger than the size of your hand. The greens grow back readily if given water and adequate nutrients. Arugula is great if you like it, sorrel, black-seeded Simpson lettuce, Buttercrunch lettuce, claytonia (an interesting and should-be-better-known native North American salad green), golden purslane, tatsoi (a great-tasting Asian green) are a few of the easiest ones to grow. I also like baby mustard leaves in my mix, and add whichever fresh herbs and edible flowers are on hand.
• I start leeks in February. Put potting soil in a pot, sprinkle leek seed on top, and grow the plants until they are about the size of a pencil. Transplant into the garden then, by either trenching (the hard way) or sticking into a 6-inch hole made with a stick (the easy way). I’ve grown many varieties, but probably most enjoy the fall- to early winter-harvested ones, such as Tadorna.
• I talked some about leaf lettuce under salad greens, so here I’ll touch on head lettuces. I enjoy growing butterheads such as Tom Thumb and Buttercrunch. I start them inside during February and transplant in early March. Cover when temperatures drop below 20 degrees.
• I don’t like them. Not one bit, not at all. I don’t even like looking at them. You’ll have to get advice on this elsewhere, I’m afraid.
• I’ve grown from seeds and grown from sets (buttons) and grown from plants. Sets, for me, are easiest. Push into the ground and stand back. The varieties available at local feed and seed stores work fine for this purpose.
These have always been a struggle for me, but I know other gardeners and farmers in WNC produce beautiful crops. Sugar Ann is a standard snap pea. I’ve yet to grow a decent stand of English (shelling) peas.
• Because of our individual tolerance for heat, each person has to pick their own favorites when it comes to peppers. I will say this. You get a stronger, faster-producing plant if you start them inside in February, not the six-weeks-before-planting as most books suggest. Do not, however, plant them outside until mid to late May. These can’t take cold, not even a little bit.
• I like early potatoes best. Kennebec potatoes were traditionally grown in this region, and do well most years. Available in feed and seed stores locally, which saves shipping costs.
• I love them, so I plant them frequently in odd spaces left in the garden. Any of them are good, but Shunkyo deserves particular praise for having just the right combination of hot and sweet. In the fall, there are a number of winter radishes to plant, such as the Asian beauty hearts (who could resist with a name like that?), daikons and Black Spanish types. I’m still harvesting and eating some that were protected by row cover even now.
• A pain in the rear-end because the harvest window in WNC is often limited, but if you must have it try Space — this variety doesn’t bolt as quickly as some. How do you know when spinach is bolting? The leaves start getting pointy. Keep it harvested and well watered to prevent even more premature bolting. You folks at the higher elevations have the advantage in the spinach department — the cooler temperatures spell success when it comes to spinach.
• Traditional yellow and zucchini squash are prone to squash-vine borer decimation. Try tromboncino instead — it must be trellised, but the solid stems resist borers. In late May, direct seed winter squash such as spaghetti and butternut (also resistant to squash-vine borers). You won’t harvest these until September or so.
• In certain years they do terrific, other years growing them is just a waste of space. I like the old mainstay, Beauregard.
• Individual tastes make selecting varieties difficult. I’m partial to Brandywine, but you might not like it at all. The battle in WNC is blight. Spray, or grow under plastic, or just hope for the best (which usually doesn’t turn out all that well, to tell the truth).
• Grow in spring and fall. Purple top does great here, but Hakurei have a more refined taste.