Jay’s enthusiasm for horticulture is infectious, and I could not resist his invitation to contribute a guest post to his interesting and well-organized blog. Growing vegetables is my favorite horticulture-related activity and like many a gardener I am addicted to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat that comes my way each season.
We endured a hellacious drought last summer – not our first, not our last – yet winter and spring have brought much anticipated renewal, for both garden and gardener. The drought has reminded us of the importance of mulch, efficient irrigation and planting the right plant at the right time. It’s not even a bad idea to think of summer as a dormant time in the vegetable garden, but for those who are not deterred by rain deficits, sun, heat and sweat I’d like to highlight a few Texas-tough vegetables to fill the summer gap:
Okra – This quintessential heat lover is first on my list. Smooth, ribbed, long, short, green or red, I have never tried a variety that I didn’t like. Okra seed can be planted once the soil has warmed (70-80º), usually April or May in Central Texas. It will reach maturity (4-6 feet tall) in approximately two months and picking will be easier if you space it at least 2 feet apart – and once it starts producing you will be picking almost every day! In fact the secret to tender okra is to check your plants daily and harvest pods when they are only 3-5” long. And unlike those temperamental heirloom tomatoes, heirloom okra varieties grow like champs without much coddling or cajoling at all. ‘Clemson Spineless’, ‘Emerald’ and ‘Hill Country Heirloom Red’ are available from Baker Creek Seeds (www.rareseeds.com). I know of two open-pollinated varieties with Texas roots that deserve mention. ‘Beck’s Big’, a giant okra with fat pods, introduced in 1968 by organic trailblazer Malcolm Beck of San Antonio, and my personal favorite, ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’, a smooth, dark green variety carefully selected over several years for branching and productivity by two of my favorite gardeners, the late George and Mary Stewart of Houston. Both okras are available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com). Okra plants have tiny, mostly inconspicuous spines that cause an annoying itch, so be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting pods.
Not sure what to do with your okra bounty? Try it grilled: toss whole, 3-4” pods in olive oil, season with salt and pepper and toss them on the grill. Grill 10-15 minutes, until pods are tender and slightly charred. Yum!
Southern Peas – These legumes go by many names – cowpeas, field peas, black-eyed peas – but no matter what you call them they can take the Texas heat. They also taste delicious, produce beautiful blossoms, and can be used as a cover crop to build nitrogen and organic matter in the soil. Two old-fashioned varieties for summer cover crops are ‘Red Ripper’ and ‘Iron and Clay’. For fresh-eating I am partial to ‘Purple Hull’ and crowder peas (so called because the peas are crowded in the pod) such as ‘Mississippi Silver’ and ‘Colossus’. Heavenly Seed (www.heavenlyseed.net) is a small, family-owned seed company located in Anderson, South Carolina, that offers a superb selection of southern peas.
Asparagus Beans – Also known as yard long beans, this heat-loving relative of the cowpea is popular for use in Asian stir-fries. Most varieties are vigorous vines that require a sturdy fence or trellis. Harvest when pods are about 15-18” long, before beans begin to swell. ‘Red Noodle’, available from both Baker Creek and Heavenly Seed, produces long, burgundy pods that can be sliced and sautéed or stir-fried.
Molokhia and Malabar Spinach – Lettuce and other greens thrive in most of Texas from fall to early spring, but home-grown salad greens are hard to come by as summer approaches. As the days grow long and hot many gardeners turn to Malabar spinach as a warm weather salad green. Another summertime option is a popular Middle Eastern green called molokhia, sometimes referred to as Egyptian spinach. The nutritious, grassy tasting leaves are plucked from fast-growing, multi-stemmed plants that grow 4-6 feet tall. Young leaves and shoots can be added to salads or sandwiches and older leaves can be cooked or sautéed and added to soups or casseroles. A reliable seed source for both of these greens is Kitazawa Seed Company (www.kitazawaseed.com).