Cucumbers love warm, comfortable conditions. Start with rich soil for best production. I like to sow seeds in a raised mound, planting five or six seeds in each raised one-foot circle, then thinning to the two best seedlings. Cucumber seeds will germinate quickly in just 6-12 days. Be sure to protect young seedlings from marauding birds. One easy foil is to use old plastic strawberry baskets that you remove when the seedlings begin to crowd them. I stake my cucumber vines because I find that training the vines up supports saves garden space and results in straighter fruits that are easier to see and harvest. I use soft string or twine to tie up the vines as they begin to ramble.
Cucumbers require consistent moisture. Periods of alternating dry and wet conditions stress these shallow rooted plants and result in bitter and stubby fruits. Pick cucumbers on the young side, before seeds mature and while fruits are firm-fleshed. Harvest often, every 2 or 3 days in peak season, to keep plants producing. Fresh cucumbers are sweet, crunchy and refreshing. Dill, mint, fennel and parsley are all herbs that complement and enhance their flavor. A dressing of very fresh, plain yogurt, combined with a little olive oil, crushed garlic and freshly chopped herbs makes a great dish to eat with crusty bread and a good dry white wine. Try both Middle Eastern Garden Oasis and English style Chelsea Prize to experience the differences between crispy cuke cultivars.
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Try these great recipes from Renee's cookbooks:
Israeli Cucumber Salad
Green Bean Pate
Baked Zucchini w/Lemon Thyme
Succulent Summer Squash
Whether you choose zucchini, scallop squash or crooknecks, warm daytime weather means it's time to plant summer squash seeds. Squash plants are easy to grow and produce abundantly over a long season. Plan to start seeds in a slightly raised mound, like cucumbers. It's especially important to thin young seedlings. Squash plants need ample room to grow and you'll have better results with a few happily spreading healthy plants than a half dozen spindle-thin, puny and unhappy, unthinned specimens.
All summer squash plants are heavy bearers, so plan to limit the number of plants to one for every four family members if you don't want to eat squash every day. Try to pick fruits very young when 3-5 inches long. They taste best at this stage - buttery, sweet and mouth pleasing. Older squashes have tough rinds and seedy, watery flesh and are not worth picking. When one hides under the leaves and gets enormous, I just compost it. Try "Tricolor Zucchini" for a bevy of pretty and delicate young squashes.
Winter squashes, whose hard shells protect their richly nutritious sweet flesh for months after harvest, are not as prolific as summer squash. Each plant will yield 4-6 tasty, colorful winter squash to harvest this autumn and enjoy in the cold months ahead. Their rambling vines are best planted at the edges of the garden where they can sprawl. Try several varieties so you can experience their different tastes and textures. Renee's Garden offers a packet with both Delicata and Butternut for a medley of colors.
Summer squash is good sautéed, braised, steamed or baked. My current favorite is to slice them in half lengthwise, oil lightly, then grill or broil until softened. I also like to steam summer squash briefly, then spoon out the flesh, leaving the outer shells intact. Chop and mix the flesh with buttered breadcrumbs. Add chopped fresh herbs; bind with a beaten egg or two and stuff back into the squash shells. Top generously with grated cheese and bake until they are heated through and the cheese is melted. This is a great main dish served with baked tomato halves and a green salad.
Start planting both bush and pole beans now that the soil and air are warmed up. Consider Renee's Garden 3 color bush bean mixes, crunchy flat Musica pole beans, or tender Rolande French filet snap beans. Plant your bush beans in succession, sowing a row or bed followed by another sowing a week to 10 days later. This way your bean plants will have staggered, easy to manage harvests. Planting pole beans and bush beans at the same time is another good strategy, as the bush beans will fruit, then finish bearing just as the pole beans come on.
If you do have an abundance of snap beans, freeze some for later use. They need a quick 2-3 minute blanching in a boiling water bath; then you can put them up in convenient zip lock freezer bags for winter meals.
Besides serving freshly steamed snap beans, I like to precook them quickly in a large amount of boiling water, and chill in a cold water bath. Then I take the still slightly crunchy pods and marinate them in a mild mustardy vinaigrette. These delicious savory beans are great in any salad. For a super lunch, pair them with cubes of feta cheese, quartered, juicy ripe tomatoes, Greek olives and chunks of albacore tuna!
Melons are easiest and most rewarding to grow if you have long hot summers. If your climate is more marginal because of a short season or cooler summer weather, locate your melon patch in the sunniest spot you have, ideally near a south-facing wall where heat will reflect back on the bed. Get a head start by covering the ground with black plastic to heat up the soil a week or two before you sow seed. Then plant melon seeds right into small holes made in the plastic. Keep melon seedlings well watered and fed. If insects are a problem, cover the bed with floating row cover until blossoms set, then remove. After fruits start to size up, reduce water so best sweet flavor develops.
Ripe melons are a real centerpiece of high summer. I love to serve two or three different kinds of melon cut in chunks and put on skewers, alternating with juicy red strawberries. For an elegant dessert, serve perfumed Galia or Earlidew honeydew quarters with a tablespoon of port wine in the center. Don't forget to try ripe melon slush drinks that you whip up in the blender. Good combinations are orange juice, Solid Gold cantaloupe and green grapes or Galia and Seven-Up with a strawberry garnish. Earlidew Honeydew, mango and pineapple juice makes a great tropical tasting summer treat.