Beets

Overview: Beets (Beta vulgaris) are a hardy vegetable that can survive the cold temperatures of New England. These colorful plants are a great addition to your garden and are perfect for a beginner gardener!

Three newly harvested beets sit on a bed of grass
Three newly-harvested chiogga beets from the Merrimack Garden
A white bowl holds three different colors of beets: golden, bull's blood red, and chiogga, which has pink and white stripes
A bowl of chiogga (striped), golden, and bull’s blood beets

Seed Starting: Plant seeds in soil that is free of rocks, as their roots cannot develop properly with them in the way. Seeds should be planted very early spring, about 4 weeks before the last frost. A second crop can be sown in early August. Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep and 1-2 inches apart from each other directly into the bed in which you wish to grow them. Beet seeds (little balls) are actually a clump of 2-4 seeds. Soaking them before planting can speed germination and soften that hard seed coat. Make sure they are watered sufficiently for proper germination as well!

To level up, consider multi-sowing beets, which means starting multiple seeds in trays or six-packs before transplanting into the garden (Source: Tiny Garden Habit). As the beets mature in a group, they push the other beets out. You simply harvest the biggest one of the bunch and let the others continue to grow. 

Growing Advice: Beets prefer full sun – at least 6 hours a day! Once your seeds germinate and start to grow, you should thin your plants to around 5-6 inches apart so that their roots will have space to spread. No need to pull up the plants to do this – you can just cut off the greens at the tops to not disturb the other beets. They should get 1 inch of water per square foot weekly.

Harvesting Advice: Beets push up and show their size above ground. When a beet reaches the desired size (maybe 1-3 inches in diameter), gently pull it from the ground. Note that beets can lose their sweetness and become “woody” if they get too big.

Sauteed Beet Greens Recipe

While beets are tasty, their leaves are equally so! Here is a zero-waste recipe for sautéed beet tops. (Originally found here). You will need:

  • 1 bunch beet greens
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins
  • Lemon wedge
  • 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts or pistachios
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Separate the stems from the beet greens. Finely chop the stems and coarsely chop the leaves.
  • Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and the beet stems and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the beet greens, a few pinches of salt and freshly ground black pepper, and sauté, tossing, until just wilted.
  • Turn off the heat, add the raisins, a big squeeze of lemon, and toss. Transfer to a platter, top with the walnuts and season to taste with more salt and pepper.

Written by Sophia Beland

Peppers

Overview: Peppers are another versatile vegetable that have their own measurement called scovilles. Scovilles measure how hot peppers range from bell peppers, around 0-2,000, to the hottest peppers in the world like the carolina reaper at 1.5 million scovilles and higher.

Seed Starting: plant pepper seeds 1-2 feet apart. Peppers like partial shade and well drained soil. Peppers are often 

Growing Advice: Peppers do well with a trellis or fence to climb and to bear the weight of the peppers as they mature.

Harvesting: Harvest peppers with a knife or scissors when to desired size, bell peppers typically will be in full color (in accordance with seed type) and around the size of hand. 

Stuffed Peppers Recipe

  • Preheat the oven to 425°F and set an oven rack in the middle position.
  • Tenderize the beef: In a medium bowl, using your hands, mash the beef with 1 teaspoon of the salt and the baking soda. Let sit for 20 minutes while you continue with the recipe.
  • Line a 9×13-inch baking dish with aluminum foil for easy clean-up, if you like. Place the peppers, cut side up, in the baking dish; drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil and sprinkle with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt.
  • Roast the peppers for about 20 minutes, until slightly browned and tender-crisp. A bit of liquid will accumulate in the bottom of the peppers; that’s okay.
  • Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat in a large nonstick skillet. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more; do not brown. Add the ground beef mixture, chili powder, cumin, and oregano and increase the heat to medium high. Cook, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon, until the meat is browned and almost cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and bring to a boil; reduce the heat to medium low and cook, uncovered, until the meat is cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the rice and ¾ cup of the cheese, and stir until melted. Remove the skillet from the heat.
  • Remove the peppers from the oven and spoon the meat filling evenly into the peppers. Sprinkle with the remaining ¾ cup cheese and place back in the oven. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes, until the filling is hot and the cheese is melted and bubbling, and serve.
  • Make-Ahead Instructions: The peppers can be partially cooked and filled with the beef mixture up to 2 days ahead of time and refrigerated, or frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months. When ready to serve, defrost overnight in the refrigerator if frozen, cover the dish with foil, and bake in a 425°F-oven for about 15 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven and remove and discard the foil. Top the peppers with the cheese and place back in the oven for about 5 minutes, or until the filling is heated through and the cheese is melted. 
  • Recipe from Once Upon a Chef https://www.onceuponachef.com/recipes/stuffed-peppers.html
Pepper plant with 3 peppers on it

