Pacific Northwest gardeners have the luxury of vegetable gardening year-round. We can be spotted in the garden in mid-December, checking on Brussels sprouts and kale. But we pay the price in summertime, when many icons of the vegetable garden fail to produce before the warm weather turns cool again. Tomatoes are a bit of a gamble; peppers and eggplant are long shots; and okra? Forget about it. But Northwestern gardeners aren't doomed to year-round salad gardening. With good placement and careful seed selection, we can grow many backyard favorites.
Growing degree-days are not talked about as often as first and last frost dates, but the concept is critically important to vegetable gardeners in cooler climates. Many of the most popular vegetable garden plants require a certain number of days above a minimum temperature to set mature fruit. This base temperature varies by species, but 50F (10C) works for most common vegetables. The days to maturity listed for each variety in the seed catalog is based on the growing degree-days where the seed company grows its stock. That seed packet that says "60 days to maturity" won't deliver on schedule if temperatures in your garden hover at 50 degrees for the first three weeks.

This year winter skipped the west, leaving many of us with unused skis and high hopes for homegrown hot-season crops. Here are some of the best warm-season varieties for cool climates.

Tomatoes

I used to have a plot in one of Seattle's communal gardens. This particular P-Patch was a former farm in a low-lying area where the soil stayed damp year-round. The first summer I gardened there, we had record-breaking high temperatures and I brought home buckets full of tomatoes. That was the only year I ever ate a tomato from my P-Patch. Every other year we all lost our tomatoes to late blight.


Nowadays I have a south-facing back yard and my tomatoes do much better. Even so, varieties requiring 72 days to maturity need not apply to my Northwest garden. Cherry tomatoes always seem to do better than larger varieties. Early Girl and Stupice are garden standbys. Other safe bets are varieties bred here in the Northwest: Gold Nuggett, Willamette, Legend and almost any variety with ìOregonî in its name. If you're like me, and can't resist an unusually colored fruit, Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Sungold, and Green Zebra are fairly reliable.

Peppers

I confess that I have never successfully grown peppers in my Puget Sound garden. A single night exposed to temperatures under 50∞ F will shock them, and it doesn't take much more for permanent stunting. Start hardening pepper seedlings at the same time you plant your tomatoes out instead of planting them out together, and consider using row covers at night for most of the season. Small-fruited varieties are said to do better than bell types, which may only produce a couple of peppers per plant. If you really want bells, Golden Bell and Gypsy have Steve Solomon's vote. Ciscoe Morris has suggested Bulgarian Carrot. You may have to experiment with a lot of varieties before you find one that works in your garden. Stick with the early varieties (these are the ones requiring the fewest growing degree-days) and know that this is one plant where microclimate and cultivation methods can make all the difference.

Eggplant

Even more sensitive than peppers, eggplant seedlings will stunt if nights drop below 50 degrees, and will stop fruiting with the first cool night. Like peppers, they benefit from black plastic mulch and overnight row covers. If you must try to grow eggplant, look for varieties advertised as early and chill-tolerant.

Dusky is the standard variety for cool climate gardeners, although it's worth trying the compact Fairytale, especially in a pot on a sunny patio. The new variety Traviata looks very promising. For Asian varieties, try Ichiban, Short Tom, or Millionaire.

Corn

Because of its importance as a commercial crop, most of the research on growing degree-days has been done using corn. For years, Golden Jubilee was the standard variety in most parts of the country, but it doesn't always produce in the cooler areas of the Northwest, such as the Puget Sound where I garden. Any variety claiming to be earlier than Golden Jubilee (90 days in the Territorial Seed Company catalog) is a good bet.

Earlivee is a great option. Sugar Buns, Strong Start, Quickie, and Luscious are also good choices. If you're looking for color, try Painted Mountain or Hooker's Sweet Indian corn. White corns tend to ripen late, but you can try Mirage.

Melon

The ideal soil temperature for sprouting melon seeds is 80∫ F. This fact should give Pacific Northwest gardeners pause. But if the unusually warm winter has you hopeful for a hot summer, and you're up for the challenge of sprouting with bottom heat, mulching with black plastic, and possibly managing cold frames all summer long, stick with the earliest varieties you can find. Muskmelons (like Halona) and cantaloupes (try Alvaro) often do better than watermelon in the Northwest. If you can't resist trying watermelon, your best bet might be Sugar Baby or Yellow Doll.