Lessons Learned in the Summer Vegetable Garden Part I by Vera Strader “We really must grow tomatoes,” my husband and I agreed as we settled into our below-2000-foot-elevation Mother Lode home. We’d never gardened in the foothill’s sizzling summers, but we knew that fine-tuning basic principles would help launch our fledgling vegetable patch. We worked loads of aged horse manure into the heavy soil in our sun-baked yard. After the last frost, we incorporated tomato and melon plants within a new perennial bed, along with a soaker hose to ensure regular moisture. Even the melons produced generously. The following year we added eggplant and okra, both quite attractive plants, to a well-watered flowerbed near the lawn. We soon became acquainted with our neighbors for we had ample produce to share. As the years progressed, we integrated gopher proof linings and drip irrigation into raised beds at the back of the property. But, to “set fruit,” a plant’s blossoms must be pollinated. Away from other flowers, the melons and squash produced poorly due to lack of bees and other pollinating insects. I learned to entice pollinators with long- flowering annuals among the vegetables--sweet alyssum, zinnias, cosmos, and marigolds all work well. Select varieties with simple, flat blossoms so insects can reach the pollen and nectar in the center. Seven years later, each summer vegetable garden is still an adventure as we continue to apply more lessons learned. TOMATOES are our most consistent crop. I buy nursery-grown, long producing Early Girl plants and add one or two of my own seedling varieties, started in a sunny window about six weeks before the last frost. We like Sweet 100s, though they suffer from “hand to mouth blight.” (They are so enticing they rarely make it from garden to kitchen.) This year, I will try Roma tomatoes for sauces. There are many enticing heritage varieties to consider as well. Young tomato plants can produce roots all along the stems. When planting, lay the seedlings on their sides and cover the stems right up to the bottom leaves. Tomatoes are self-pollinating with flowers constructed so most insects cannot reach the pollen inside. Bumblebees, however, sonicate (buzz pollinate) tomatoes by vibrating the pollen free. Further encourage pollination by gently shaking the plants whenever you go by. Large plants need to be held off the ground. Support wire “tomato cages” or trellises with sturdy stakes to hold them in place. Excess tomatoes are easy to freeze. Simply wash, cut into pieces, and store in plastic bags; break off chunks as needed. There is no need to peel tomatoes; the skins will add extra fiber to winter stews and casseroles. MELONS do well for us some years, others poorly. In general these sprawling plants need a long growing season and plenty of heat. We’ve settled on a variety each of cantaloupe and honeydew, and continue to search for a reliable, small, yellow-fleshed watermelon. Last year voles (meadow mice) decimated the watermelon, our first experience with these voracious creatures. SQUASH, both “summer” and hard-skinned “winter” varieties, do very well. Harvest summer squash—like Zucchini, Patty Pan, and Crookneck—while still small and tender. Acorn, Spaghetti, Hubbard, and Butternut (our favorite) are winter squashes that grow on sprawling vines and ripen to a firm texture with hard skin. Place a board or brick under each ripening winter squash (and melons too) to protect from the soil and prevent subsequent rot. Leave them on the vine until thoroughly hardened. Store in the garage or other cool place; they keep several months. PEPPERS come in both sweet (bell) and hot varieties. Culture is similar for both—plenty of sun and water. Sweet peppers start out green-colored; pick when plump but firm to the touch. Green peppers left to ripen usually turn yellow, then red, and, while colorful, they are softer and do not store as well. Our peppers tend to be small and misshapen until the weather cools a bit. We’ve learned to plant them on the shady side of the tomatoes for a little sun protection during the intense heat. Freeze peppers in the same manner as tomatoes. CUCUMBERS also grow well in the Mother Lode. There are several kinds with which to experiment. We stick with the Armenian variety for their mild, crisp flavor and a minimum of seeds. These cukes are long--a foot or more in length. Let the vines sprawl or save space and encourage straighter fruit by training them on a trellis. MORE NEXT WEEK on gardening in small spaces, protecting vegetables from disease and predators, and the benefits of gardening with children. Sonora Master Gardener Vera Strader looks forward to each year’s summer vegetable largess and to sharing the excess with friends and local food banks.