Watermelon

Overview: Watermelons are Annuals (only one life cycle). They typically take 80-90 days from seed to full maturity. You’ll get 1-3 fruit per plant

Seed Starting: The best time to start the seeds would be late spring to summer for planting, the soil must reach 70º Fahrenheit before growth can start. Watermelons needs 3-5 feet between growing plants

Growing Advice: Unless living in a warm/ tropical climate, watermelons will need lots of attention and care. plastic bags, green houses, kiddie pools, etc are all commonly used to warm up that soil to start the seeds. When the melons mature to the point of weighing down to the ground, put straw underneath to prevent molding.

Harvesting: home grown melons are often much smaller than bought or farm grown, so keep this in mind when it comes time to harvest.

Recipe for Watermelon Salad

  • cut up watermelon and red onion into a fine mince.
  • Rinse onions in ice water to remove bite
  • Add feta cheese crumbles, basil, and top with balsamic glaze of choice.

By; Jackie Rosney

One small watermelon on vine being held
Small watermelon plant

Potatoes

Overview: Potatoes are a meal staple all over the world. The starchy vegetable is one of the most versatile, there are hundreds of ways to prepare and enjoy them.

Seed Starting: Started from seed potatoes from either pieces or whole small potatoes. One potato seed can yield as many as 10 potatoes. Potatoes need full sun and loose soil.

Growing Advice: cut up seed potatoes and let them dry out, this helps prevent rot. The bigger the plot or pot the better, more room can mean more potatoes under the right circumstances.

Harvesting: the potatoes will sprout a plant with vines and flowers, when these vines start to die that’s when the potatoes are at their most mature and are ready to be dug up.

Recipe

  • Preheat oven to 400°F.
  • Wash potatoes and slice into ⅛” thin slices. Slice onion as thin as possible.
  • Layer potatoes and onions in little stacks. Place stacks upright in a greased casserole 2.5qt to 3qt dish.
  • Melt butter & flour in a saucepan and cook 2-3 minutes. Add seasonings and milk. Whisk over medium heat until thick and bubbly. Remove from heat and stir in cheeses until melted.
  • Spoon cheese sauce over potatoes. Cover with foil (sprayed with cooking spray) and bake 60 minutes. 
  • Remove foil and bake an additional 20-30 minutes or until lightly browned and potatoes are cooked. Cool 15 minutes before serving.
  • recipe from Spend with Pennies https://www.spendwithpennies.com/au-gratin-potatoes/

By: Jackie Rosney

Dill

Overview: Dill is a light-tasting herb, useful in many dishes: fish, chicken soup, potato salad, dips, pickles. It’s easy to grow, helpful to pollinators, and excellent as a companion plant. 

Seed Starting: Plant seeds ¼ inch deep, spaced about 8 to 10 inches apart, after danger of spring frost (Source: University of Minnesota Extension). Direct sow, as dill does not like to be transplanted. This plant will readily reseed, offering easy harvests year after year.  

This is a dill plant with a yellow flower umbel on top
Flowering dill

Growing Advice: Dill will reach 2 to 4 feet tall and be 1 to 2 feet wide. It has feathery foliage and sends up several yellow flowers, reminiscent of Queen Anne’s lace. Dill, Queen Anne’s lace, carrots, and others are all in the umbelliferae family [Source: Farming While Black].

