We eat different parts of plants as vegetables. In addition to leaf and root vegetables, we eat fruits (including cucumbers and tomatoes), seeds (such as peas and beans) and stems (like asparagus).
Early in the growing season, you may walk by a vegetable garden and see a patch of tall, airy, fern-like sprays of foliage and be unsure what it is. You will recognize this vegetable in the spring when the shoots emerge from the ground as asparagus (Asparagus officinalis). By mid-summer, they have branched out beyond recognition and have an enormous amount of ornamental appeal. Asparagus is a perennial in zone 2 to 8 that will last up to 15 years or longer in your garden.
Make sure that the soil is properly amended with plenty of organic matter before you plant your asparagus since it will be there for a while. Asparagus prefers full sun though it can handle part shade. Good drainage and rich soil is essential. It grows best in a pH between 6.5 and 7 but will handle a pH down to 6. If your soil is more acidic you will need to add lime.
Asparagus can either be planted from seed or from 1 year old crowns (which is the norm). Plant the crowns (the area where the roots and the shoots meet on the plant) immediately so that they don’t dry out. If you can’t plant right away, store the crowns in the refrigerator and mist occasionally.
Plant the crowns 4 weeks before the last frost date in your area, 18 to 24 inches apart, in rows 3 feet apart, on the edge of the garden where they will not shade out other vegetables (the foliage gets from 5 to 9 feet tall). Dig a trench for your plants 5 to 10 inches deep (Rutgers hybrid asparagus should only be planted 5 inches deep. Older varieties are best planted 8 to 10 inches deep; they are less productive and run into problems if they are planted much deeper.)
Make a ridge in the middle of the trench and place the crowns on the ridge so that their roots spill over the edges. It will look like a row of octopuses sitting on a ridge. Cover with several inches of back fill and wait until you see growth before you continue to cover.
Asparagus benefit from a good layer of straw mulch in the middle of the summer to keep weeds down and moisture in. Water during dry spell but otherwise they plants are fairly self-sufficient. Weed the bed at the end of the season and fertilize with compost or aged cow manure. Once the foliage dies back you can cut it down for the season.
Do not harvest your asparagus for two years to allow them a chance to get established. During the third year you can harvest for 3 to 4 weeks and after that you will be able to harvest for 6 to 8 weeks. Harvest spears when they are about 6 to 10 inches long in spring.
Asparagus is dioecious (has male and female flowers on separate plants). The female plants expend energy producing seed and are not as productive. In the past, with varieties such as ‘Mary Washington’, people weeded out the female plants and kept the male. These days Rutgers University has produced all-male hybrids that are more productive. ‘Jersey Knight’, ‘Jersey Giant’ and ‘Jersey King’ are three popular varieties on the market.
There are many types of cucumbers for the home gardener to try. There are fancy heirloom cucumbers such as ‘Lemon’, which looks like a strange hybrid between a lemon and a cuke; pickling cucumbers that range from the size of a cornichon to a 6-inch long spear; Burpless varieties with thin skins and mild flavor that are easier to digest; and Asian varieties that are sweet and long with tiny seeds. If you are trying to decide between growing a slicing (salad) cucumber and a pickling cucumber but only have space in the garden for one variety, know that pickling cucumbers make excellent slicers and slicing cucumbers can be made into pickles.
You will need to decide how much space you will dedicate to cucumbers. Many of the vining cucumbers easily spread 6 to 8 feet while the more compact bush varieties cover a 2 to 3 foot area. Bush cucumbers, such as ‘Spacemaster’, ‘Salad Bush’, ‘Bush Champion’, and ‘Parks Bush Whopper’ are ideal for containers. Containers should be at least 12 inches deep and will need to be fertilized every 2 weeks with a fish emulsion.
Bush and pickling cucumbers are happy growing along the ground. Choose a corner of the vegetable garden and make mounds of soil several feet apart and plant them each with 5 or 6 seeds. Thin out to the three strongest plants in each mound. Remember to mulch the area with straw or a salt marsh hay substitute when you are growing cucumbers on the ground to protect the fruits.
It is best to use a trellis when growing vining cucumbers. Trellises will not only minimize the amount of space needed for large vines, they will also ensure that the large slicing or Asian cucumber you might grow will stretch downward and form an elegant, straight fruit. Even though the cucumbers have tendrils, you will have to give them extra support by tying the stems to the structure with either twine in a figure eight configuration or with Velcro plant ties. If using a trellis, space plants approximately 10 inches apart.
Cucumbers will grow faster and taste better if you have enriched your soil with compost or good organic matter. Some of the expert growers maintain that adding dried seaweed to the soil to boost trace elements will give you stronger and better disease-resistant plants. Cucumbers like good nitrogen levels and do well if they are preceded by an early pea crop.
Cucumbers are indigenous to India and relish warm temperatures. Wait until your last frost date has passed before you plant seeds or transplants. The seeds are large and a joy to plant. You can start them indoors 3 weeks earlier, but don’t keep them too long in small pots.
Mulch around your plants to protect their shallow roots and to keep moisture levels high: cucumbers need plenty of water to grow well. Plant them in the full sun in northern climates and give them some protection from the baking afternoon sun in southern regions.
Cucumbers are either monoecious or gynoecious. Monoecious means that the plant has both female flowers that fruit and male flowers that provide the pollen. Insects will come and move the pollen around so that you get a nice harvest. Gynoecious plants are all female. They produce large, early crops of cucumbers but they need to be planted near a monoecious cucumber to be pollinated. Seed packets will contain seed for a few of these pollinator plants that are colored so you can identify them. Make sure you label them in your garden so they are not accidentally removed.
All legumes are great team players in the garden; they are experts at capturing atmospheric nitrogen and storing it in their roots. This nitrogen will eventually be released into the soil for other plants to use.
Early in the season is not only the time to grow shelling peas but also snow peas and snap peas with their edible pods. Plant your peas on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th) is the old adage that has been passed down to gardeners in the tri-state area. Often you will find the ground to be still too soggy and delay until April 1. If you add compost and aged manure into the beds in the fall you will be ready to go in the spring.
Peas love to grow on trellises. Experiment with different kinds. You could use pea stakes, pliable stems with a good branching structure that have been cut back from other plants (such as Buddleja) or teepees, anything that gives the peas plenty of light, air circulation and space to grow.
Mulch your peas with straw before the weather gets too hot, or alternatively, shade their roots with lettuce to keep them cool. The cool, moist soil helps to lengthen the harvest.
Harvest the peas before they get too old, otherwise they will become starchy. Look for swelling pods where the peas are just starting to fill up but before the pod is completely full. Hold the plant with one hand and gently pull off the peas. Once the peas mature, it behooves you to harvest daily.
Once you have harvested your peas, you can replant the area with the pole beans that will fill the space and provide you with another delectable harvest.
Some nice pea varieties to try are ‘Mr. Big’, ‘Maxigolt’, ‘Amish Snap’ (snap pea), ‘Sugar Snap’ (snap pea), ‘Oregon Giant’ (snow pea) and a delightful dwarf cultivar called ‘Tom Thumb’. Some colorful heirloom varieties include ‘Golden Sweet’ which has two-toned purple flowers and lemon-yellow pods. It is an edible, podded pea that is excellent for stir frying. ‘Blue Podded Shelling’ is another stunner that is used in soups. Both of these heirlooms reach 5 to 6 feet in height and will need good trellising. ‘Green Arrow’ is a reliable English variety that reaches 2 to 2.5 feet tall. It is a heavy producer and a great variety for hungry homeowners with limited growing space.