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Squash blooms and fruit

Vegetable Information is part 12 of The Alabama Vegetable Gardener series.

Alabama’s moderate climate and generally abundant rainfall mean the state’s gardeners can grow vegetables virtually year-round.

You may also want to download Alabama Extension’s SOW app to your phone.  It is designed to tell you the optimum time to plant each crop in your home garden. Simply choose your location and start planting. It provides crop and planting information for growing zones 6a, 6b, 7b, 8a and 8b in Alabama and is available in both the Apple and Google stores.

Asparagus

Asparagus is one of the most valuable of the early garden vegetables and is adaptable to freezer storage. It is a perennial vegetable that does well in Alabama.

Asparagus can be started from seed, but starting from year-old crowns is recommended. Set crowns out in the early spring. A common planting method is to dig a trench 10 to 12 inches wide and about as deep. Incorporate rotted manure or compost in the bottom of the trench before setting the crowns 12 inches apart in rows 36 to 48 inches apart. Place the crowns on top of a small amount of loose soil in the bottom of the trench. Spread the roots out and cover the crowns with 2 to 3 inches of soil. As the plants begin to grow, pull the soil in around crowns and cover them until the trench is filled. For a family of four, a 50-foot row should be sufficient.

Do not harvest asparagus shoots or spears until the second year after the crowns are planted. Only harvest for about two weeks. Stop harvesting when spear diameter is less than that of a pencil. This is necessary for the fleshy root system to develop and to store food reserves for growth the following year.

Plants harvested too early after planting become weak and spindly. After the third year of growth, harvesting usually can continue for 6 to 8 weeks. Stop harvesting during the late spring and allow the ferns to grow. After the first hard winter freeze, cut the plants back to ground level to allow new growth and development of tender spears.

Harvest the spears daily when they are 5 to 7 inches tall. Snap off above the soil line. Harvest in the early morning and use or refrigerate immediately.

Beans

Both bush and pole are commonly grown in Alabama. The bush type is popular because of its early maturity. Most bush bean varieties are ready to harvest about 55 to 65 days after planting.

Pole-type beans require some support on which to grow. They also require a few more days to mature but continue to bear longer than the bush varieties. They usually require about 70 to 80 days from seed to harvest. Green beans, sometimes called snap beans, reach their best stage of edible maturity when the seed within the pod is about one-third mature.

Lima beans, sometimes called butter beans, can be grown either as pole or bush-type beans. There are several types of pole and bush lima beans; generally pole beans take longer for pods to mature than the bush type. They also produce during slightly higher temperatures than green beans.

Beans will not withstand frost. Therefore, make the first planting after the danger of the last killing frost in the early spring. Beans planted in cold soils are more susceptible to seedling diseases.  Make successive plantings of bush snap beans at 2- to 3-week intervals. Cease plantings when the beans are forced to mature under high temperatures, which cause poor quality.

Plant bush beans about 1 inch deep in rows 30 to 36 inches apart. Space the plants 2 to 3 inches apart in the row. Lima beans require a little more space, about 3 to 6 inches. Beans will not produce well when they are crowded. Spacing may be achieved by planting seed and then thinning as plants grow.

Bean roots grow close to the soil surface, so limit cultivation to the top 1 inch of the soil to prevent damage. Beans suffer from drought easily so provide adequate water throughout the growing season, especially at bloom and during pod setting.

Harvest snap beans when pods are almost full size but before seeds begin to bulge, usually when seeds are the size of pin heads. Harvest lima beans when pods and seeds reach full size but are still fresh and juicy. Use only the seeds because the pods are tough and fibrous.

Broccoli

Broccoli is one of the best fall vegetables. Broccoli has a central green head that, when removed, forms smaller lateral heads.

Broccoli is best grown from transplants that can be purchased locally or grown at home. Broccoli does best in a moderate to highly fertile, well-drained soil. Space plants about 12 to 18 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart. Maintain a fairly rapid growth rate throughout the season with adequate water and fertilizer. Approximately 3 to 4 weeks after transplanting, apply a sidedress application of a small amount of calcium nitrate to stimulate growth.

Broccoli heads are a mass of flower buds. Harvest the heads before flowers open and show yellow. When ready to harvest, the central head usually measures 3 to 6 inches across. Lateral heads that develop after harvesting the central head are smaller. When harvesting, cut 3 to 4 inches of the stem and accompanying leaves with the head. Use or freeze broccoli soon after harvesting.

Cabbage

Cabbage grows best during cool temperatures. It does not withstand excessive heat common to Alabama summers and, therefore, should be planted as an early spring or fall crop.

Cabbage can be either seeded directly or transplanted but does best when transplanted. From seeding to transplanting is 3 to 4 weeks.

