Garden Workhorses

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Summer squash: Black Zucchini, Early Prolific Straightneck, Cocozelle, Yellow Patty Pan and a few Boston Pickling and Crystal Apple cucumbers.

If you’re an inexperienced gardener or focused primarily on maximum food production, there are some vegetables that will consistently give you maximum bang for your buck. Sometimes it’s a particular variety within a larger group, while in others, pretty much any variety will do. These are the plants that old-time gardening catalogs would note as “very productive,” “a good choice for the beginner,” or “consistent producer in all areas.” Here are the plants I call garden workhorses.
Asparagus – plant asparagus once and you’ll have it for at least a quarter century. We have an asparagus bed that has probably been there 30 years – maybe 50. It gets no summer water and minimal care, yet still produces. If I gave it summer water and better care, I’m sure I could double or triple production.

Rattlesnake pole beans.


Beans – Rattlesnake pole bean is hands down the best producer I’ve ever grown. It will take high summer heat (I understand it tolerates high humidity, too, but that’s never been an issue in my area) and keep producing until frost kills it. The beans can be used as snap, shell and dry beans. For bush snap beans, Pencil Pod Black Wax and Black Valentine are also topnotch.
Chard – Grows year-round in my garden and can be harvested a few leaves or a plant at a time. The stalks add crunch.

Chard going to seed (see the developing seedhead just about in the center of the picture?


Cherry Tomatoes – like cukes, the variety doesn’t really seem to matter. These veggies are at least as productive as their bigger cousins, but take less space. They’ll keep producing until November for me unless we have an extra-early frost.

Most of these will ripen at room temperature; the green ones will be useful in various recipes.


Cucumber – almost any variety of cucumber comes under the heading of garden workhorse. Boston Pickling, however, is at the top of my list. It’s a reasonable slicer and obviously a good pickling cucumber.
Lettuce – Lots of people have favorite varieties, but I mostly grow mixed lettuce. It’s fast, can be tucked into odd corners and readily produces seed. If I were picking varieties, I would go with Black-Seeded Simpson and White Island Paris Cos.
Potatoes – the Late Gene Logsdon once opined that “any fool can grow a spud.” In other words, they are easy. Planted about one foot apart, each plant will give you three to five pounds of potatoes. They also winter over very well; I always miss a few when I harvest. I like German Butterball for taste and storage qualities.
Tyfon – you may have never heard of this brassica/turnip cross. It’s a leafy green that will grow pretty much year round. It lends itself to cut and come again harvesting and is great for creating a nice fine seed bed when wintered over. Treat it like any cooked green in the kitchen.
Winter Squash – Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck is a consistent producer, stores well and tastes good.

Summer squash are always productive, but these babies outdid themselves this year.


Zucchini – I have never heard of ANYONE who couldn’t grow zucchini. I like Early Straightneck Prolific (yellow) and Cocozelle (light green striped). Both are extremely productive, taste great and never bothered by pests or diseases. They make good pickles, can be dried and are useful in a wide variety of dishes. The only thing I have against these – and any summer squash – is that the only way you can freeze it is grated.
These garden workhorses will give you a variety of vegetables to harvest from spring right on through winter. The cherry tomatoes, summer squash and bush beans offer colors other than green (which also means different nutrients). With the exception of the winter squash, they aren’t space eaters and all are easy to grow. Plant a few and see what I mean.

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IANS – Refrigerating Cooked Foods

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One of the best ways to capture maximum nutrition (and taste) is to harvest, prep and cook immediately, as I’m doing here with ratatouille.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. ~ Mark Twain

When George Gershwin composed the song It Ain’t Necessarily So, he was onto something. I’d love to have a nickel for everything I was taught or told or just accepted as fact in the course of my life that was wrong. From food preservation to gardening to animal husbandry to medicine to finance, there have been a lot more ‘not-so’ things than ‘so’ things. A while back I did a post on not needing to waterbath jams and jellies; I got more than 100 comments corroborating my “not-so” position. At which point it occurred to me there are lots of other not-so things out there, and shazaam, I had an ongoing blog topic. Here’s the latest “it ain’t necessarily so” (IANS).

