How to grow 5 foolproof veggies

  • Article by: RHONDA HAYES , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2011 - 7:31 AM

Whether you're new to vegetable gardening or a seasoned veteran, it never hurts to stack the deck with a few surefire performers.

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Pickling cucumbers

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Whether you're new to vegetable gardening or a seasoned veteran, it never hurts to stack the deck with a few surefire performers. These veggies are simple to grow, and are almost guaranteed to give you mouthwatering results.

PEPPERS

Peppers are one of the more carefree vegetables you can grow. The old saying is that they like to hold hands, which harks back to the practice of growing three plants close together in a kind of horticultural support group. (This works in large containers, too.)

Bell peppers demand a longer, hotter growing season, but sweet Italian and banana peppers can be ready for harvest in 65 days and deliver almost the same taste and culinary options. Jalapeno-style peppers are no-fuss plants and always great in salsa. If you have to grow bells, choose one of the miniature varieties, such as Jingle Bells, which mature quickly and look cute on a veggie plate.

Varieties to try: Sweet Savannah, Sweet Banana.

CHERRY TOMATOES

Cherry tomatoes are the golden retriever of the vegetable world: They're eager to please and they climb all over the place. Prolific and easy to grow, they give that great tomato taste without all the problems that plague large-fruited tomatoes, such as blossom end rot or blight.

You can eat cherry tomatoes right out of your hand, and they're surprisingly versatile in the kitchen. They're great in salads, delicious in salsa and their small size makes them perfect for drying in the sun or in a dehydrator.

Like all tomatoes, cherries need lots of sun and support. Train their rambling indeterminate vines with a cage, a sturdy bamboo tepee or a rose tuteur for a decorative approach. And as long as they receive regular watering and adequate fertilization, cherry varieties are just as happy in a container as in the ground.

Varieties to try: You can't go wrong with Sweet 100, but if you're feeling ambitious, there's a Sweet Million. Or, for a colorful mix, plant Sun Gold and heirloom Yellow Pearl. Other favorites: Washington Cherry, Sun Cherry, Solid Gold and Five Star Grape.

POLE BEANS

By planting pole beans, you can do away with all the pain-in-the-back bending that's involved in picking beans. Once you put up a trellis or tepee for pole beans to climb, the rest is easy. Besides being easier to harvest, pole beans also save space in the garden by growing up rather than out.

The big seeds make planting pole beans a great way to get kids in the garden. But it's important to hold off planting until the soil has warmed to at least 65 degrees, better yet 70. Once they start producing, pole beans have a longer, steadier harvest than bush beans. And, as long as they're picked regularly, they will give and give until the first frost.

Varieties to try: Choose one of the classics, such as Kentucky Wonder, or try large-podded lima beans or colorful Italian specialty varieties now available in garden centers. Other favorites: Blue Lake, Kentucky Wonder, Fortex and NorthEaster.

CUCUMBERS

Whether grown in the ground or containers, cucumbers are hard to stop once they get going. The biggest challenge is finding the ripe ones hidden among the foliage before they get too big.

Homegrown cucumbers can be eaten peel and all because they don't have that waxy coating found on grocery store ones. And planting just a few vines can usually produce enough fruit for a quick batch of freezer pickles.

Cucumbers are easy to start from seed or plant. If you plan to plant in a container, look for bush types. Vining cucumber plants are healthier and more productive when grown on a trellis. Lean-to and hoop-style cucumber bridges allow for good air circulation and provide dappled shade for growing greens through summer.

Their high water content makes for that refreshing taste, but it also makes for a thirsty plant: Adequate water is the most important part of cucumber care.

Varieties to try: Speedway, Marketmore 76 and Marketmore 86, Straight Eight.

SUMMER SQUASH

Forget zucchini, grow yellow crookneck squash instead. This small squash is just as easy to grow as a zucchini, but offers a rich, nutty taste. Plus the yellow color looks attractive, especially when cooked with all the green zucchini your neighbors will give you.

Wait until the soil warms and start this squash from seed. (Studies show that seed-grown squash quickly catches up to store-bought starts.) Add some compost to the planting hole to supply the rich soil that summer squash needs to thrive.

Although they can stand a little drought, well-watered plants survive pests and diseases better -- and taste better.

Squash vine borer is enemy No. 1 of summer squash. You can avoid it by planting later (around July 4th), after the borer has finished laying eggs. Successive plantings two to three weeks apart are another way to ensure a plentiful harvest.

Varieties to try: Early Summer Crookneck.

University of Minnesota Extension Professor Terry Nennich contributed to this article. Rhonda Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer. She blogs at www.thegardenbuzz.com.

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