Plant spacing affects head size with close spacing producing smaller heads. Recommended spacing is about 12 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart.

Harvest cabbage when it reaches adequate size, depending upon variety and growing conditions. Firmness is preferred to soft heads, especially for storage. Mature, firm heads can be left on the plant in the garden for about 2 weeks in early summer. Cabbage can be stored successfully in the refrigerator for a month or two.

Cantaloupes

Cantaloupes are a warm-season crop, requiring a relatively long growing season of 80 to 100 days.

Cantaloupes can be grown from transplants but do best when direct-seeded in the garden. Place rows at least 5 feet apart with hills spaced 2 to 3 feet apart in the rows. Plant seed . to 1 inch deep after the danger of frost is well past. A sidedress application of fertilizer when the plants start to run greatly increases yields. Avoid over-watering as the fruits mature, because low sugar content and poor flavor result.

Harvest cantaloupes at one-half slip stage. Exercise care when walking through the plants to avoid injuring the foliage. Plants can be trained during the early developmental stages to grow in rows to enable easier harvesting.

Carrots

Carrots are planted 4 to 6 weeks before the anticipated last spring freeze. Broadcast seeds in a wide bed or plant in rows. Plant seeds thickly and very shallow, generally not more than 1/4 inch deep. Since carrot seeds sprout slowly, it may be necessary to water two or three times to get them up. Poor stands often are owing to poorly prepared seedbeds or crusty soil, which inhibits emergence.

After the carrots are up and growing, thin to 1- or 2-inch spacing. Water them regularly, especially after they reach the size of a pencil. Moisture fluctuations cause carrots to crack, be of poor quality, and sometimes rot. Keep cultivation to a minimum and use only to control weeds. Depending on variety, it generally takes 2. to 3 months for most carrots to mature. Carrots are best when harvested small, not more than an inch in diameter at the crown.

Cauliflower

Cauliflower probably requires more exact growing conditions than any other home garden vegetable. Cauliflower requires cool but frost-free temperatures and a humid climate to develop center heads or curds. Cold temperatures can cause stunting and premature heading. Varieties differ in plant size, curd size, and in days to maturity, ranging from 70 to 100 days.

Cauliflower does best as a fall crop in most areas of Alabama. Space plants about 18 inches apart in rows 30 to 36 inches apart.

Exposure to sunlight discolors the head and produces off flavors. To prevent this, gather the long leaves over the head and tie them together. This must be done as soon as the curd begins to develop.

The center head or curd matures about 2 weeks after tying. Mature curds are about 6 inches in diameter. Heads turn from clear white at the peak of maturity to yellowish brown when overly mature. Cool immediately after harvest and keep refrigerated. If cauliflower must be stored for several weeks before using, leave a portion of the stalk and leaves to protect the curd.

Collards

Collards are closely related to cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. They are especially valuable nutritionally since they supply important amounts of vitamin A, ascorbic acid, and iron. Pound for pound, greens such as collards contain much more vitamin A than snap beans, sweet corn, or green peppers.

Collards can be sown directly in the garden or transplanted beginning in February through March and again beginning in September. Plant collards on rows 36 inches apart with plants spaced 12 inches apart in the row. When harvesting, remove one or more leaves from each plant but never harvest more than one-third of the leaves from a single plant. A small amount of sidedressed fertilizer after the first harvest increases productivity.

These greens usually are ready for harvest about 2 months after planting, but thinnings can be used much earlier.

Corn, Sweet

Sweet corn should mature before high day and night temperatures occur. Therefore, early planting is a necessity. Plant on or within a few days of the average date of the last killing frost.

Plant corn in rows 30 to 36 inches apart with seed 12 to 15 inches apart. Cover seed to a depth of about 1 inch. Plant sweet corn in a block rather than in long rows to ensure good pollination and ear fill.

Harvest in the early morning when the air temperature is still relatively cool. If harvesting during high temperatures, remove the field heat by plunging the ears into cold water or placing them in the refrigerator immediately. This helps maintain the fresh-from-the-garden quality of the ears. Normally, sweet corn is ready to harvest about 3 weeks from the day the first silk appears on the ear.

Cucumbers

Cucumbers differ in the fruit types and uses; both the slicer or fresh salad type and the pickle type are available for home garden use. Cucumbers are multiple harvest plants, and, when properly grown, only a few plants are needed to provide an adequate supply for the average family.

Plant 4 to 5 seeds per foot in rows spaced about 36 inches apart. Untrellised rows may need to be spaced as much as 4 feet apart. When plants are 4 to 5 inches high and before they begin to run, thin the plants to 24 inches apart in a row.

For the flowers to develop into fruit, pollen must be carried by insects from the male flowers to the female flowers, the ones with the small “pickle” behind the bloom. Poor set is common during rainy weather when pollinating insects are inactive. Spray insecticides in the late afternoon to avoid harming insect populations necessary for pollination.