Cooked foods should be refrigerated immediately after you’ve eaten.
Nope. For one thing, if you put something hot straight into the refrigerator, all you’ve done is increase the temperature inside the fridge. Yes, I know the refrigerator can handle it (unlike the old-fashioned ice boxes of yesteryear, in which the ice would promptly melt faster) but now you’ll use up more energy getting things cooled off again. Let the hot leftovers cool on the counter. In many cases, you can simply leave foods on the counter for at least a day without harm in cool weather. They should be covered, however, to keep out insects.

An older hen or rooster makes superlative chicken broth for the stockpot.

In the case of a soup broth, if you bring it to boiling and let it simmer for about 10 minutes once a day, you can otherwise leave it at room temperature indefinitely. It will taste a lot better, too. In days gone by, there was always a bowl of soup broth bubbling gently on the hearth. All the leftover veggies, peelings, meat bones and such went into the pot. An exception: cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage, which tend to break down and release sulfur compounds when they’re cooked for a long time.
The soup took on a life of its own, flavors blending into a wonderful base for all sorts of dishes. The long cooking rendered the gelatin from the bones, which also added flavor and body. Vitamins and minerals from the foods leached into the water, making it more nutritious. Every so often the cook would strain out all the debris or add a little more water. Eventually, the broth might develop a slightly off flavor or bitter edge, in which case it went to the pigs (usually mixed with grain that was allowed to soak overnight) and the cook started over.

Take a Missouri Approach
Missouri is the “show me” state. The mental attitude of “you’ll have to prove it to me” is a good one. Use your common sense. When your experience or that of people you trust is contrary to accepted scientific wisdom or expert recommendations, odds are very high the scientific wisdom and the experts are out to lunch. Ask the old homicide lawyer’s question, “Cui bono?” Loosely translated as “Who benefits?” what it actually means is “To whose profit?” When big bucks, company survival or professional reputations are on the line, ethics quite often take a back seat. Circus entrepreneur PT Barnum was the one who coined the sucker-born-every-minute rule. Don’t be a sucker and remember: it ain’t necessarily so.

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Grow Your Own

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Garden center transplant; look how few roots have made it to the outside of the root ball.

While I’m not exactly a die-hard do-it-yourselfer, I am an independent soul. There are plenty of things I know how to do but choose to pay for because of time constraints. Sewing, for example – I can make a tee shirt, but I can also spend two or three bucks, get a used one at the Salvation Army store and save myself several hours of work. It makes much better sense to buy my jeans, for similar reasons, although I’m so hard on them that I buy new, top-quality jeans (on sale, of course) and wear them until they fall apart. When it comes to transplants, however, I really think the labor and time of growing my own are well worth it. The advantages to transplants are many:
You choose the varieties. Garden centers are finally getting on the heirloom wagon, which is great. What’s not so great is that in a lot of cases, their offerings are limited. If, as I do, you garden in a zone different than that of the local garden center, their transplants may not be as suitable for your zone. Garden centers only offer what sells well; your favorite but little-known variety probably won’t make it on their list.
You manage the timing. Unless you happen to be lucky enough to catch the transplants at the garden center in just the right stage of growth, the odds are high they will be overdeveloped by the time you get them in the ground. They don’t take transplanting as well and may fruit prematurely or quit blossoming for a while.

Good parsley germination; lots of extras so I can pick the best ones.

You spend less money. It’s a no-brainer – about one or two cents per seed or a couple of dollars and up for a transplant. Even if you only have a 30% germination rate, you still save a bundle.
You can practice succession planting. Garden centers are like clothing stores. They offer what’s in season at the moment, then quickly clear off the racks to get ready for the next season. It’s highly unlikely that you can go down to the garden center six weeks after they first start to offer tomatoes and pick up some transplants to put in another later crop. If you can find anything at all, the plants are likely to be post-mature and suffering from various diseases or nutrient deficiencies.

Tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings.

You can grow them correctly. While I am not trying to put down the efforts of the folks who work in garden centers, they are often inadequately trained or have conflicting duties that get in the way of caring for potted seedlings. You can give your transplants your full attention and you’ll gain expertise with every batch you grow.
So that’s why I grow my own.

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