It's tomato time!

Have you planted your tomatoes yet?

There’s still plenty of time, whether you’d like to put in tomatoes or any other vegetables in your summer garden.

You can start seeds through mid-May, then plant the seedlings in June. Or buy transplants anytime between now and then, and plant them directly in the ground. Just know that the longer you wait, the longer it will be until your first harvest.

While you’re at it, consider whether you’d like to go the safe route, with your veggies in traditional colors, or venture into the world of crazy shades and patterns.

With vegetable gardening rising in popularity, it’s easier than ever to find offbeat offerings. They require the same care as the ordinary varieties, yet can be more colorful on the plate. Plus, they make great conversation pieces.

Tomatoes

Lemon Boy tomato

Tomatoes are the number-one crop for most gardeners, and with good reason. Their fresh, intense aroma and flavor simply cannot be beat.

But rather than going with the usual reds, venture into the yellows, oranges, greens and nearly blacks. The heirloom Yellow Pear is a tangy miniature that’s perfect for munching fresh or sliced in a salad. Orange Russian 117 grows in the shape of a heart and is yellow streaked with orange and red. Green Zebra is green with yellow streaks. Black Cherry is a small, round tomato in an unusual shade of dark purple and mahogany.

Regardless of the variety, check whether the tomato is a determinate type, which means it will grow into a bush and most of its fruit will ripen at the same time; or an indeterminate type, which will grow into a vine and produce a staggered crop over several months. Either way, plan to support your plants with cages or stakes. Otherwise, the branches may sag or snap under the weight of ripening fruit.

Beans

Mellow Yellow

Perhaps because they’ve been a staple in the diets of so many different cultures over the centuries, there is a huge variety in beans.

Roc d’Or, Golden Wax and Mellow Yellow all bear slender, yellow beans on sturdy bushes, while Purple Podded Pole vines to 6 feet tall and requires support. Dragon Tongue, an heirloom from Holland, is soft green with splashes of dark purple.

Any of the yellow beans tend to fade with steaming, while the purple beans generally turn dark green after a few minutes of cooking.

Scarlet Runner and Emperor Runner are vigorous growers that climb 10 feet or more. They’re the go-to varieties for growing as “bean teepees,” and form quick, pretty, summer-time screens, too. As a bonus, their beautiful scarlet flowers attract hummingbirds. That the beans are edible almost seems like an afterthought.

Corn

Ruby Queen sweet corn

Summer sweet corn is often offered in bi-colored tones of yellow and white, with giveaway names like Peaches & Cream and Chubby Checkers. Far more unusual is Ruby Queen, a full-size summer sweet corn with plump kernels that glow in deep red. Also off the beat are Black Aztec, with dark, bluish-black ears, and Rainbow Sweet Inca, with multi-colored ears.

For miniature popping corn, try Mini Pink, Pink Bo Peep, Baby Blue and Mini Blue, all of which pop white. If you grind cornmeal, try Arkansas Red and White, Bloody Butcher or Hopi Blue. For holiday decorations, grow Indian corn, which offers endless combinations of orange, purple, red, rust and yellow.

Cucumbers

Lemon cukes

It’s amazing how many cucumbers bear zero resemblance to the familiar, dark-green cylinders that we ordinarily see. They may be as small as a thumb or as large as a cantaloupe. They may be round, pear-shaped, straight, curved, slender or gourd-like. They may be eaten fresh, cooked in a meal or pickled for the future. Perhaps the common bond is that they generally bear a crisp, sweet, mild flavor.

That said, fun cukes to look for include such oddities as Lemon, which looks like a lemon; Crystal Apple, which is shaped like an apple and has thin, pale-green skin; and White Wonder, which forms a chunky oblong with pale-yellow, nearly white flesh. There’s also Armenian, which is a pale green with whitish ribs and grows up to a foot long with twists and turns.

Eggplant

Neon eggplant

As if dark, polished purple eggplants weren’t already pretty enough, there are lighter purple, striped and white versions as well.

Neon is bright magenta, forms a teardrop shape and grows fast to 8 inches long. India Paint is a stout little globe with purple and white stripes. Fairy Tale forms longer, thinner fruit, also striped in purple and white. Crescent Moon is a slender, pearly white.

If you’re into Brazilian cooking, hunt down Jilo Tingua Verde Claro, which has the traditional eggplant shape but bears streaks of yellow, orange and red.

Melon

Moon and Stars watermelon

Moon and Stars is an old-time favorite for watermelons. The rind of the dark-skinned heirloom bears splatters and splotches of yellow “stars,” along with a larger yellow patch or two for the “moon.” Moon and Stars can be tricky to grow on the Central Coast, however, because it takes more than three months to ripen and reaches a hefty 25 pounds.

More manageable and faster to ripen are Orange Sunshine, at 16 to 20 pounds, and Yellow Baby and Yellow Doll, both 6 to 10 pounds. The rinds of these three come in the usual white-striped, watermelon green. But their flesh is orange and yellow. Smaller still is Amy melon. At only 2 to 3 pounds, its rind is canary yellow and its flesh is nearly white.

Peppers

Mariachi chiles

Brightly colored, sweet bell peppers have been in supermarkets for so long now, it’s hard to remember that at one time they seemed to come only in green. For variations on the theme, look for Golden Cal Wonder, Orange Bell and Purple Beauty, along with Yellow Monster, which grows up to a hefty 8 inches long.

Hot peppers come in a far greater assortment of shapes and sizes, from foot-long, very skinny, puckery hotties like Ristra Cayenne, to stout, more uniformly shaped, but extremely hot orange Habaneros. Mariachi is a new hybrid that bears 4-inch-long, cone-shaped fruit that ripen from yellow to orange to red, forming a brilliant effect on the bush and on the table.

All peppers do best with heat.

Summer Squash

Gadzukes! zucchini

Italy is the inspiration for several vining squash. Look for Zuchetta Rampicante, Climbing Trombetta and Tromboncino, all which bear S- or trumpet-shaped, lime-green fruit nestled among dark-green leaves.

Gadzukes! and Costato Romanesco have a traditional zucchini shape, but are ribbed with alternating stripes of green and yellow. When sliced, they turn into pretty stars, much like a petite version of Peter Pan summer squash.

Seeds of Wisdom

Plant your summer vegetables in the warmest, brightest spot in your garden. They will need fertile soil, good drainage, consistent watering and at least six to eight hours of direct sun each day.

Sources of Colorful Vegetable Seeds

Scarlet Runner beans

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, 2278 Baker Creek Rd., Mansfield, MO 65704, 417/924-8917, rareseeds.com

W. Atlee Burpee & Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, PA 18974, 800/888-1447, burpee.com

The Cook’s Garden, PO Box C5030, Warminster, PA 18974, 800/457-9703, cooksgarden.com

Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 Old Salem Rd NE, Albany, OR 97321, 800/422-3985, nicholsgardennursery.com

Habanero chile peppers

John Scheepers, Kitchen Garden Seeds, PO Box 638, Bantam, CT 06750, 860/567-6086, kitchengardenseeds.com

Tomato Growers Supply Company, PO Box 60015, Ft. Myers, FL 33906, 888/478-7333, tomatogrowers.com

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

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