Best Veggie Bets for the Iowa Garden
Story by Ann Hutchins
It is time to plan and soon to plant this year’s vegetable garden. Make the most of the growing season with these four enjoyable, productive, and valuable choices for the Iowa backyard.
Once this perennial vegetable is established, it provides elegant eating at low cost. The edible part of this plant is the young stems that emerge in spring when the soil temperatures reach 50°F. The seasonal harvest lasts 6 to 10 weeks, depending on the weather, and well-kept plants will continue producing for more than 20 years. In addition to being a delicious delicacy, asparagus is power-packed full of nutritional value, including vitamins C, A, and K, and is only second to orange juice in folic acid content.
Plant asparagus as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. Average garden soil will suffice if it drains well. However, sandy, well-drained loam — heavily enriched with well-rotted manure and compost — will hasten emergence of the spears because it dries out early.
Give asparagus a permanent space in the garden alongside other perennial plants such as rhubarb and strawberries or make the vegetable a backdrop to a flowerbed. Tomatoes, basil, pot marigolds, and parsley are good companion plants for asparagus because they naturally aid each other by repelling pests and boosting yields. Limited harvest begins the third season, with full harvests by the fourth. Cease harvesting for the season when stems are reaching only pencil thickness (smaller than 3/8 inch).
There are no white varieties of asparagus. This color — or lack of it — is achieved by growing method. Before stems emerge, soil is heaped over the plant crowns, blocking sunlight needed to produce chlorophyll. Spears are harvested early in the morning, just as the tips break through the soil. White asparagus is considered to be sweeter than green.
This versatile annual is often ignored and underappreciated, but it makes the short list because it has so much to offer. Beets are a first-class source of energy-enriching nutrients, including iron, vitamins, and fiber, plus all parts of the plant are edible.
Because beets are frost-tolerant, seeds may be sown in early April (a month prior to the frost-free date). Soaking the seeds in water overnight before planting will increase germination. Continue to make successive plantings every 20 days until midsummer for a nonstop supply of beets. Add another sowing or two in late August for fall harvests.
Beet leaves can be picked when they reach 3 inches and either cooked similarly to chard and spinach or mixed fresh into a green salad. Harvesting beet roots is a matter of preference — when they are between 1 and 3 inches or when part of the globe begins to show through the soil. Beets can be pickled or cooked and served hot or chilled.
Compatible plants for beets are onions, kohlrabi, and herbs. Do not plant beets with pole beans and mustards because they will stunt each other’s growth.
Grow yellow and white varieties if you don’t want red ones to bleed all over kitchen counters and your hands.
Undoubtedly the tomato is Iowa’s favorite warm-season garden vegetable. The taste of a fresh, homegrown tomato outshines the flavor of any greenhouse-grown fruit, and no other vegetable produces as well as a tomato plant. Versatility is another asset: Tomato plants can be grown in plots, pots, tubs, even upside down, plus their fruits come in many sizes, shapes, colors, and growing habits. Selection can become a personal challenge.
For a long season of productivity, choose varieties with varying maturation times: early, mid-, and late season. To keep tomato development from being delayed, don’t set plants outdoors until temperatures remain above 55°F and no later than mid-June.
Typically the harvest time for tomatoes is between August and September, which can be extended by covering plants with cloth sheets when there is danger of frost. Growing tomatoes next to companion plants such as garlic, basil, and marigolds is helpful in thwarting pests such as aphids, while plantings of chives, bee balm, dill, and parsley enhance tomato flavors.
Never plant tomatoes near walnut trees. Walnuts exude an acid that prohibits growth in certain plants, including tomatoes. Water tomato plants regularly to prevent the tomato skins from cracking.
Whether red, green, orange, yellow, red, or purple, peppers are another warm-season vegetable that keeps on giving in the Iowa garden. Sweet or hot, they are attractive enough to be grown in the flowerbed and tame enough to be grown in pots.
