After growing all her family’s produce on a southwest Iowa acreage for decades, Jan Riggenbach now tends raised beds in the city. Her latest book, Your Midwest Garden: An Owner’s Manual, will be published by University of Nebraska Press in March.

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Thought for Food: Planning Perfect Produce
by Jan Riggenbach       #Advice   #Edibles

A disease-resistant tomato such as ‘Celebrity’ ensures a good crop in any weather.

Winter in Iowa is tailor-made for solving problems in the vegetable garden – before they begin. Our long cold nights are perfect for curling up in your favorite chair with garden books, magazines and the new crop of seed catalogs. Start by choosing troublefree varieties. You’ll find many tomato varieties, for example, that are resistant to fusarium and verticillium wilt. Some also tolerate other problems such as early or late blight, tobacco mosaic virus or nematode damage.  After losing many tomato plants to disease one year, I now include a tried-and-true, disease-resistant variety such as ‘Celebrity’ or ‘Early Girl’ along with whatever other varieties I decide to grow. Both have also been dependable producers when high temperatures keep blossoms of big-fruited varieties from setting like they did last summer.

‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes are my favorites for taste, and they are also the best storage potatoes I’ve ever grown. Nevertheless, I also like to plant some ‘Kennebec’ potatoes because they tolerate drought and resist late blight. If you’ve had trouble with scab, a fungus disease that produces brown, corky patches on potatoes, consider planting scab-resistant ‘Red Norland’.

Squash vine borers are a serious pest in Iowa, often bringing death in July to the vines of zucchini, acorn squash, and pumpkins. If you grow butternut squash, though, you won’t have to worry. The adult moths avoid laying their eggs on butternut stems.

If the summer weather is too hot or too cold, pepper varieties that yield big, blocky fruits sometimes fail to produce. As a hedge against the weather, a small-fruited variety like ‘Gypsy’ or a dependable Italian roasting pepper such as ‘Carmen’ will keep you in peppers even if bell peppers fail.

Iceberg lettuce is difficult to grow in Iowa, often rotting before it’s mature. But a type of lettuce called summer crisp, or Batavian, is a good solution. It’s as easy to grow here as leaf lettuce, is as crisp as iceberg and the most flavorful of all. Cauliflower is also iffy in Iowa, although you’ll have some chance of success if you shoot for a fall crop. For a spring crop, the best bet is a purple variety like ‘Purple Queen’, actually part cauliflower, part broccoli.

‘Carmen’ Italian roasting pepper produces a prolific and dependable crop.

A type of lettuce called summer crisp, or Batavian, is much more successful in Iowa gardens than iceberg lettuce.

Gardeners frequently complain that their onions don’t keep well in storage. The secret is planting not only a variety that will provide sweet slices for your hamburgers, but also a storage variety like ‘Copra’, which should keep all winter without sprouting or rotting. Although storage varieties start out pungent, they become milder and more flavorful when stored or cooked.

Besides planning what to grow, plan ahead where to grow it. You can save yourself a lot of garden grief simply by not planting a crop and its close relatives in the same part of the garden every year. The most important groups to rotate include 1) vine crops such as melons, cucumbers and squash; 2) the cabbage family, including also broccoli, turnips, kale, cauliflower and brussels sprouts; 3) peas and beans; 4) tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers; and (5) corn.

If there’s a walnut tree growing near your garden, plant tomatoes and their relatives in pots to avoid the toxic effect of juglone produced by walnuts. A standard-size tomato requires an 18-inch-deep container, while a small patio-type variety will grow in an 8-inch-deep pot.

Despite the fun of winter garden planning, Iowa gardeners can’t help longing for spring on dreary days. Luckily, winter seems to vanish on the February day you get out some seeds and recycled pots to get an early indoor start on the gardening season. If it’s time to start seedlings, can spring be far behind?

Mid-February is the ideal time for Iowa gardeners to start pepper, broccoli, cabbage and Romaine lettuce seeds indoors. Wait until March to start tomato, eggplant and basil seeds indoors.

There are lots of good reasons for growing your own seedlings. I particularly like the wider choice of varieties available when you’re willing to start with seeds. It also saves money and gives you control over the care your plants get from the beginning. Besides, it’s fun!

Here’s all you need to raise seedlings successfully:

  • A porous, soilless potting mix formulated especially for seedlings, such as Mosser Lee NoDampOff or Espoma Organic Seed Starter Mix.
  • Small pots with drainage holes. If you want to recycle leftover pots, simply sterilize them first by washing them in a solution of nine parts water and one part chlorine bleach.
  • Bright light. You can use a sunny window, provided you rotate the containers regularly. Or suspend a grow light a few inches above the pots, raising it as the seedlings grow.

Sites for Sowers’ Eyes

Whether you prefer to browse print catalogs or shop online, here are a few vegetable specialists ready to help you plan your best-ever vegetable garden: 

Johnny’s Selected Seeds
(877) 564-6697

Harris Seeds
(800) 544-7938

Seed Savers
(563) 382-5990 

Seeds of Change
(888) 762-7333 

Stokes Seeds
(800) 396-9238

Territorial Seed Company
(800) 626-0866 

Tomato Growers Supply Company
(888) 478-7333

From Iowa Gardener Volume I Issue I. Photos by Jan Riggenbach.


Posted: 02/14/14   RSS | Print


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