The 10 Best Garden Crops to Plant This Summer

From Rodale News

Whenever I lecture about Vertical Gardening, the audience quickly recognizes the space-saving advantages of growing vegetables vertically up garden netting or a trellis, and they are surprised at the number of varieties that can be used to create a vertical garden.

Here is my list of 10 favorites—and the reason I turn to them—for crops you’ll harvest in the fall:

#1. ‘Sugar Snap’ Peas. I remember when I was executive director of All-America Selections (the national seed trials) when pea breeder Calvin Lamborn, PhD, from Idaho invited me to have breakfast with him at a seed trade convention in New Orleans. This was back in the 1970s.

He wanted my opinion of a new climbing pea he was ready to introduce called a ‘Sugar Snap’ pea. He explained how it was different from regular sugar pod peas, which had to be eaten young, before the peas swell the pod and become fibrous. Lamborn’s ‘Sugar Snap’ was more like a shelling pea in appearance, but the peas are allowed to mature inside the pod, which remains crisp and delicious until the pod actually dries out.

I encouraged him to enter it in the All-America Selections seed trials, and it won a Gold Medal. My photograph of it appeared in Time magazine as a milestone in breeding achievement and was syndicated to newspapers worldwide by Associated Press. Since the original ‘Sugar Snap’ pea appeared, there have been many new versions of it, including dwarf varieties that require no staking and earlier maturing kinds. I have grown them, all and in my opinion none can compare with the original for flavor and productivity. Today, the ‘Sugar Snap’ pea is one of the nation’s most popular vegetables at the grocery stores year-round, and also at farmer’s markets in spring.

Bonus Tip: The pods should be picked when the peas have swollen the pod. These can be eaten raw without shelling, but for best enjoyment, pinch the stem end and peel off a stringy suture that runs along the top of the pod. To cook, steaming for just 5 minutes will make the pods tender and juicy and still retain their crispiness.

For a Fall Harvest: Provide garden netting or trellis to support the 6-foot-high vines. Although seed direct-sown in early spring will begin bearing by early summer, the vines cannot take midsummer heat and will stop producing. A second sowing can be direct-seeded in mid-August so that the plants mature during cool fall conditions. The vines will even tolerate periods of light frost. An organic legume inoculant in the form of a black powder mixed into the upper soil surface will help to increase yields and ensure peas for picking within 70 days. In frost-free areas or locations with only light winter frosts, direct-sow seed after mid-September so the plants mature during cool winter months. Space plants at least 2 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart.

#2. Cucumber ‘Orient Express.’
Most kinds of cucumbers will climb if given support, since they have tendrils that will grasp netting or trellis to climb up to 4 feet high. However, the variety ‘Orient Express’ is an especially good choice because it has a non-bitter, tender skin that requires no peeling.

Bonus Tip: The long, slender fruits will remain perfectly straight when allowed to hang down. Fruits can be ready for harvest within 60 days, and are best eaten raw sliced into salads. Also, the fruits can be chopped into “sticks” like carrot sticks to eat as a snack for dipping. Combine wafer-thin slices with chopped onion and malt vinegar for a delicious cucumber salad side dish.

For a Fall Harvest: Direct-seed after danger of spring frost until midsummer, since fruits can mature within 60 days. Space plants at least 2 feet apart. In frost-free areas, direct-seed after mid-September so plants mature during cool winter months.

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#3. ‘Lazy Wife’ Pole Beans. Although there are many kinds of pole snap beans that are earlier to mature than the heirloom pole bean called ‘Lazy Wife’ or ‘Lazy Housewife,’ there are none that can deliver its tender, buttery flavor or match its high productivity. The seed needs planting after frost danger in spring, and the vines will reach 10 feet tall, maturing in 80 days. Once they begin bearing, they continue until fall frost.

Bonus Tip: Avoid impostors! Unfortunately, there are many imposters sold as ‘Lazy Wife,’ but it is distinctive in its appearance: The beans are almost round like a pea, and white like polished marble. The pod itself is flat, but the seeds swell the pod walls to create a “knuckle” effect like a clenched fist. Introduced in the 1880s by Burpee Seeds, the ‘Lazy Wife’ was the first stringless pole bean. I have been saving seed of the ‘Lazy Wife’ for 45 years—ever since I was catalog manager for Burpee Seeds. If you would like a packet of 15 seeds, send $2.00 and a self-addressed envelope to cover postage and handling to: Derek Fell, 53 Iron Bridge Road, Pipersville, PA, 18947.

My favorite way to grow them is up teepees using bamboo canes.