Grow peppers in raised beds that warm up quickly or keep them indoors until soil temperatures reach 60°F. (Otherwise, they will just sit.) To keep peppers from tasting bitter after harvest, the soil should be kept moist with frequent watering. Peppers also welcome the addition of Epsom salts to the soil as a magnesium source that aids plant health.
Using cooked, frozen, or dried peppers in food dishes adds health benefits — thiamin, folate, and manganese — and flavor.
To dry peppers, place them on baking sheets; you can leave them whole or cut them in half. (Cut peppers expose more flesh to the heat.) Set the oven to a low temperature — 100°F to 150°F — and prop the oven door open slightly. If you have a convection oven, you won’t need to prop the door open because air will be circulating automatically. Keep an eye on your peppers. Turn them over occasionally for even drying, especially if they’re on baking sheets. Bake for 1 to 3 hours.
Out of the oven, let them cool completely. Remember to put on your gloves, goggles, and dust mask if you crush the peppers by hand. Or use a coffee grinder or pepper mill.
If you crush the peppers to spice-size consistency, you can put the results in small air-tight jars for kitchen use. These make nice gifts, especially for those who don’t have gardens of their own.
You can also skip the crushing step: Leave the peppers in their original shape and size, then place them in tall quart-size, air-tight jars. The dried peppers can then be soaked in water to rehydrate them. The rehydrated peppers won’t have the exact consistency of fresh peppers, but add flavor to foods, especially sauces.
Back to Essentials
It wasn’t long ago that gardening was a way of life, not just a hobby. The home garden was essential to survival for Iowa’s early settlers, providing food for the family not only during the growing season but also throughout the harsh winter.
As a child, I often heard about the large vegetable garden my grandmother nurtured during WWII to assist family members and neighbors during a time of strict food rationing. My first experience with food gardening was in the 1970s, when my mother rented a large plot at the county park in order to grow chemical-free vegetables and save on grocery bills. For several seasons we weeded, harvested, canned, blanched, and froze enough food to last all year. Eventually we joined others in buying the ever-growing selection of produce available at grocery stores and grew only our homegrown favorites as a hobby.
Today many of us are returning to our roots, literally. We’re growing our own food due to a less-than-favorable economy, rising food prices, and a desire to control how food is produced. People are rediscovering that not only does growing their own vegetables feel good, it tastes good and saves money.
How good does it taste? Bring your vegetable garden bounty into the kitchen with a few of my favorite recipes.
-- Ann Hutchins
Sauteed Lemon & Tarragon Asparagus
1 pound fresh asparagus, cut into 2-inch pieces
In a large cast-iron pan saute asparagus in butter for about 8 minutes until tender but firm. Add tarragon and lemon juice; cook 2 to 3 more minutes. Place in a serving dish, sprinkle with sea salt to taste, and garnish with sesame seeds and/or grated Parmesan or grated Manchego cheese. Serves 6.
Roasted Beets with Spring Greens
Place beets, greens, and herbs in a medium salad bowl. Whisk together vinegars, mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and minced garlic; toss with beets, greens, and herbs. Sprinkle with feta or goat cheese. Try melting goat cheese on plate and covering with salad for a creamy cheese version. Serves 4 as a side or 2 as a main course.
Tomato, Basil, and Feta Salad
Combine salt, pepper, vinegar, oil, and basil in a medium bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and feta cheese; toss to coat. If desired, add any of the optional ingredients. Serves 4 to 6.
Italian Sausage and Peppers
In a large skillet brown sausage over medium heat on all sides. Remove from skillet and slice into 2-inch pieces. Melt butter in the skillet. Stir in the yellow onion, red onion, and garlic; cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add sweet peppers and, if desired, poblano pepper. Season with fennel seeds and oregano. Stir in white wine. Continue to cook and stir until peppers and onions are tender. Return sausage slices to skillet. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 15 minutes or until sausage is heated through. Add more white wine if needed for simmering. Serve on buns or on plates. Serves 6.