Fruits may be used from the time they are 1. to 2 inches long until they begin to turn yellow. This period is approximately 10 to 12 days for any one fruit. It is important to remove cucumbers before they turn yellow so that plants continue producing. If the fruits are picked early, plants bear a large number of cucumbers; if harvest is delayed until fruits are large, yields are lower.

Eggplant

Eggplant is very sensitive to cold soils and is not at all frost tolerant. It does best when grown from transplants, which should be set in the garden 2 weeks after the last frost-free date. Space the plants 24 to 36 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart.

Eggplants do best in a well-drained, moderately fertile soil. After the first fruit set occurs, apply a small amount of fertilizer around each plant and water it in. Additional fertilizer may be applied after the first harvest.

Fruits are edible from the time they are about one-third grown until they are ripe, and they maintain edibility after achieving full color. Mature fruits are glossy in color and slightly firm. Fruit that is left on the vine too long or matures under extremely high temperatures or low moisture conditions often becomes bitter. Be sure to harvest the fruit as it matures so new ones can develop.

Do not bruise or damage the fruit in any way.

Lettuce

Lettuce is an important cool-season vegetable and one of the easiest to grow. Lettuce withstands light frost but can be damaged by freezing temperatures.

Leaf lettuce is by far the easiest to grow and, therefore, the most highly recommended for home gardens. Space lettuce 12 inches apart in rows 30 inches apart. For early planting, start seed in a protected area and transplant later.

Lettuce can be planted on the shady side of taller growing crops such as sweet corn, tomatoes, and pole beans. Lettuce works well when planted between rows of later maturing crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Border planting along the edges of the garden or in a flower bed also is possible. Make successive plantings every 3 to 4 weeks so that lettuce is available for a while. High summer temperatures can cause lettuce to send up a seedstalk and develop a bitter flavor. Recently, new heat-tolerant varieties have been developed that resist bolting and development of off flavors. Try a heat-tolerant variety during summer and early fall.

Okra

Okra is a warm-season crop that grows well in most areas of Alabama. Delay seeding until 3 to 4 weeks after the last frost. Varieties differ in plant size, pod type and color, and number of spines. Dwarf varieties without spines and with smooth green pods are best for home gardens.

For good germination, soak the seeds for about 6 hours in warm water before planting. Plant 3 to 4 seeds per foot 3/4 inch deep in rows 36 inches apart. After plants are 3 to 4 inches tall, thin to final stand of about 12 inches between plants.

Cut off the pods when they are 2 to 4 inches long. Once harvesting starts, continue to harvest every 2 to 3 days to maintain productivity. An occasional light fertilizer application maintains quality and yields. You can store okra in plastic bags in the refrigerator for several weeks or blanch and freeze them for later use.

Onions

Onions give a good return for the space occupied and should be included in every garden in Alabama. For green onions, plant seed as soon as the soil can be worked in the early spring. Two to four rows of onions on each bed maximize yields. Plant seed about 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep. Most green onion varieties are ready for harvesting within 80 to 90 days from seeding.

If you are interested in growing large bulb onions, set out transplants in early spring, usually 4 to 8 weeks before the anticipated last killing freeze in your area. Transplants should be no larger than a lead pencil and should be spaced about 2 inches apart in the row. Two rows of onions per bed are satisfactory. When onion plants have about five leaves, sidedress with about 1/2 cup of 15-0-15 fertilizer for each 10 feet of row. Scatter the fertilizer evenly between rows and water it in. Since onions have a limited root system, a constant supply of moisture should be available. This is especially true once onions start to bulb and enlarge.

Bulb onions are ready for harvest when stems weaken and fall over. Pull them from the garden and place in a protected area to dry for 1 to 2 days. After drying, remove the tops and roots and store in a relatively dry, cool area.

Potatoes, Irish

Irish potatoes have their yield influenced by season, variety, soil type, moisture availability, and amount of nutrients available to the plant. Highest yields are obtained in years with cool temperatures and adequate moisture throughout the season.

Potatoes require a large amount of fertilizer for good growth and production. Apply an additional . to 1 pound of complete fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) for each 100 feet of garden row before planting potatoes.

Plant potatoes 3 to 4 weeks before the last killing frost. Use only certified seed stock. Seed potatoes should be firm and unsprouted. Cut the seed potatoes into pieces weighing about 2 ounces. Each seed piece must have at least one good bud or eye. Plant the pieces about 3 inches deep, 10 to 12 inches apart, in rows about 36 inches apart.

After the plants emerge and begin to grow, mound the plants. This simply means pulling soil around the plants several times during their early growth until the seed pieces are about 6 inches deep.