Pollinators love dill. It is a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies!

Harvesting: Harvest the feathery leaves to use fresh in many dishes. Dill also leaves dry and store nicely for future use. Let the big yellow flowers go to seed to have “volunteer” dill plants next year. Or save the seeds to make dill pickles.

Dill Potato Salad Recipe (from Spend with Pennies)

Ingredients:

  • 3 pounds potatoes white or red skinned
  • 1 ½ cups celery diced
  • 3 tablespoons green onion finely sliced
  • ¾ cup mayonnaise 
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons fresh dill minced
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard

Steps:

  • Boil the potatoes until tender (approx. 15-20 minutes). Cool and cut into bite sized pieces.
  • In a large bowl, mix all ingredients except the potatoes.
  • Combine cooled potatoes with dill mixture and refrigerate at least one hour.

Lettuce

Overview: Lettuce is an easy-to-grow garden staple that prefers cooler temperatures.

Seed Starting: Lettuce can be direct-sown into gardens or containers. Several hours of sun and some shade (particularly in the afternoon) will be welcome. Cover seeds with fine soil no more than a quarter inch deep. Some folks even scatter lettuce seeds on the soil surface and gently tap or rake them in. Give newly-planted seeds a good watering. 

This is a bowl of mixed greens, including speckled lettuce, red lettuce, and arugula.
Salad mixes include a variety of flavors, colors, and textures

Depending on the variety, lettuce can be spaced 6-12 inches apart. If using a salad mix, consider scattering seeds closer than that and harvesting leaves here and there to thin plants out. 

Because lettuce tolerates and even prefers cooler temperatures, it can have two crops. Plant the first about 2 to 4 weeks before the last spring frost and the second in early August in New England. Lettuce can also be started in small pots and transplanted at these times. 

Growing Advice: Lettuce does not like to dry out. Give it frequent waterings. Lettuce may be munched by hungry slugs and other opportunistic critters. Keep an eye on the growing lettuce and visit the “Managing Pests” section of this blog as needed. 

Harvesting: Pick whole heads of lettuce or harvest leaves here and there to keep the main plant growing. Lettuce will “bolt” (grow tall and send up seeds) when the temperatures soar. At this time, lettuce can become bitter. However, harvesting leaves in the cool of the morning and soaking for a few minutes in ice water can reduce the bitterness. Store cleaned lettuce in the fridge in plastic bags or repurposed containers to preserve freshness. 

Salad Recipes by Lisa

After washing lettuce a few times to remove dirt and critters, rip up the leaves into bite-sized pieces. 

Experiment with seasonal pairings:

  • Lettuce with watermelon chunks, feta, pistachios and balsamic vinegar is divine. 
  • Consider trying raspberries, gorgonzola, walnuts, and a dressing of your choice as well. 
  • On a hot summer night, salad with grilled chicken and any available garden veggies hits the spot.

Garlic

Overview: Garlic is one of the most versatile and popular spices in the world. Strong in flavor, smell, and health benefits, garlic can be added to many dishes as a main or supporting flavor. 

Seven heads of recently harvested garlic sit atop a rock
Recently-harvested garlic

Seed Starting:  Garlic is grown from cloves. It takes 8-9 months for cloves to become new garlic heads. Garlic is one of the few foods planted in the fall in New England. It is harvested in late spring/early summer.

Growing Advice: Plant each clove tip up and 3 to 5 inches deep. It helps to insulate garlic over winter with a layer of mulch (shredded leaves, straw, etc.). . You can plant garlic from sprouted garlic, just add it to soil. Although garlic only has one life cycle after picked, simply replant a clove or two from each harvested head, to restart the process.

Harvesting: Harvest your garlic when the lower leaves of your plant turn brown. Don’t rinse dirt from garlic with water: shake it off to preserve the papery protection.

