A Baker's Dozen of Easy Italian Vegetables to Grow
Some people claim you need to have a green thumb to garden, but I believe anyone can have a garden full of delicious produce if you know where to start! At this time of year, you don't need a greenhouse or even grow lights, a lot of space, or a lot of time. Most of these vegetables can be direct sown if your soil is rich, fine and free of weeds, rocks and roots. Here are my favorite Italian vegetables – some to start now and some to plant later in the fall.
To Grow Now:
1. Arugula (Erica sativa) is peppery and can be eaten on its own with olive oil, salt and pepper, or added to salad mixes. Try it cooked into a frittata, or wilted on pizza or pasta. Arugula is a cool season green, but it is somewhat heat tolerant and goes from seed to table in 15-30 days, so you may get two sowings before the weather turns too hot (which can make the greens bitter). How to grow: Scatter seeds in a well prepared bed. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (3-8 days depending on temperature). Begin harvesting when 3-4” tall by pulling individual plants to thin plants to 2-3” apart. After plants get a bit taller, harvest by cutting sections of plants ½” above the soil line with a sharp knife. Begin sowing seeds again in September and continue every 14 days until frost.
2. Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). ‘Roma II’ is a bush type (doesn’t need staking) with flat green pods that have a robust flavor that is delicious steamed and dressed with olive oil and winter savory, or tossed into Minestrone soup. The trick with growing beans is to pick small, tender pods every other day because if the pods begin to mature on the plant the plant will stop producing. 58 days from seeding to harvest. How to grow: Sow seed directly in the soil after it has warmed to 60°. Soaking the seed in room temperature water for several hours before planting helps the seeds to germinate quicker. Plant seeds 1” deep spacing every 2”. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (5-8 days). When seedlings are 3” tall, remove individual plants to thin plants to 3” apart.
3. Lettuce (Lacuta sativa). ‘Lolla Rossa’ is a leaf lettuce that can be plucked as the leaves mature. This is a beautiful variety with blushing red tips and a delicate flavor. While technically a cool season crop, with 53 days from seeding to harvest you will be able to harvest one crop (especially if planted in the shade) before the heat of summer arrives. How to grow: Plant seeds ¼” deep and 1” apart. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (3-7 days) and then reduce the watering frequency so that the leaves can harden off. Begin harvesting when 3-4” tall by pulling individual plants to thin plants to 12” apart. After plants get a bit taller, harvest by cutting sections of plants ½” above the soil line with a sharp knife. Begin sowing seeds again in September and continue every 14 days until frost. Tip: lettuce grows well indoors under lights so you can grow fresh lettuce year round.
4. Pepper (Caspicum annuum). ‘Jimmy Nardello’ sounds like the name of a mafia lord, but it’s a super sweet, long, thin pepper with a rich flavor similar to roasted apples. Excellent for frying (think sausage and peppers) or salsa. 120 days from seeding to harvest. How to grow: Sow seeds when the soil temperature is at least 70° (seeds can be started indoors) ¼” deep and 6” apart. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (10-21 days). When seedlings are 6” tall, thin to 12” apart. Seeds are easily started indoors to get a jump on the season.
5. Tomato (Solanum lycospermum). ‘Lizzano’ is a compact cherry tomato that can be grown in the garden or in containers. Cherry tomatoes are best for our area because they continue to produce even when nighttime temperatures soar (large-fruited varieties of tomatoes fail to set flowers when nighttime temperatures are over 80°). Tomatoes are best started indoors in the late winter or early spring, but can be direct seeded in the garden in late July. 63 days from transplanting to harvest. How to Grow: Sow seeds when soil temperature is at least 70°. Sprinkle seed lightly on moist soil and cover 1/16” deep with fine compost. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (7-14 days). When seedlings are 6” tall, thin to 18” apart.
6. Zucchini (Cuburbito pepo). ‘Costata Romanesco’ is beautiful in the garden with its outrageously pronounced ribbing, and its big nutty flavor makes it a staple in the kitchen. A bonus with Zucchini is that male flowers are produced for the first 14 days before female flowers (that produce fruit) come on. Pick the male blossoms and stuff them with savory fillings, then dredge them in batter and lightly sauté for a delicious first course or lunch. 50 days from planting until harvest. How to Grow: Plant 2-3 seeds ½” deep and 1 foot apart on a hill of compost. When seedlings are 3” tall, remove all but the strongest seedling to grow on. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (5-10 days). Small Zucchini (about 6” long) are the most tender and flavorful, and continued picking keeps the plants producing. Don’t forget to look under the large leaves – Zucchini likes to hide.
