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What's with these little guys of the vegetable kingdom?

What's with these little guys of the vegetable kingdom?

A new baby boom is sweeping the West. In restaurants and specialty markets from Seattle to San Diego, people are discovering baby beans, infant carrots and zucchinis, marble-size beets and tomatoes.

Small and tender, these delicate vegetables don't travel well, so they are expensive to buy (as much as five times the price of regular vegetables) and often difficult to find. But for home gardeners who are willing to plant the right varieties and pick early and frequently, baby vegetables are as simple to grow as their full-size counterparts.

A wide range of regular and specialty vegetables can be picked at small sizes; at right we outline 10 basic kinds to plant now. Each category includes varieties you might like to try for special color, flavor, or shape. Numbers in parentheses refer to the mail-order seed sources listed below; if you can't find seeds or plants in nurseries, write for a catalog.

What are baby vegetables?

Some are true miniatures; they bear genetically small fruit on either full-size or dwarf plants. But most baby vegetables are simply standard vegetables picked when very young. For best results, these need to be varieties that develop good flavor and color at an early age.

In open-air markets of Europe and Asia, fingerling green beans, wee eggplants, and blossom-clad squash testify to the picked-that-morning freshness of a market gardener's wares. Now Western cooking --and the so-called California cuisine in particular--is bringing these standards of flavor and quality to everyday meals.

Responding to increasing interest from cooks, home gardeners, and market gardeners, several seed companies now offer a greater variety than ever before of vegetables bred for early picking, appealing shape, and color.

For top production, follow these rules

In all but hottest desert areas, late April through May--and into June at high elevations --is prime time to set out seedlings of eggplant, lettuce, okra, pepper, and tomato. There's also still time to start special varieties of these from seed.

You can direct-sow seeds of beans, beets, carrots, corn, squash, and lettuce. All these are good candidates for sowing successively as--or after--your early-spring plantings mature.

To promote strong growth and steady development of young vegetables, give plants ideal growing conditions: a loose, friable soil, full sun, and ample water. (Tomatoes are an exception; reduce watering after fruits set.)

Once flowering starts, you may need to check the plants daily--especially fast-growing squash, beans, and okra--to pick immature fruits before they become outsize. Flowering decreases if you let vegetables mature on the vines. For top production, keep plants picked; wait until late in the season to let large fruits develop.

If you grow standard sizes of carrots, beets, and leaf lettuce, scatter seed evenly in beds or rows. Pull or clip liberally at the baby stage, letting the rest grow on.

On the other hand, miniature varieties of these vegetables will reach harvest size close to the same time. To keep a continuous crop coming on, sow seeds successively in small blocks, then reseed patches as they empty.

To capitalize on flavor, pick baby vegetables just before cooking. Steam or simmer them lightly. Plunge green vegetables into cold water (this helps preserve color and stops cooking); slip or pinch skins off beets and carrots. Serve cold, marinate, or reheat in sauce or stew. Or saute all but root vegetables without precooking.

Photo: Plant miniatures: round French forcing carrots are bred to be small. These are "Planet', pulled at about I inch wide

Photo: Harvest young: he's thinning a bed of standard carrots to eat now, leaving others to grow bigger

Photo: Tiny "Ichiban' eggplants in her palm were picked when a few days old. To force refruiting, don't let any grow to full size
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:May 1, 1986
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