Monday, 30 July 2012

when vegetables flower

It may seem a little strange not to write about the drought. That is not only the big story but really the only story right now. But it is all a little overwhelming and quite depressing. So I'll give that subject the perspective time can offer and talk about vegetables whose flowers offer various possibilities for gardeners.

The biggest imperative for any vegetable is propagation. The biggest imperative for the gardener is to produce the best crop possible - both quality and quantity.

For many of the most popular vegetables the sequence from flower to fruit is clear - think of peas and beans, tomatoes and peppers, squash and pumpkins. As gardeners we can use the flowers to our own purposes. One classic example is the competitive growers of pumpkins - their aim is to grow the single biggest pumpkin possible. To help achieve that they remove virtually all the flowers so the pumpkin will concentrate all its effort on the one fruit it has been allowed to produce. Summer squash, zucchini or courgette, all have beautiful lush flowers that can be used for fritters or stuffing. The male flowers, which won't produce any fruit, can be removed while the female is allowed to remain and produce a squash. The different sexes are very easy to distinguish: the male has a slender stem while the female is full and rounded and in fact is the baby zucchini.

female zucchini flower with nascent squash at its base 
male zucchini flowers with slender stems 

The opposite scenario is illustrated with peas and beans where proliferation is the order of the day; the more flowers, the more produce. The best strategy for the gardener is to pick regularly, every couple of days, so the plant's efforts to propagate are frustrated and it will continue to produce more blooms (which means more peas or beans for us!).
each flower will produce a bean
Depending on the type, tomatoes can be treated in different ways. In the case of the small cherry, pear, grape and currant tomatoes lots of fruit is desired so flowers are encouraged. But for people who would like really big tomatoes for the table then many of the blooms can be removed in the hope of getting fewer but bigger fruits.
an heirloom cherry tomato with many blooms and tiny fruits lining the stem

For greens like lettuce, kale and mustard, it is the leaves that the gardener harvests. But from the plant's point of view the cycle of flower and then seed is its raison d'etre. If the variety being grown is open pollinated then the seeds can be harvested and saved for next year's crop.
an open pollinated heirloom lettuce in bloom 
Red Russian kale with seed pods 

Crops like garlic are usually propagated vegetatively by planting the individual cloves from the current season's harvest. But garlic will flower if its scape, or flowering stalk, has not been removed. The flowers produce little bulbils which can then be planted. It will take a few years for these seed "cloves" to reach full size but fresh stock maintains vigour and strength in the garlic bed.
onion flower - each separate pod is a potential new onion
Garlic bulbils at the time of a forgotten scape

sunflower before the seeds have formed
And finally there are the plants like sunflowers where the flower is beautiful but it is the seed which is cherished by feathered and two legged creatures alike.

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