By Sommer Cartier.
As San Diegans, we live in the perfect growing climate. We have an ideal combination of sunlight, heat, and an extended warm season which makes growing summer veggies almost seamless, even for the rookie gardener. The summer is the perfect time to cultivate those heat loving veggies – your fruiting crops such as tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers, melons and eggplant.
Below are tips for growing three of the more popular summer veggies.
Before planting your tomatoes, it’s important to select the right varieties for the growing conditions in your yard. Consider the size of your garden. For small gardens or containers, plant determinate tomatoes. They’re bushy and have genetic characteristics that limit their growth to about three or four feet in height. ‘Oregon Spring’ and ‘Celebrity’ tomatoes are two great options for determinate tomatoes.
For larger spaces, you have the option of choosing determinate and/or indeterminate tomatoes. The beauty in planting indeterminate tomatoes is they will produce tomatoes over a longer period of time. You also have a larger selection to choose from since the majority of tomatoes fall under this category.
Once you’ve selected your tomato variety, it’s time to place it in the ground (or pot). When planting tomatoes, always plant deep. Remove all leaves from the lower two thirds of the stem and bury this stem length in the soil. The plant will send out new roots along the lower stem, providing a more extensive and robust root system.
Remember to feed your plants with an organic fertilizer and water regularly while they are young and getting established. If you’re starting with small plants, remove all blossoms until they are two feet tall. This allows energy to go towards raising a strong healthy plant. Once your plant is two feet tall, let the flowering begin. Make sure there are plenty of bees to pollinate your tomato blossoms. If you find there is a shortage of bees, invite them to your garden by providing water for them and planting borage, lavender, pineapple sage, and African blue basil.
Finally, remember to provide support for your tomatoes. For bushier determinate tomatoes, a tomato cage works fine. For the more wild and prolific indeterminate tomatoes, you will need a taller structure for tying up limbs; keeping them off the ground will reduce their susceptibility to diseases. A tall vertical trellis works great.
Snap beans are heavy producers and grow quickly from seed. Once they get going, they seem to provide a never-ending supply of tender sweet pods that can be challenging to keep up with. Snap beans love fertile, well-draining soil and thrive in full sun with soil temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees.
There are two types of snap beans, each comes with their own sets of pros and cons. Bush beans have a shorter turnaround time (55-60 days), but also a shorter production period. Succession planting will be necessary to keep a steady flow of beans. It is recommended to sow bush beans every three or four weeks as older plants slow down and stop producing. Pole beans take longer to mature (65-80 days), but produce an abundance of beans throughout the entire season. Due to their climbing nature, they’ll require less space in the garden, but will need a trellis or structure to support them.
If starting beans from seedling, handle young plants with care. The roots of beans are very sensitive and prefer not to be disturbed. This can lead to disease and other complications. If starting from seed, soak the beans in water, but only for a few hours. Some gardeners recommend soaking overnight. However, this can lead to diseases such as damping off.
Bonus tip: Before placing seeds in the ground, coat them with an inoculate powder. An inoculate powder consists of bacteria or mycorrhizal fungi that encourages legume roots to grow nodules that “fix” nitrogen. This means the nodules pull nitrogen from the air and convert it to a usable form of ammonia, one the plants can readily take up for growth. While inoculating beans is not required, you may experience increased yields as a result. This practice can also help improve soil conditions. At the end of the season, till the plants into the soil. The nodules will serve as a storehouse for nitrogen, making themselves available to the next crop as they decompose into the soil.
Beans taste best when harvested while they’re still relatively young and slender. To ensure a healthy bounty of beans, harvest frequently, allowing the plant to put its energy towards producing new pods. Avoid harvesting or working with peas when leaves are wet to avoid the onset of bacterial blight.
Zucchini is incredibly prolific; one or two plants can easily feed a dozen people. Even the blossoms are edible. The roots of zucchini plants are highly sensitive and must be handled with care. For best results, start zucchini as seeds in full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours) where they will stay and grow. Zucchini grows best in consistently moist soil that is high in organic matter with temperatures around 70 degrees.
Zucchinis are heavy feeders. Increase yield by top dressing the beds with a few inches of nutrient rich aged compost. When feeding your crop, chose a fertilizer high in phosphorus (lower on nitrogen) to encourage fruit production. Go easy on the nitrogen - nitrogen can reduce your yield.
If the plant begins to flower but fails to set fruit, there may not be enough bees in your garden to properly pollinate the flowers. You can hand pollinate the flowers by using a small paint brush to gather pollen from a male flower and spread it over the stigma in the center of the female flower. You can also plant flowers that attract bees such as borage, lavender, pineapple sage, and African blue basil.
When harvesting zucchini, pick fruit while young, around 45-55 days and at 3-4 inches long. Be sure to harvest frequently to encourage plants to produce more fruit rather than place energy towards seeds.
With harvesting in mind, it’s important to leave you one final tip that will ensure you have a healthy bounty of veggies this summer. Pick, Pick, Pick! Don’t stop. Don't abandon those over-ripened zucchini or snap beans on the vines. Share your surplus with your neighbors. Remember, a healthy garden is a harvested garden.
Sommer Cartier is a certified Master Gardener with a Master of Arts in International Development and Social Change. Her specialty is working with local food systems and using gardens as a tool for community engagement.