As summer approaches each year, many of us observe the annual ritual of retrieving and inspecting our barbecue paraphernalia--the long-handled tongs, the broad spatula, the barbecue fork and the tattered basting brush.
For gardeners, the ritual starts well before Memorial Day. Garlic has been lovingly planted in the fall, perennial herbs groomed in mid-April and annual herbs and vegetables started from seed indoors around February or March and then transplanted outside from April to June. By late May or early June, preparations for seasonal grilling feasts are under way.
If you'll be spending weekends and evenings standing over the grill, you'll want to grow herbs to aid your culinary endeavors. A prime candidate is the rosemary cultivar 'Barbeque', a handsome, deep-green, upright, incredibly tasty specimen. Other good rosemary options are 'Sal's Choice' and 'Tuscan Blue'.
Oregano is also an essential herb for the grill. The cultivar 'Hot and Spicy' has a phenomenal kick.
Thyme is another culinary staple. English thyme is easy to grow and is always tasty. French thyme, with its robust flavor, is another good option, although it may not be as hardy in your garden. For those who like lemony tastes, try lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus). Thyme is a versatile herb. It's also a natural insect repellent; when dried, it repels moths from linens. And as a culinary herb, it marinates beautifully with chicken or fish.
Along with the meat and fish we place on the grill, which vegetables shall we use? Some vegetables fit nicely on a skewer, while others can stand on their own. Favorite grilling vegetables are cherry tomatoes, onions, eggplants, peppers and summer squashes.
There is a plethora of excellent cherry tomatoes to choose from, for example the red 'Reisentraube' and the yellow 'Blondekopfchen'. Some easy-to-find and popular F1 hybrids include the tangerine-colored 'Sungold' with its intense flavor, and 'Sweet Million'.
Plant your tomatoes after the last frost date, approximately May 15th in the New York City area. Plant the transplants deeper than they are planted in the pot, burying part of the stem, so that additional roots will form. Cherry tomatoes grow beautifully staked or climbing up trellises. They are easy to grow; by the end of July, you'll have more cherry tomatoes than you know what to do with.
Eggplants and peppers go in the ground at the end of May, once the soil is nice and warm. They provide wonderful options for the grill. Two excellent eggplants are the buttery white hybrid appropriately called 'Casper' and the deep purple 'Black Beauty'.
There are also sweet and hot peppers for every occasion. Troll through the catalogs and find the ones that match your heat tolerance and suit your fancy. The variegated 'Fish' and the jalapeno pepper fall somewhere in the middle of the heat scale and are hot enough for marinades and salsas. Sweet Italian peppers such as 'The Godfather' or 'Jimmy Nardello' as well as sweet banana peppers, such as 'Bananarama' or the Cuban pepper 'Biscayne', are ideal for the grill.
For beginner gardeners, zucchini is a good starter plant. Easy to direct sow, the seeds sprout quickly. Before you know it, you are battling a glut of these summer squashes. An eye-catching zucchini hybrid is the boldly, striped hybrid called 'Green Tiger'. Hybrid yellow summer squashes such as 'Burpee Golden' or 'Golden Zucchini', as well as the warty 'Summer Crookneck', also have visual appeal. You can sow zucchini twice a season for an early and a late harvest, once in spring after the frost date and then once in midsummer.
Herbs from your garden are ideal ingredients for marinades made with balsamic vinegar, garlic and olive oil. You can soak sweet peppers in lime juice and season them with salt and pepper before basting the with olive oil for grilling. Salsas can be made with tomatoes or pineapple. The vegetables and fruits can be served raw or roasted.
Pesto is a great addition to summer dishes. It can be made traditionally with basil, or else with parsley, cilantro or a host of other herbs. Walnuts or pepitas (pumpkin seeds) can be substituted for the more expensive pine nuts. Both walnuts and pepitas give the pesto a nuttier flavor. Pesto can also top pasta, serve as a spread for bruschetta or be tossed onto grilled vegetables immediately before serving.
By far the easiest way to grill vegetables is to pile them onto a skewer. Some people use skewers made from woody, upright rosemary plants for extra flavor (remember to soak them before placing on the grill). Many delicious salads can also be made from grilled vegetables, for example roasted beet salad and roasted corn and tomato salad flavored with red onions.
The options for the grill garden are endless. Decide what you like to eat and enjoy.