Recipe for Garlic Confit

  • Remove garlic cloves from head and peel
  • Put in ceramic or any oven safe container.
  • Separate cloves and cover completely with olive oil.
  • Add any additional herbs to your liking (rosemary, basil, peppercorns, lemon, etc.) and bake in the oven at 300 Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
  • Use as a spread, add to butter, or any of your recipes there are hundreds of uses!
  • Save the oil and now you have garlic infused olive oil!
  • Since you cooked the garlic and the oil make sure to refrigerate for keeping!

Written by; Jackie Rosney

Carrots

Overview: Carrots come in a variety of colors, are easy-to-grow, and store nicely after harvest. 

Seed Starting: Carrots prefer rich, sandy soil and a sunny location. They can also grow well in containers. Regular varieties prefer a soil depth of 10-12 inches. Short varieties, like “Scarlet Nantes,” “Chantenay,” or the unusually round “Parisian,” are perfect for more shallow gardens. 

Three orange carrots sit on the grass.
Three orange carrots from the Merrimack Garden

Sow carrot seeds directly into soil, ¼ inch deep, in rows about a foot apart (source: Farmer’s Almanac). Thin carrots to about 3 inches apart once they’ve sprouted. Clip off little seedlings to be thinned (perhaps using nail scissors) because pulling them up might also disrupt the carrots you want to keep growing. Almost all seed starting advice says to keep seeds moist after planting, but it really is true with carrots. 

Growing Advice: Carrots can even be grown twice a year in New England! Plant a spring crop (starting a few weeks before the last frost date) and a fall crop in late summer. 

Harvesting: Carrots often show their “shoulders” to give a preview of how wide they are. Harvest early for “baby” carrots or wait for a bigger carrot. Carrots take 60-80 (or more) days until harvest. Try to be patient. 

Carrots store well (with their tops snipped off), in a sealed bag in the fridge. Consider using the tops to make pesto! 

Recipe for Carrot Cake

Try this Southern Living carrot cake recipe that Chrissy Teigen loves. Dr. Perks made it near the start of the pandemic and agrees its delicious.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups grated carrot
  • 1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
  • 1 (3 1/2-ounce) can flaked coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Baking Steps:

  • Step 1 Line 3 (9-inch) round cakepans with wax paper; lightly grease and flour wax paper. Set pans aside.
  • Step 2 Stir together first 4 ingredients.
  • Step 3 Beat eggs and next 4 ingredients at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Fold in carrot and next 3 ingredients. Pour batter into prepared cakepans.
  • Step 4 Bake at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Drizzle Buttermilk Glaze evenly over layers; cool in pans on wire racks 15 minutes. Remove from pans, and cool completely on wire racks. Spread Cream Cheese Frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake.

Kale

Overview: Kale is a cold-tolerant, versatile green, useful in salads, soups, “chips,” and as a steamed side dish. Kale can have two crops in New England: one planting before the last spring frost and one planting at the tail end of summer, with a harvest lasting into fall. 

This image is of green and red kale leaves.
Red Kale and Blue Curled Scotch Kale grow well in the Merrimack Garden

Seed Starting Advice: Kale can be started indoors under grow lights or on a sunny windowsill about 8-10 weeks before the last frost (end of March is good). Or, direct seed it in late April. Same goes for mid-to-late August–either direct seed or start in pots. Choose seed starting soil or a potting mix and plant seeds about ¼ inch deep. 

Growing Advice: Space seedlings about 12-16 inches apart. Slugs may attack young seedlings. If starting seeds in pots, it helps to wait until they’re about 2-4 inches tall before transplanting. Collars made of toilet paper rolls or paper cups may also protect young seedlings. (photo needed) Common pests include the cabbage worm. Pick off worms (which often color match to the kale) or consider an organic spray of Bt (which will kill other types of caterpillars such as monarchs) or Neem oil.

Harvesting: Pick just a few leaves off a plant as needed and watch the plant continue to produce for months. Baby kale is excellent for salads. Some cooks will even massage the leaves to soften them. Kale that is older, more leathery, and even ruffled will be great for kale chips. (Flatter kales tend to stick to the baking sheet.)

