Start me up

Henri prepares for summer’s backyard bounty

GRUB Cooperative’s Sherri Scott sells vegetable starts at the Thursday Night Market.

GRUB Cooperative’s Sherri Scott sells vegetable starts at the Thursday Night Market.

PHOTO by jason cassidy

One of the great thrills of moving to Chico from the Big Pomme was learning how ideal the area is for gardening, that Henri could plant a little garden and with very little maintenance be enjoying fresh tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash and other vegetables within six to eight weeks.

Of course, I needed some instruction—despite growing up in the Midwest, Henri’s knowledge of agriculture was sadly lacking—which is why I originally hired Jonathan to teach me the basics, starting with his Better Boys.

Since then, I’ve planted a vegetable garden every year, and the harvest keeps getting better. Last year we had enough tomatoes and peppers that we froze several dozen bags full and have been using them all year in soups and stews.

Last weekend we headed down to the Saturday farmers’ market for vegetable starts. Colette was especially excited to see so many stalls selling them, having just finished building three large raised beds in our backyard and filling them with compost. (It was exhausting watching her work!)

We left the market that day with our arms full of little plastic boxes of starts—red lettuce, kale and tomatoes (San Marzano, beefsteak, a tiger-stripe heirloom, and a Sweet 100 cherry tomato, for salads). Colette went kind of pepper-crazy, with several varieties and colors of bells, plus Anaheims, habaneros, sandias.

While dozens of varieties of vegetables and herbs thrive in this area—from lettuce and beans to asparagus and corn—if you’re just starting out, you might want to keep it simple. Tomatoes and peppers are virtually foolproof, as long as you keep them watered. Squash are also easy to grow.

When to plant

It’s easy to get overeager with the first warm days of spring and to plant too early. For tomatoes, wait until the daytime temperatures are staying at least in the 70s, even warmer, and it’s not getting any colder than 55 or so at night. Late April/early May (now!) in the Chico area is usually just about perfect.

Preparing the soil

We’re lucky here in Chico, with the rich, fertile, valley-floor soil. The first time you plant, you might not have to prepare soil at all. Later, though, since the plants deplete the soil of nutrients, you’ll probably want to both rotate your crops and amend the soil. Compost is good, although you might need other additives, many of which Northern Star Mills sells in bulk. A good site for information on soil types and amendments is Colorado State Extension’s gardener site:

Getting cagey

Another common mistake is planting too close together. It’s easy to forget, when you’re looking at the little 4- or 5-inch starts, that they get huge, especially tomatoes, some varieties of which will grow to 5 feet and also spread out three or 4 feet across. Use large (54-inch) tomato cages. Peppers don’t get quite as big, but they’ll get 2 or 3 feet high, and come late summer will be falling all over each other. Use the smaller (42-inch) cages (or tie to stakes of same height). Zucchini and other squash? Sacre bleu! They’ll take over your yard if you’re not careful—best to plant them in wide-open areas (or up a sturdy trellis) where they won’t crowd out other plants or frighten pets and children.

Plant vegetables deeper than they come in the pots, even up to the bottom leaves, for better root development, and in as much sun as possible, and water at the bases, not the foliage.

Harvest time

Market vendors can tell you how long until your starts will bear. Again, it’s tempting to pick too early, although the first few vegetables you pick and taste will help you gauge your harvest.

Different varieties of tomatoes (there are hundreds) ripen at different times—another good reason to plant several different types. Some are “determinate” (fruit ripens all at once and then the plant is done), and some “indeterminate” (the plant continues to bear fruit all season).

Sweet peppers should be picked before they begin to turn color or wrinkle, while hot peppers such as habeneros can be left on the vine longer.

Pick zucchini at 7 or 8 inches, before they get woody.