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Growing Together: Understanding your midsummer garden

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I think my daily activities and private conversations with my wife are being monitored.

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Yes, I’m pretty sure raccoons have bugged our house and tapped our phone lines. How else could they know the exact morning Mary and I planned to harvest sweet corn? They struck the night before, leaving us with nothing but leftovers.

Vegetable gardening teaches other lessons besides raccoon savvy. I enjoyed gardening so much as a boy, I decided to pay my way through several years of college by raising vegetables and selling them door to door in my hometown of Lisbon, N.D. Lugging washtubs full of cabbage and picking bushels of string beans taught me an appreciation of farmers markets.

Corn

Whether at a market, the grocery store or our own garden, how can we tell if sweet corn is at its peak of perfection? It’s all about sweetness, and capturing the corn when the sugar content is highest.

First feel the entire husk-covered ear of corn. A ripe ear will be rounded-blunt at the well-filled tip instead of pointed. The “silks,” the hair-like strands at the tip, become dry. If you peel back the husks and pierce a kernel with your thumbnail, the juice of ripe corn will be milky rather than clear. (However, if you’re caught peeling corn at the supermarket, please don’t say Kinzler told us to.)

After corn reaches its peak sugar content, sweetness begins fading, as natural processes convert sugars to starch, which is why past-prime corn tastes chewy and less sweet.

Older, standard sweet corn varieties lose half their sugar content within 24 hours of harvest, which is why the best-tasting sweet corn is freshly picked. Newer “supersweet” varieties have higher peak sugar contents, but also retain their sweetness longer after picking. Refrigeration also slows sweet corn’s conversion of sugars to starch. Supersweet types can maintain decent flavor for a week if refrigerated as soon as possible.

Because locally grown, quality sweet corn is readily available, many gardeners don’t include it in backyard gardens. Do you know the dollar value of vegetables grown in the average American garden? According to the National Gardening Association, home gardens yield a $500 return above expenses of seeds and plants.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a must-have in most of these gardens.

Did you escape the early heartache of blossom end rot? The sunken, blackened fruit bottoms are usually worse on the season’s first tomatoes, and the plight is caused by the plant’s inability to absorb soil calcium. The disorder can be lessened by maintaining even soil moisture, mulching and avoiding root disturbance from close cultivation. The problem usually disappears as tomato plants work themselves out of the situation.

Onions

Onions are less challenging than tomatoes, but have you ever wondered how long they should remain in the garden before harvest, once the tops have begun to flop over? Of course, onions can be pulled all summer for fresh use.

From the time the green tops begin to fall over until they are brown and dry, the bulbs’ size and yield can increase 30 to 40 percent. Bulb growth stops when leaves are dead-dry.

If you’d like to store onions, a few key points give maximum life. When leaves are totally browned, wait one week, but not longer than two, before digging. I’ll admit I’ve left onions in until fall, but there is danger of rot or growth restarting. Dig during a dry spell if possible, rather than after rain.

After digging, place onions in the sun for a day to kill and dry the roots at the bulb’s base. The next day, spread the onions in shallow containers in a warm, dry, airy location out of the sun. Most garages work fine. Turn bulbs every few days to promote drying.

This “curing” should last two to four weeks. When the outer skin is dry enough to rattle upon handling, onions are ready for long-term storage. Keep as cool as possible – 32 to 40 degrees is ideal.

Radishes

You’d think simple radishes would grow as easily as onions. But have yours ever grown into all tops with no radishes underneath? Soils too high in nitrogen can be the problem. Most commonly, though, it’s a result of planting them too thickly. Radish seed should be planted sparsely – or small seedlings thinned – so plants are 1 to 2 inches apart.

Radishes form best in cool weather. Planting in late April or early May helps them develop before warm weather contributes to the “all-tops, no bottoms” problem.

You can also try a late-summer radish crop as temperatures cool. Lettuce, spinach and kale also make great late plantings.

By August, most of the early-planted greens have “bolted.” This doesn’t mean they made a mad-dash for the lakes, but rather they send up seed stalks, resulting in bitter-tasting leaves.

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