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Add Gourmet Flavor With Italian Garden

By Grace Stahlschmidt, master gardener, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County

Take a trip to Italy this summer without leaving home.  Plant Italian vegetables in your garden and enjoy gourmet taste at home-grown prices.

Let your taste buds be your guide when planning your Italian kitchen garden, and design the garden around your favorite cookbook.  Make a list of vegetables and herbs you can't live without and add a few from the list below. Don't be afraid to try something new.

Varieties recommended by Colorado State University are indicated.  Most of the varieties listed below are available on seed racks at garden centers; a few may need to be ordered from specialty seed companies.

Broccoli raab

Sprouting broccoli is an old Italian heirloom vegetable with asparagus-type shoots and tiny broccolilike heads.  It is excellent raw or sauteed with garlic and olive oil..   A good cool-season crop for spring or fall, the 8-inch shoots mature in about 45 days.

Italian beans

Romano beans feature distinctive flat 6-inch pods and a meaty, buttery flavor that might find you tossing your regular green beans onto the compost heap.  Roma II is a good performer with excellent flavor.  For yellow beans, Romano wax is recommended.

Broad or fava beans are delicious fresh or dried.  When young, they can be eaten in the shell, like snap peas.  They are easy to grow, but unlike other beans, they are a cool-season crop, so plant in early spring along with your peas.

Cannellini (white kidney) beans are essential for authentic minestrone soup.  They are outstanding as fresh shell beans or can be dried for later use.  Grow using the same techniques as you would for green beans. Plant seeds 1 inch deep after soils have warned between June 1 and 15.

Beets

Chioggia, a flat globe beet with red and white candy-striped rings, is another Italian heirloom.  Very sweet, it is good fresh in salads as well as cooked.  These beets are recommended for growing along the Front Range. Sow seeds in the garden several weeks before the last spring frost.  They will be ready in about 55 days.

Drying Tomatoes

Those famous sun-dried tomatoes, with the concentrated flavors of summer, start with Italian paste tomatoes.  Super Marzano, a deep globe paste tomato, is recommended for our area and is excellent for drying or for making a rich sauce.

Fennel

Bulbing-type fennels are prized for their swollen leaf stalks.  Seed them directly in the soil in mid-summer for a fall harvest.  Ruby and Zefo Fino are two of the varieties recommended for Colorado's Front Range.

Basil

Fresh basil is sublime and bears little resemblance to the dried herb.  It is essential for use with tomato and bean dishes and is indispensable for pesto.  Sweet Genovese is a good Italian variety.  Sow seed well after the danger of frost has jpassed and pluck leaves before plants begin to flower.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010