For a Fall Harvest: The beans should be direct-seeded either in spring after frost danger or in early summer, since the plants need at least 75 days to mature. Once they start bearing, they do not quit until fall frost. In frost-free areas, such as southern California and southern Florida, direct-sow the seed in mid-September. Space plants at least 6 inches apart.

#4. ‘Doctor Martin’s’ Pole Lima Bean.
Doctor Martin was a Pennsylvania dentist who dabbled in plant breeding. One of his most famous introductions is the ‘Black Brandywine’ tomato. Another is the ‘Doctor Martin’ pole lima bean, which grows the largest beans of any lima bean.

When the variety was first introduced in the early 1900s, seed houses sold packets of 5 seeds for $1.00 each, but today the bean is more widely available, and it’s possible to purchase 10 seeds for $2.50. Like the ‘Lazy Wife’ pole snap bean, if you save your own seed, the seed will breed true.

Bonus Tip: The vines can exceed 12 feet in a single season, so they need strong poles for support, arranged in a teepee. For maximum yields, plant in fertile, well-drained soil for continuous yields up to fall frost, and keep the vines picked to increase yields.

Be aware that to pick a pole lima bean at the peak of ripeness, you need to squeeze the pod to feel if the seeds have swollen inside, since sometimes a pod can seem to be sized right for picking but the bean still needs several more days to fatten up inside the pod. To store, as with the ‘Lazy Wife’ pole bean, shell the beans after the pods have turned brittle and store in glass jars. At maturity the beans are pale green but dry to become white; that’s when they’re often called “butterbeans.”

For a Fall Harvest: Direct-seed in spring after frost danger or in early summer. Once the vines start bearing, they do not quit until fall frost. In frost-free areas, direct-sow the seed in mid-September so plants mature during cool winter months. Space plants at least 6 inches apart.

#5. ‘Vegetable Spaghetti’ Squash.
I well remember a meal in Yokohama, Japan, at the home of the late Takeo Sakata, who introduced the vegetable spaghetti squash into the United States. He found the original plant in Mongolia, and today thousands of acres in California and Michigan are devoted to its commercial production to supply the grocery stores because it is a popular, low-calorie substitute for pasta spaghetti. If grown on the ground, its vigorous vines can consume a lot of space, but given a trellis or garden netting, it has tendrils that allow it to climb.

Bonus Tip: One plant can bear as many as 12 fruits weighing an average of 5 pounds each. Moreover, the ripening fruits need no support. They will remain on the vine, showing they are ready to pick when the fruits change color from white to yellow. Cooking is easy. Simply preheat an oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and pierce the fruit with a fork. Set in a pan and bake for 40 minutes, turning halfway through to get the interior cooked all the way through. Remove from the oven and slice in halves lengthwise. Then take a fork and remove the seeds, which are clustered near the center. Once removed, the strands of spaghetti can be unraveled by simply forking the inside and fluffing it up. Serve with your favorite sauce, such as meatballs in marinara sauce ot clams in white wine and parsley-butter. Classified as a winter squash, vegetable spaghetti squash matures in 80 days, and will keep for up to six months in a cool, dark, dry place.

For a Fall Harvest: Direct-sow seed at any time after spring frost, up until midsummer, spacing plants at least 3 feet apart. In frost-free areas, direct-sow seed in mid-September so plants mature during cool winter months.

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#6. ‘Malabar’ Heat-Resistant Climbing Spinach.
Regular spinach is one of the earliest crops to harvest in spring, but it cannot tolerate high heat and soon goes to seed from an early spring sowing. I am always wary of vegetables that are promoted as a “spinach substitute,” like beet tops and chard, because for me they don’t have the sweetness of spring spinach as a salad ingredient or a cooked side dish. A delightful exception is a fast-growing annual vine native of India called Malabar spinach.

In flavor, it is not only hardly distinguishable from spring spinach raw or cooked, but it is heat resistant, too, and the more you pick the succulent, dark green heart-shaped leaves, the more the vine will keep producing.

Bonus Tip: Since the seed has a hard coat and likes a high soil temperature to germinate, I prefer to start the seeds indoors after soaking them overnight. I then set 4- to 5-week-old transplants into the garden after frost danger to climb up trellis, teepees, or garden netting. The stems have a natural twining habit and will climb unaided. Also, the tight clusters of pink flowers are edible and can be cooked as an asparagus substitute. When shopping for seed, be aware that there is a green-stemmed variety and also one with purple stems, with no difference in flavor.

For a Fall Harvest: Soak seeds overnight and direct-sow seeds after spring frost until midsummer. In frost-free areas, direct seed in mid-September so plants mature during cool winter months. Space plants at least 12 inches apart.

