The Fruits of Summer

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Tomatoes and peppers are the two most popular veggies grown in the home garden.

Nothing says summer like a bright red, juicy tomato, plucked straight from the vine and sliced up for a meal. With more than 4,000 varieties, tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown in the home garden. Not far behind are peppers, with varieties as mild or as spicy as youd like. Although tomatoes and peppers are commonly considered vegetables, they are both actually fruitsas are any plants that flower and produce edible products. Cucumbers, squash, melons, peas and beans are also technically fruits.

Anyone can achieve success with these easy-to-grow vegetables. No matter what variety you plant, they need the same requirementsfull sun (eight to 10 hours a day), well amended, well-draining soil and adequate water. Both can easily be started from seed or a nursery transplant. They can be grown in traditional planting beds, raised beds and containers. Mixing them into a perennial border is a great way to add interest to existing plantings, just be sure larger plants and shrubs wont shade them too much.

When you find the perfect spot for your tomatoes and peppers, dont plant until you get the soil ready. Many potential problems (such as diseases or pests) can be avoided by providing the best planting environment in your garden. You may not have good soil to begin with, but a soil test run by your county extension service will help you improve it. The recommendations youll receive from them will give you the ingredients you need to improve the soil for maximum results. Be sure to till all amendments thoroughly into the existing soil, and break heavy clay.

Now that the planting bed is ready, limed and fertilized, its time to plan. With the thousands of varieties of tomatoes and peppers, how do you decide? Heres a primer to help you make good choices.

There are three types of tomatoes: determinate, indeterminate and semideterminate. Determinate tomatoes grow into bushes and flower at the ends of the stems. Growth then stops, and all of the fruit forms at the same time. Indeterminates set fruit all along the stem and grow throughout the season, providing tomatoes throughout the summer until fall. Semideterminates stay small and bushlike, but will flower and fruit all season long, too.

When trying to decide which types and varieties to plant, consider where you will be plantingsome tomatoes are better suited for containers, others do best if trellised or caged. How will you use the tomatoes? Some varieties are better for slicing and eating, while others are preferable for cooking and canning. No matter which you pick, look for varieties that are labeled as disease resistantabbreviations such as VFN, VFNT and VFNTA indicate that a particular variety has been bred to resist wilts and viruses.

Also, look for days to maturity so youll know when theyll be ready to pick. If you want tomatoes early in the season, look for those that have a shorter number of days to maturity. Tiny Tim, Bush Early Girl, Jetsetter and Jelly Bean Hybrid all mature within 40 to 55 days. Traditional favorites such as Better Boy, Celebrity, San Marzano and Beefmaster need 70 to 81 days, depending on variety.
Colors other than red have become popular with tomato aficionados. Pink, yellow, green and striped varieties can be found in seed catalogs and specialty nurseriestry Dr. Wyches Yellow, Green Zebra or Brandywine for something a little different.

Sweet and mild or hot and spicy? There are hundreds of choices when it comes to which pepper to plant. While many vegetable gardeners have planted the familiar sweet bell pepper for years, hot peppers (chilies) are becoming more popular every year. Just as with tomatoes, pick disease-resistant varieties for your garden. Youll see plants and seeds labeled TMV and PVY; these are more likely to be disease free.

There are hundreds of choices when it comes to which type of pepper to plant.

Peppers, sweet and hot, have days to maturity ranges from 65 to 85 days, depending on variety. Again, think about how youll use the peppers and your heat tolerance when deciding which varieties to plant.

Sweet bell peppers start out green and mature to different colors (unless picked when green). Popular varieties are Valencia, Bell Boy and Better Belle, Chocolate Beauty, Blushing Belle and Giant Marconi are other good performers. A new introduction, Chervena Chushka would be a great addition to this summers garden.
Sweet peppers that are good for frying include Gypsy and Sweet Banana, and Super Red and Pimiento Elite are excellent pimento peppers to plant.

How much heat can you stand? Thats the test when choosing chili peppers. Heat is measured in Scoville units and can range from 3,000 to 285,000 units. Jalapenos are one of the mildest (but still fairly hot) and habaneros are off the charts, so be careful when handling and eating these peppers.

Thanks to the United States ethnic diversity, many new vegetable varietiesincluding peppershave been introduced to our tables and our gardens. Look for peppers from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America to add some spice to your garden. In the mild range, look for jalapenos Big Chili, Cherry Bomb and Tam Jalapeno. For more heat, choose Aji Dulce, Autopick and Red Chili. For the really brave, go for Hungarian Wax, cayennes, habaneros and Red Savina. Only for the strongest soul, a new introduction, White Bullet will keep knock your sock off.

Once youve got them in the ground (no sooner than early April in metro Atlanta), mulch and water well. Directing water only at the roots of the plants will help prevent fungus and mildew on the foliage, and daily inspection for insects will help you avoid problems. If problems do develop, take action quickly by diagnosing exactly whats wrong with your plantcall or e-mail the volunteer Master Gardener at your county extension service or visit your local nursery for help.
Get out and plant those tomatoes and peppers today, and by mid-summer youll be supplying the neighborhood with these luscious treats for their table.

For good basic vegetable and herb gardening tips, call your county extension service and ask for publications about vegetable and herb gardening, or go to these links on the Internet:

Home Vegetable Gardening:

Small Garden Plan for Georgia:

For expert advice on growing vegetables and fruits in Georgia, The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Book by Walter Reeves and Felder Rushing, (Cool Springs Press, 2002) is recommended.

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