Potatoes are ready to harvest when they are mature and the skin is set. Depending on the season, this is usually 90 to 120 days after planting.

Avoid bruising potatoes when digging. Store potatoes for a week at 65 to 70 degrees F in the dark to help heal bruises.

Radishes

Radishes are one of the easiest vegetables to grow. They do best when grown during cool weather with plenty of moisture. Under these conditions, they grow rapidly and produce crisp, tender roots. Many varieties are available that mature about 25 days from seeding. Make several small plantings at 1- to 2-week intervals to ensure a continuous harvest. Plant radishes about 1/2 inch deep. After emergence, thin the plants to approximately 1 inch apart. If radishes are allowed to become overly mature, especially during high temperatures, a hot, bitter flavor often occurs.

Southernpeas

Southernpeas should be planted after all danger of frost is past. Peas prefer a light, well-drained soil that is not too fertile. Peas grown in an over-fertilized soil produce a great deal of foliage and often have very poor pod set. In the area where southern peas are to be grown, reduce the amount of preplant fertilizer to one-half the recommended rate.

Sow seed 2 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart. Thin to about 6 inches between plants. It is important to maintain relatively uniform soil moisture during bloom and seed maturity.

Spinach

Spinach is a quick maturing, cool-season crop of high nutritional value. Some varieties mature in only 40 days when planted during favorable weather conditions. When planted too late in the spring, spinach often goes to seed. This can be prevented by planting in mid-February or early September.

Plant spinach in rows about 24 to 30 inches apart. Plant sufficient seed to get a good stand and then thin plants to 2 to 4 inches apart in the rows. After plants emerge, maintain good moisture and a rapid growth rate until maturity. A light fertilizer application when plants are approximately one-third grown produces high yields of good quality spinach.

Harvest spinach by pulling the whole plant or by removing the outer leaves as the plant grows. Successive plantings at 2- to 3-week intervals ensures continued harvest of good quality spinach. After harvesting, use or place in the refrigerator immediately.

Squash

Squash are usually classified as summer or winter squash. Fruits of summer squash are eaten in immature stages before the skin hardens. Winter squash are allowed to mature on the vine until the skin becomes relatively tough. Under favorable conditions, most summer squash varieties produce their first usable fruits 6 to 8 weeks from planting and continue to bear for several weeks. In general, winter squash require longer to mature.

All types of squash are highly susceptible to frost and should be seeded in the garden after danger of frost is over. Squash are normally planted in hills 15 to 36 inches apart in rows 36 to 60 inches apart. Plant seed about 1 inch deep. Squash usually do not do well until soil and air temperatures are above 60 degrees F.

When the first blooms appear, apply a small amount of fertilizer as a sidedress application and water it in. After harvest begins, an occasional light fertilizer application maintains vigorous growth and high productivity.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes need a long growing season. They do best in coarse-textured soils that are well drained and relatively low in nitrogen. Excessive nitrogen or heavy applications of animal manures can cause long, spindly roots and low quality. Heavy soils cause misshapen roots.

Sweet potatoes are planted from transplants (slips) available from local nurseries or garden centers.

Plant slips 2 to 3 inches deep in ridges or rows 42 to 48 inches apart. Slips should be 12 inches apart in the row. Plant in April through June. A second planting of sweet potatoes can be made with vine cuttings from the first planting. An 18-inch cutting can be directly stuck and rooted in moist ground.

Sweet potatoes are ready to harvest when the greatest number of 8- to 10-ounce sweet potatoes are found under each plant. Harvest before the first killing frost occurs to prevent injury to the sweet potatoes. Clip the vines before the frost occurs. The crop can then be harvested easily with less damage to the sweet potatoes. To reduce rotting in storage, be sure sweet potatoes are clean, dry, and injury free.

Cure sweet potatoes before storing. Curing usually requires 7 to 10 days if the temperature is maintained at 80 to 85 degrees F with 70 to 90 percent humidity. After curing, keep the sweet potatoes as near 65 degrees F as possible with the humidity at 85 percent.

Watermelons

Watermelons should be direct-seeded after danger of frost. Plant 3 to 4 seeds per hill about 1 inch deep. Space the hills 5 feet apart in rows about 6 feet apart.

Depending on variety, watermelons will be ready for harvesting 75 to 90 days from seeding.

Watermelons are ready to harvest when the ground spot or place where the melon touches the ground turns a yellowish color. The fruit also takes on a dull appearance compared to their appearance before maturity. Another good indication of maturity is a dead tendril or curl near the point where the fruit is attached to the vine. If you thump your watermelon to determine ripeness, remember that ripe fruit has a dull rather than a metallic sound.

Read the complete Alabama Vegetable Gardener.

 

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