(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 2, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
This is the time of year that vegetable gardeners hate. In the winter, we know that nothing can be done but waiting. We occupy ourselves with seed catalogs and starting the indoor transplants. Spring is a busy time, getting the vegetable garden prepared and planted, and then late summer and autumn bring the bountiful harvests. However, early summer is the most frustrating time. The plants are blooming and producing baby vegetables. We check daily, sometimes two or three times, for the first ripe tomato, pepper, or squash. It seems that they stay too small to pick for much too long.
The first ripe tomato is my benchmark for a producing garden. I know that "A watched pot never boils", well, here is my own version of that. "A watched tomato never ripens"
The first ripe tomato. Which one will it be? I go up and down the tomato row several times a day, scanning for likely candidates. Will it be Chello, the little gold cherry that produces so faithfully in my garden? It has had the honor on several occasions, and this year it may repeat the feat. Then there is Jaune Flammee. It has been the earliest on occasion too. Deep orange jewels with red centers that burst in the mouth with tomatoey essence of a much larger fruit. Both are neck and neck with developing tomatoes that seem to be taking much too long to ripen.
But they may have competition this year. An unknown upstart called Burning Spear is giving them a run for their money. Loaded with Roma sized fruits, and still growing, I am secretly pulling for this one, but don't let the others know. I got the seeds this winter from a Seed Savers Exchange request. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut, and the name sold me. Burning Spear is supposed to be a small, orange tomato with a wonderful flavor. That was the only description the person gave, but how can you lose with a name like that? The foliage looks like the type of foliage one sees on plants that produce heart shaped tomatoes. It is droopy, wispy, and appears downright pitiful. A less experienced tomato grower might pull the plants and toss them, but to me the foliage has the promise of great taste to come. I have never met a heart that I didn't like. The shape almost looks heart-like with the little point on the bottom. I can only hope...and wait.
There are other vegetables in my garden that I am anxiously awaiting. The first squash is always wonderful, but two weeks later, the appearance of the gazillionth one is met with much less fanfare. This year, Black Raven zucchini is going to take the "first squash" honors from my garden standby, Yellow Summer Crookneck. Black Raven is an F1 hybrid, and will probably be the culprit that makes my neighbors run when they see me bearing suspicious lumpy bags. I have a feeling that we had all better get used to Black Raven zucchini.
The Yellow Summer Crookneck is an old Open Pollinated variety, and I prefer it to any other yellow squash. The newer hybrids seem tasteless in comparison. It is full of flavor, and has a firmer texture than the hybrids. It holds up well in stir-fry and I have even used it in pickle recipes. It is the only yellow squash that I ever grow. The Black Raven will produce the earliest squash this year, but I have no doubt that the Yellow Summer Crookneck will produce the best tasting squash.
Cucumbers are blooming too. The tiny fruits can be seen at the base of the female flowers. The old standby, National Pickling is doing what it is supposed to, and I will have buckets full of them shortly. They are productive, and are tasty when eaten fresh, or in pickles.
The cucumber that I am most anxiously awaiting is one from Syria. A person contacted me last year with these seeds that a Syrian friend had sent him. The man who contacted me did not have the room to grow them, and offered them to me. They were not planted last year because by the time that I received them, the drought had pretty much killed all gardening hopes for 2007. This year, they are happily growing, and I cannot wait to taste them. Another "Anticipation" moment!
It will be much later before my other vegetables are mature enough to harvest, but there are a few that are unfamiliar, or hold sentimental value. DG member, and good friend, Big_Red passed away earlier this year. He had sent me some Vermont Cranberry beans a couple years ago. This seemed like the perfect time to honor my friend, and plant some of his beans. They are beautiful, plump beans that are used as snaps or dried. It will be much later this year before I get a harvest from them, but they will be well worth the wait. I will think of my friend often, as I tend his beans and harvest them.
The first okra and cowpeas are always welcome. My Southern roots cannot escape the desire for those flavors. Two kinds of okra and three different cowpeas are planted in my garden this year. It is simply not summer without hot cornbread, cowpeas, okra, sliced tomatoes, and a big piece of fresh onion. These vegetables are necessary to my existence. I cannot function without them. No meat needed.
As the summer days go on, we harvest our gardens; many of us can, dry, or freeze our produce. It is a task that seasoned gardeners enjoy and look forward to, and the newbies have the satisfaction of learning how to "put food by." It is an art that few are familiar with anymore, but it seems that we are gathering in new folks every summer who have the desire to preserve their harvests for various reasons. The bounty of a home vegetable garden can certainly help with the ever rising cost at the grocery, and the gardener has the satisfaction of knowing where their vegetables came from, and exactly what has, or has not been sprayed on them. Of course, there is the irrefutable fact that homegrown produce just tastes better too.
It has been a couple of hours now. I think I will go check those tomatoes again. One may be ripe by now...