#7. ‘Better Boy’ Tomato.
There are many kinds of tomatoes that can be trained to climb, especially those classified as “indeterminate,” meaning they produce a tall vine that keeps growing until fall frost. ‘Big Boy’ used to be the favorite, until along came ‘Better Boy,’ a derivative of ‘Big Boy’ with improved disease resistance and added vigor. The world record for a ‘Better Boy’ vine is 25 feet high, yielding more than 300 pounds of fruit.

Bonus Tip: The vines can be tied to a strong bamboo pole or set into the middle of a “tomato tower,” a cylinder of chicken wire. As the vine grows, it pokes its side branches through the mesh and becomes self-supporting. The fruits are large, meaty, and delicious, up to a pound in weight each. Developed by Petoseed, a California plant breeding establishment, this seed is best started indoors 8 weeks before setting plants outside after frost danger into fertile soil. Keep watered during dry spells and expect to begin harvesting ripe fruit within 72 days.

For a Fall Harvest: Set out transplants in spring after the last frost date. Keep the vines picked, and they will continue bearing until fall frost. In frost-free areas, set out plants in mid-September so plants start bearing during cool winter months. Space plants at least 3 feet apart.

#8. ‘Sungold’ Cherry Tomato.
Tomatoes are so useful it’s not enough to have just one variety. Of course, the large-size kinds like ‘Better Boy’ tend to be most popular, but an advantage of growing a cherry-size variety like “Sungold” is its extra earliness and sweet flavor.

Bonus Tip: ‘Sungold’ is golden yellow when ripe and so sweet I have sometimes eaten it like a dessert fruit with ice cream. The vines are vigorous and should be trained to climb so the fruiting stems hang down like a curtain. ‘Sungold’ was developed in Japan and came to the United States by way of the UK. If you prefer a red cherry tomato, then try ‘Sweet 100’ or ‘Sweet Million.’ Both are suitable for vertical growing.

For a Fall Harvest: Six-week-old plants can be set out into the garden by midsummer. Once the plants start bearing, they will continue until fall frost. ‘Sungold’ can also be grown indoors in a hanging basket or a pot, providing the plants receive eight hours of direct sunlight. In frost-free areas, plant outdoors in mid-September for a harvest during cool winter months. Space plants at least 3 feet apart.

#9. ‘Trombone’ Zucchini.
This heirloom vining vegetable from Italy resembles a gourd, but anything you can do with a zucchini squash you can do with the ‘Trombone Zucchini.’ The vines are vigorous, similar to ‘Vegetable Spaghetti.’ But given support, they have tendrils that allow them to climb. They are amazingly productive, soon setting beautiful yellow flowers that are self-pollinating. The fruits can be more than two feet in length with a long, slender neck and a bulbous base where the seeds are concentrated.

Bonus Tip: It is the neck that can be sliced or diced to eat raw like a zucchini squash or cut into rectangles to bake like courgettes. The flavor is exactly like a tender zucchini, with a tender skin that does not need to be peeled. I have produced as many as 300 slices from a single fruit. A favorite way for me to cook them is sautéed with sliced onions. Delicious!

For a Fall Harvest. Direct-sow seed in spring after frost danger and until midsummer, spacing plants at least 3 feet apart, using garden netting or strong trellis to allow the vines to climb. Once the vine starts bearing, it will continue until fall frost. In frost-free areas, direct-seed in mid-September for a harvest during cool winter months.

#10. ‘Charentais.’ Melon
Many kinds of melons can be grown vertically up garden netting or a trellis, since they have tendrils that allow them to climb. I prefer the sweet, perfumed, French heirloom variety known as ‘Charentais’ because the fruit is not much larger than a grapefruit, so it easily serves two people when cut in half.

A problem with heavier melons is that as soon as they’re ripe they tend to slip from the vine and crash to the ground, splitting open, whereas the ‘Charentais’ melons will hang until over-ripe or need just a light support, such as a length of nylon stock, to cradle the fruit.

Bonus Tip: Melons are best grown through horticultural fabric or black plastic to ensure high yields and earliness, since any fluctuation in temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit will stop them from growing. The flavor of a ‘Charentais’ can be described as honey-sweet. Moreover, the globe-shaped fruits are heavily ribbed and turn orange when ripe, but for perfect ripeness pick when the rib segments are still green.

For a Fall Harvest: Direct-seed after frost danger in spring. The vines will remain productive until night temperatures consistently fall below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In frost-free areas, direct seed after mid-September so plants start to bear during winter months. Space plants at least 3 feet apart.


By Derek Fell for