Recipe for Kale Chips (from Lisa)

  • Wash the leaves and rip into bite-sized pieces.
  • Dry them well. If you have time, let the leaves sit in a bowl in the fridge for hours of even a few days.
  • When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 300.
  • Use a tablespoon of olive oil and two dashes of soy sauce for about 3 cups of kale leaves. Rub the oil and soy sauce into the kale leaves, spreading the mixture well.
  • Next, place kale leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet.
  • Bake for about 12 minutes.
  • Leaves should be crispy but not be too dried out. It also works well to check at about 10 minutes, remove already-crispy leaves, and let the rest bake for 2 minutes or so longer.

Keeping Your Garden Safe from Pests

If you prepare your soil well, follow the plant spacing guides, and water as needed, you’re already off to a good gardening start. This post offers advice on how to tackle the next big problem for gardeners: pests. 

One of the main reasons vegetables gardens or flowers are unsuccessful is that pests have successfully feasted on them. This post is divided into fencing for the bigger animals and other methods to curb the insects. 

First, the good stuff: embrace spiders, snakes, birds, toads, bees, and many other bugs in your garden. You can all work in harmony together. 

Good Fences Make Good Gardeners

Even if you don’t “see” pests around, there’s a good chance they’re in your yard or visiting your deck. Deer, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, chipmunks, voles, woodchucks, and others can steal a harvest or hurt plants. 

If you start a large garden, consider adding poultry wire or other fencing to the perimeter. Sinking the fencing a few feet into the ground will also help. For a few hundred dollars and a bit of labor, you can have some peace of mind. 

If you choose not to fence, check your plants daily (especially when they’re young) and react quickly to noticeable damage. It is possible to spray deterrents (like “Liquid Fence” that will keep some animals away. However, these sprays often smell bad (not great for patios/decks with seating) and need to be reapplied after rain. 

Barriers, Sprays, and Hand-Picking: Battling Insects and Fungus

Insects can be hard to see and tricky to identify. Google lens might tell you what you have: spider mites, vine borers, cabbage worms, tomato hornworms, etc.  

For larger, slower insects (e.g., caterpillars, beetles), picking them off and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water can do the trick. This can be time-consuming, but it’s quite effective and doesn’t harm the broader ecosystem. 

Neem oil is a good general-purpose organic spray that can take care of aphids, mites, and some other insects. 

Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis kills caterpillars by paralyzing their digestive systems. It is organic and is considered (by most) to be harmless to humans. This spray will kill cabbage worms–but it will also kill monarch caterpillars and those other “beautiful” butterfly larva. It’s best to use any spray pest control sparingly and in targeted areas. 

A brick raised garden bed holds small garlic plants in the front. At the back of the garden bed a round tent of white floating row cover keeps young plants safe in the early spring.
Floating row cover keeps
young plants safe.

Row covers are another organic method for keeping pests separate from plants. Dr. Perks is currently trying this method to prevent squash vine borers (aka clearwing moths) from eating her squash plants. 

Additional Tips and Tricks

Crop Rotation: Planting different types or families of vegetables in different spots year to year can help prevent pest damage. Pests (like squash vine borers) overwinter in the soil. Moving a pest’s buffet to a different garden bed or space the following year may slow the pest down. 

A dangerous fungus (verticillium wilt) will also build up in the soil and harm plants like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and eggplant. Verticillium wilt causes yellow foliage, wilting, and even death. If you had fantastic tomatoes one year and pitiful tomatoes the next, verticillium may be why. Rotate these crops to different beds annually. 

Companion Planting: Companion planting refers to planting two or more types of plants near one another for at least one plant’s benefit. For example, the Merrimack Garden has onions planted near kale and broccoli. Onions are said to give broccoli better flavor. We also have basil planted near tomatoes to repel tomato hornworms. 

Gardening is a lot of trial and error. Pay attention to your plants, do your best to meet their needs, and if that doesn’t work…try again next year!