Listen Up! Here’s a secret you may or may not have heard: Fall is the best time to grow vegetables in North Texas! Warm soil temperatures help seeds to germinate quickly and nighttime temperatures are beginning to cool off so plants freely set flowers. Cold weather usually doesn’t arrive until after Thanksgiving, so we can often be harvesting vegetables as late as December 15th. Here are a couple to consider growing later. But don’t wait too long, many can be started from seed in mid-summer:
7. Broccoli (Brassica oleracea). ‘Romanesco’ is an architectural wonder. Not only does it grow tall and stately (up to 3’), but the heads have an outer-world look to them (chartreuse green and spiky). The taste is delicious; somewhere between broccoli and cauliflower. Gorgeous sautéed but also fabulous in stir fries and pasta primavera. 85-100 days from seeding to harvest. How to Grow: Sow seeds ¼” deep. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (10-21 days). Thin to 18” when the first true set of leaves emerge. Harvest when the heads have tight, firm buds. Cut off the central head with 6” of stem and smaller heads will be produced along the main stem.
8. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). ‘Florence’ can be grown as a vegetable for its anise-flavored bulbs or as an herb for its delicate foliage. Try a simple, but brilliant recipe from Alice Waters: layer shaved Fennel on a large platter, top with a layer of shaved mushrooms. Drizzle olive oil and lemon juice over the top, sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve immediately. 90-115 days from seeding to harvest. How to Grow: Sow seeds ¼” deep 4-6” apart. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (7-10 days). When seedlings are 3” tall, thin plants to 12” apart.
9. Kale (Nero toscano). ‘Italian Lacinato’ is a handsome plant in the garden. The blue-green, crinkly leaves stand tall and are so pretty. Everyone knows that Kale is a super food and should be added to our diet whenever possible, so why not grow your own? 62 days from seeding to harvest. How to Grow: Sow seeds ¼” deep 2-4” apart. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (5-8 days). After two weeks, thin plants to 8-12” apart (baby Kale is delicious in salads). Mark your calendar to plant seeds again in February for an early spring harvest.
10. Mustard (Brassica rapa). ‘Mizuna’ has a slightly peppery flavor and is very ornamental in the garden. The finely cut, jagged, dandelion type leaves are tight and upright and come in many colors. Mizuna is tolerant of cold and heat and slow to bolt so it can be planted in spring as well as fall. 30-50 days from seeding to harvest. How to Grow: Sow seeds ½” deep 2” apart. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (5-8 days). When seedlings are 1” tall, thin plants to 12” apart.
11. Onions (Allium cepa). ‘Flat of Italy’ is an intermediate day, quick maturing variety that is perfect for growing in our North Texas gardens. It is a small, flat, red Cipollini-type that is sweet eaten fresh or lightly sautéed. These onions don’t store well, so make a large pot of onion soup when they are ready to harvest. 70-150 days from seeding to harvest. How to Grow: One of the few crops you can begin sowing in January. Sow seeds ¼” deep 2” apart. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (10-15 days). When seedlings are 6” tall, thin plants to 3” apart.
12. Raddichio (Cichorium intybus). ‘Palla Rossa Mavrik’ forms adorable little round heads of white and burgundy greens that are mildly bitter. Colorful and flavorful added to mixed greens, but extraordinary when sliced in half and grilled with a slice of provolone cheese melted on top. 75-80 days from seeding to harvest. How to Grow: Sow seed ¼” deep 1” apart. Keep moist until seedlings emerge (5-10 days). When seedlings are 1” tall, thin plants to 15” apart.
13. Basil (Ocimum basiculum). ‘Basilico Genovese’ has a unique taste that is both slightly spicy and fragrant. Leaves make a lovely pesto and Basil is the finishing touch to a Caprese salad (layers of tomato, mozzarella cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic reduction). 35-40 days from sowing until harvest. How to grow: When soil has warmed to 70°, sow seed ¼” deep and 12” apart. Keep soil moist until seedlings emerge (14 days). When seedlings are 6” tall, thin plants to 12” apart. Pinch off flower stalks as they appear to keep the plant growing vigorously. Basil grows well in containers if the pot is 8” diameter or larger.
I hope that you’ll give some of these easy to grow Italian vegetables a try. Growing a garden offers emotional, physical and mental benefits, and spending time in the garden can help relieve stress and increase your overall activity level. Plus you can eat the fruits of your labor! All of these varieties and more are available from Botanical Interests (www.botanicalinterests.com), a Mom and Pop seed company that has been providing the highest quality seed in the most beautiful and informative seed packets since 1995.