The Summer Garden
Words, Photos and Illustrations by Rachel Hardacre
Spring has fully flourished, waking and stretching across the landscape. Flowers bloom and the sun’s warmth seems to send plants shooting out of the ground, unfurling in all their glory. It’s time for summer, when the true stars of the garden make their appearances: rich juicy tomatoes, golden bright beets and vibrant tender beans. Summer—it is time and we are ready for you! I will walk through a simple summer garden plan to try out in your own backyard.
The garden bed
This four by four foot bed will yield some of the brightest flavors of summer to enjoy in a small compact area. If you planted spring vegetables, remove them once night time temps are steadily at 55 degrees for one to two weeks—around late May or early June. The soil will now be warm enough to plant your summer vegetables without damaging the roots or the seeds.
A tomato plant is a must in a summer garden. Nothing beats the juicy sweet and bright flavor of a ripe tomato. For this garden plan, I recommend growing a container variety of cherry tomato. The one I like to grow is called Litt’l Bites Cherry. They require no trellising and take up very little room within a raised bed. Container tomato plants like to cascade over the edge of planters, adding texture and beauty to your garden bed. Choose a plant starter and plant it in one quadrant of the garden bed. This will leave around one foot of space on all sides of the tomato, giving it plenty of air circulation and an area to sprawl within the garden. When you plant your starter, bury the stem over the first two leaves, before the first tomato branch. Roots will grow from the stem, giving you a stronger tomato plant. As your tomato plant sprawls, add straw or mulch around the tomato to keep the leaves and tomatoes from rotting or picking up diseases while resting on the soil. Harvest once bright red and enjoy all summer long!
Basil and tomatoes make perfect companions in the garden bed. They not only taste delicious together in summer caprese, but they actually help each other grow. Select a basil plant starter in a variety that you enjoy. I personally love Profumo di Genova for its large leaves and its classic basil flavor. Plant your basil one foot away from your tomato plant so it is close enough to benefit it and not too close to disrupt the space the tomato needs to sprawl.
One of the greatest joys of summer is a crisp, nutty green bean. They are delicious steamed and lightly salted—sheer summer perfection. I like to grow a tricolor mix of purple, yellow and green, as they add color and interest in the garden as well as on the plate. I prefer to grow a bush variety, as they produce heavy yields of beans June through October on plants that are about two feet tall. To plant beans, space seeds six inches apart in one row six inches from the left edge of your bed. Pick when beans are around three to four inches long for best taste and texture.
One of the overlooked beauties of a summer garden is the beet. Their ruffled green leaves form into a vibrant stem mimicking the beautiful color of the beet below the soil. I love pulling beets at any size — the baby greens make delicious additions to salads and a wonderful topping for a galette with their light and sweet beet flavor. Baby beets have a lightly sweet flavor, with just a touch of earthiness. The flavor reminds me more of sweet corn than a root vegetable. As the beets size up into big round globes, let the frost touch them in the fall and their flavor will develop into a deep earthy sweet, making then a perfect vegetable as the season changes to sweater and cozy meal weather. I love to grow a mix of beets — golden, candy stripe and classic red beets are my favorite. Plant beets by broadcasting them thinly over your two and a half by one foot area. Each beet seed will sprout more than one beet, so make sure to thin them out to one to two inches apart when they are around two to three inches tall (make sure and eat the thinnings!) pick beets any time after they size up to one inch in diameter.
I love the smell of freshly pulled carrots. It is a bright and sweet earthy sent unlike anything else. I also love how carrots produce such long and beautiful roots below the surface, surprising you with their beauty once pulled. Fresh garden carrots are best enjoyed raw, but are also superb roasted. Save the tops to make carrot top pesto—swap carrot tops for basil in your favorite pesto recipe. The pesto makes a delicious topping for grilled meats and roasted carrots. Plant carrots by broadcast, planting them thinly across your two and a half by one foot area. Once the carrots are three to four inches tall, thin them to around one to two inches apart. This is tricky to do but will result in longer, thicker carrots. Check the size of your carrots by rubbing the dirt off around the carrot tops in the soil. Once carrots are around a half to one inch in diameter, you can begin to harvest and enjoy. Harvest carrots in late summer through a light frost, as the frost will intensify the sweetness of your carrots.