Food for thought: A bountiful harvest

Marty Ross
Universal Uclick

         There's a lot at stake in vegetable gardens this year -- new gardeners have seized the moment to plant kitchen-garden favorites, and they're eager to experience the delicious taste of success.

Leafy greens are among the easiest crops to grow, and they are as pretty as they are delicious. Plant several varieties together -- they will flourish. Regular picking encourages them to keep growing. Lettuce is also an excellent early fall crop.

         Sales of both seed packets and small transplant-sized starts of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and other summer vegetables soared this spring as stay-at-home and safe-at-home guidelines changed the way we all live and work. Sheltering in place turned out to be the inspiration for so many new vegetable gardens that the National Garden Bureau, which is celebrating 100 years of promoting home gardening, launched a modern Victory Garden campaign based on the World War II backyard-gardening initiative.

         The NGB's founder, James Burdett, wrote the original Victory Garden manual back in 1943, and "it just seemed like a natural for us" to take up the cause again, says Diane Blazek, executive director of NGB and its sister organization, All-America Selections, which tests new vegetable and flower varieties and recognizes top performers with AAS awards. More than anything, she says, "we want people to be successful."

         Success can be measured in many ways. Nothing tastes better than a just-picked tomato you eat right out of your hand in your own backyard. A fistful of green beans you've grown yourself is more delicious than any bean you can buy. But tending a vegetable garden also gives you an excuse to step away from all the demands on us, even at the best of times, and cultivate a relationship with nature. Over the course of the summer, your emotional harvests may include the thrill of seeing tiny seedlings emerge from the soil, the wonder of finding the first fruits on a squash plant, and the delight of pulling home-grown carrots out of the ground.

: Prolific, sweet grape-size tomatoes are perfect for snacks in the garden, and they produce so many fruits you'll have plenty for salads all summer long, too. This variety, Fantastico, was an All-America Selections winner in 2014. One plant produces up to 12 pounds of tomatoes.

         In the 1940s, backyard gardens were quite large, and families -- on average -- grew almost 40% of the fruits and vegetables they ate. But you don't need a 60-foot row of corn, kale or potatoes to earn your modern gardening chops. Even in a small garden, you can produce a gratifyingly impressive harvest. Try planting lettuce in a hanging basket, tomatoes or squash in a big pot on the patio, or cucumbers to grow up a trellis against the garage wall. Make room for parsley around the edge of a flower garden and grow dill among a patch of zinnias. On a balcony, you can grow strawberries, radishes or cherry tomatoes.

         Gardeners always have questions, and the National Garden Bureau is helping gardeners with extra support from plant breeders and other expert vegetable gardeners this year, including advice on growing tomatoes, peppers, melons, strawberries, and other favorites. The NBG's website is full of inspiration, advice, encouragement, ideas, recommendations and links to planning tools for gardeners at every level of experience. All-America Selections emphasizes modern hybrids. Heirloom varieties are popular for their great flavor, but new hybrids often have heirloom flavor built in, and they resist diseases better and are much more productive than older varieties, Blazek says. Staying up to date with hybrids gives you an edge.

         Seed suppliers, including Burpee, Johnny's Selected Seeds, Territorial Seed Co. and others, also have articles on their websites to address gardeners' questions and coach them through the growing season to a successful and satisfying harvest. Bonnie Plants, whose vegetable transplants of all kinds are commonly available at big-box stores, has well-researched garden guides for individual crops on its website, as well as ideas for small gardens, edible landscaping and raised-bed gardening, among other topics. Local garden shops, community gardens and university extension offices, with their master gardener hotlines, are also ready and eager to help. This is an opportunity they don't want to miss.

         In her own small urban garden in the Chicago area, Blazek grows half a dozen different tomato plants, varieties she can't find in local grocery stores or even at farmer's markets. "I plant some of the unique things," she says, such as orange tomatoes and super-sweet cherry and grape tomatoes. She likes "cool, Mad Hatter-shaped peppers" and plants lots of arugula -- reminding herself every year that the crop really needs to be thinned out ruthlessly to produce lots of big, delicious, leaves.

Yellow summer squash Zephyr has two-toned fruit. Once the tiny fruits form on the vine, it's only a matter of days before the first harvest. The flowers are edible, too.

         Blazek also grows flowers for pollinator insects, like bees and butterflies and a million other bugs, which in turn enhance the yield of her vegetable garden. Pollinators are nature's heroes. Flowers obviously also make her garden more beautiful.

         Every gardener experiences occasional setbacks, but "usually, if something goes wrong, you shouldn't blame yourself," Blazek says. A green thumb isn't a prerequisite for success, and there is help around every corner. This year, in particular, the investment in a package of seeds, a few small plants and some time to tend them has never seemed more promising.