The Backyard Beet: Changes to Our Garden Menu for the New Year

by 
Chris Mattingly, for the Shuttle
Fairy tale baby eggplant, a prolific producer.

In my December article, I introduced the annual garden planning system we use for our clients’ gardens. This month, I’ll share some of the things we learned about how our plants grow and which varieties we’re offering to our clients this year.

Perennial Herbs in Pots

For most of our clients, we planted sage, rosemary, thyme, etc. in pots. The most successful herbs were the ones that had plenty of room to grow. Plants with adequate soil to draw water and nutrients from also had less drought stress in the middle of the summer.

At home, we were happily surprised with the performance of some self-watering planters on our covered front porch. These have reservoirs in the base to reduce the frequency of watering. However, it’s still possible to forget about filling self-watering planters long enough to do damage.

Quick-Maturing Spring Crops

We removed dill and cilantro from our midsummer offerings. These are cool-season crops, and they go to seed quickly in midsummer. What’s more, they’re typically broadcast-sown directly into the garden by hand, like you would with grass seed. A thin layer of vermiculite goes over the seed to retain moisture for successful germination, but even so, germination of broadcast seed is spotty due to periods of intense heat and drought. There are ways to get some cool-season crops to germinate and grow in summer, but it requires more intense oversight than we can provide our clients on a weekly basis.

Likewise, we removed baby greens like arugula, spinach and kale from our midsummer offerings. Baby greens are broadcast sown and therefore prone to poor germination in summer. We are instead offering three varieties of the most heat tolerant lettuces: Romaine “Sparks,” and green and red summer crisp lettuces “Muir” and “Magenta,” which we’ll grow as full-size head lettuces. With full-size head lettuce, we can plant starts (seedlings) instead of sowing seed.

Slow-Maturing Spring Crops

Instead of offering a full-size head broccoli that is sensitive to stress and provides a single harvest, we are offering a multi-cut Italian variety called “De Cicco.” Our gardeners have noticed they can harvest smaller florets (side shoots) from a single plant week after week. This way, broccoli can be on the menu for our clients over a longer period with just a couple plants and without the need for succession planting.

Snap peas have always been a favorite, and last year we offered “Super Sugar Snap.” This long vine variety of pea (growing to six feet long) was tough to manage on our pyramidal bamboo trellises, so this year we are going with “Sugar Ann,” a short vine variety. The vines are 20 inches long, and it can be grown with or without support. We will place stakes and twine around each crop to provide some support and make it easier to harvest. From 20 inches to six feet — who knew there was such diversity in vine length among peas?

All-Season Mature Greens

Kale, collards and Swiss chard remain our all-season workhorses for mature greens. While collard greens remain one of the least popular choices for our clients, they are nutritious and versatile in the kitchen. And like kale and Swiss chard, you can pull lots of huge leaves from an early spring planting from May through December.

Summer Fruiting Crops

Despite low popularity and difficulty with growing them in small spaces, we decided to continue offering potatoes for the flavor and especially the mind-bending experience of digging up food from under the ground. “Yukon Gold” is our choice for reliably delicious yellow potatoes; we specify a minimum order of 12 square feet to grow them successfully.

The “fairy tale” baby eggplant has made an enemy of one client due to the sheer volume of its production. Marybeth couldn’t give away enough of these to her friends, and certainly couldn’t stand to cook or eat any more. While she won’t be ordering them again this year, they will still be on the menu — they’re just so cute!

We added a poblano pepper to our lineup and replaced our full-heat habanero with “numex suave orange,” a mild variety. It captures all of the tropical and fruity flavor of the habanero with none of the suffering!

Despite its propensity for critter predation, its low sprawling habit, and impracticality as a food staple, the “Goldie “ husk” or ground cherry remains on our menu. These small, sweet tropical fruits are concealed in a cream-colored paper husk and are only ready to eat when they drop to the ground. They’ve earned their spot by being unique in their flavor and presentation.

I often sell the ground cherry as a delight for children, but it also elicits a childlike sense of wonder from even stolid adults. Everyone should try growing this plant once or twice before hanging it up.

Hate to say it, but I haven’t met a grape tomato I really liked. Even the varieties from our seed supplier with the most superlatives in their descriptions are inferior to any cherry tomato.

Grape tomatoes are thick walled or thick skinned, and lack sweet, juicy goodness inside. This year, I’ve decided to offer “cocktail plum” tomatoes in their place. Salad lovers may have to slice them, but hopefully the sweet and meaty flesh will outweigh any negatives.

Both summer squash (zucchini, pattypan, yellow) and winter squash (pumpkin, butternut, acorn, etc.) plants can fall victim to the squash vine borer, which can damage and destroy plants in short order. The only varieties of squash not affected by it are the butternut and the tromboncino, or zucchetta. Both of these are actually of a different species from most other squash (C. moschata), and have more solid vines rather than hollow tubular ones, giving them resistance to the pest. The tromboncino can be harvested early (at about a foot long) and eaten as a summer squash, or left to mature and harden for use as a winter variety.

A Basil That Doesn’t Bolt

Finally, there is a variety of basil “Everleaf” that is extremely slow to bolt. When watered and fertilized adequately, it will produce basketfuls of leaves. Two plants are typically adequate for my family for the whole summer — and we love Caprese salad and freeze pesto for the winter. We plant them one foot apart, so each plant has plenty of room to branch out.

At Backyard Eats our service offerings and team are shaped by the needs of home gardeners. If you’d like help with your garden plan, we start with a consult you can book online. We’ll cover all the essential elements of a successful garden.

Chris Mattingly is the founder of Backyard Eats, a full-service food gardening business with an array of offerings in the greater Philadelphia area. Email him at chris@backyard-eats.com or visit www.backyard-eats.com.