“Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.” – Russel Baker

Ah, yes, the summer garden. Where winter’s harsh frosts and snow piles are forgotten and the crisp autumn breeze is still too far in the future to worry about.

But frankly … it’s just hot.

The summertime garden is like no other garden throughout the year. While we get two cool seasons and one season that requires a greenhouse, the summer garden is prime seasonal real estate. Tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, pumpkins (Uh … I’m already drooling) – they love the heat, even if I do not.

An illustrated graphic shows the different types of squashes in America.
So many squash varieties too choose from!

In my humble opinion, no summer garden is complete without a squash somewhere in it. Cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins, spinning gourds, watermelons … you’d be surprised by the diversity in this group. Some spread out, some climb, others sit still. Some are sweet, others savory. But all start off the same way, as a little seed planted in the ground. Now there is a little bit more to it than that, but I find squashes are great for first-time gardeners and old pros alike, as they are relatively easy to take care of. Just plant, water as needed, and reap the rewards. The one thing, though, I like to think about with squashes is space.

We at the Highfield Discovery Garden do “square foot gardening.” Now what is that, you might ask? Square foot gardening is, in a nutshell, the optimal number of plants you can grow in a square foot for both productivity and plant health. Basically, if you plant too many, the plants crowd and compete with one another. If you plant too little, you end up with less plants and less harvests. Square foot gardening is the happy middle. Not too much. Not too little. Just right. Squashes, though, can be tricky.

If you have a bush zucchini, for example, they can be planted at a space of 1 per square foot and probably won’t leave that square foot. A vine zucchini, though, needs 1 per every 2 square feet, and that is 2 square feet of their choosing, if you don’t stay on top of them. Cucumbers, you can get away with 2 per every square foot, but I much prefer to grow them on a trellis, which adds a whole new dimension. So now you need to not just think laterally, but vertically! Moral of the story: When it comes to squash, plan ahead, make space and don’t be surprised if they get into places you didn’t expect.

Moving on to the nightshades. Nightshades? Yes, you heard me, nightshade. The same family of plants that offed nobility for years, has been gracing our dinner tables for centuries. What am I talking about? Why, tomatoes, of course!

Tomato varieties sit in a large pile. They range from green to red to deep purple.

Ohio, at one time, was a major tomato producer in U.S. In fact, tomato juice is our state drink! Tomatoes have been the cook’s best friend from Mexico, where the proto-tomato plant was first eaten, to the beefsteaks on your BLT. Tomatoes have been bred, modified, changed and selected for certain characteristics by growers since the time that we figured out we could eat them without keeling over. Today, you will find teeny, tiny tomatoes that you can grow in a teapot – which we grow at Highfield Discovery Garden – to huge, mammoth vines that grow from ground to ceiling in hoop houses. There is so much diversity in the tomato world, you should give some lesser-known varieties a try!

Do you like tomato sauce? Try a variety like Amish Paste for excellent thick tomato sauces. Looking for a sweet snack to pack in your kid’s lunch box? Try Sunshine Gold, a wonderful midsized plant with yellow cherry tomatoes. Looking for something a bit more exotic? Try any number of green or even purple tomatoes to really wow it at your next dinner party. Plus, when they ask you where you bought them you can say, “Bought them? Ha! I grew them!”

The last plant I want to recommend for the heat is the green bean. I adore green beans. If I could only plant one plant for the rest of my life, it would be green beans. Period. Green beans come in different shapes, sizes and colors. You can get greens, yellows, reds and purples. You can get yard-long beans or the more standard 6–8 inch varieties. They come in pole varieties, which can climb onto your roof if you’re not careful (trust me), to the diminutive bush varieties great for little humans to pick for supper.

A look between the leaves of a green bean plant.
A look between the leaves of the ever-present green bean. (Photo by Kim Siever.)

Green beans don’t need much space if you are planting bush varieties, but make sure you have an adequate trellis for your pole varieties. In Highfield Discovery Garden, we plant several types of beans, but my most favorite is the Cherokee Trail of Tears bean. It is a dual purpose bean. You can eat them young for green beans or wait until they dry up and shell them for the best dried beans for soups you have ever had!

Green beans are fun for kids because it’s like a scavenger hunt you can eat! I don’t know how many times I’ve gone over a planting with fine-toothed comb, only to go back out in an hour and find a basket more! So make a game of it with your little one. See who can find the most beans in 20 minutes, and then eat your findings for lunch.

Summer is prime time for many of our favorite vegetables. From squash to green beans, they all love the sun.

But it’s still hot.

So now if you will excuse me, I have some watering to do before I’ll go sit down in the shade and dream of snow.

Allyson Ernst
Nature Interpreter, Glenwood Gardens