It’s that season of the year when every vegetable gardener is up to their ears in seed catalogs. They’ve been arriving for weeks now, and, if you’re like me, you can’t throw away a single one–even the ones you’ve never ordered from–without peeking to see what stunning new varieties they may have on offer this spring.
Of course, in an ideal world, we would have enough time, money, and energy to grow every variety. From White Wonder tomatoes to the Edible Luffa Gourd. But in reality, we have to pick and choose. And it’s hard. Because every variety has unique virtues, as well as a downside or two. For instance, Wilson Sweet Watermelon. The catalog says it “draws comments like ‘the best melon I’ve ever tasted.’” But there’s nothing about productivity or resistance to drought. (And goodness knows we have drought!) How do I know if it will be a good bet for my garden?
In an effort to help you wade through all the possibilities for this spring, I bring you…the Vegetable Academy Awards!
In this post, I’ll let you know some of the best performers in my own garden from last year. If you live in a climate similar to that of northeastern Virginia and have a clayey loam soil like mine, then you may find you get similar results from these varieties. In any case, these are varieties that are definitely worth a shot, for the reasons I describe. (And they are almost all available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, my favorite source.)
For outstanding flavor, the winner is…the Potomac pole bean! While these heirloom beans were pretty good when eaten fresh, we had so many of them last summer and fall that we put up several jars in the pressure canner. And when we opened the first of them in November, we discovered this variety’s purpose in life. Canned with no seasoning but salt, these beans taste like they’ve been cooked with meat. It’s such a wonderfully rich taste that your vegetarian friends may refuse to eat them!
There’s a huge variety of bell peppers available in most seed catalogs, in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. It makes even people who don’t eat that many peppers (like me) want to grow them all! Last year I tried three different varieties: Corona (an orange pepper), Jupiter (a red pepper), and Sweet Chocolate (guess what color pepper).
I have already marked Sweet Chocolate off the list for this year. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t produce nearly as well as the other two varieties, and the fruits have a thin wall that I don’t think is particularly tasty.
Corona, on the other hand, is good eating and a medium producer.
But the Oscar for best-tasting and best-producing bell pepper goes to Jupiter! Jupiter peppers, whether picked green or left to ripen to red, have thick, juicy walls excellent for snacking on raw, cooking, or stuffing. I love to eat them with Vidalia salad dressing. The plants are also very productive, each one producing twice what a Corona plant produces and over four times what a Sweet Chocolate plant produces! This past year, one Jupiter plant produced 5 lb. 12 oz. of green peppers and 1 lb. 5 oz. of red peppers for me (and took up 3′ x 4′ of garden space).
The one downside to this variety seems to be that about one in every three plants or so dies early in the season. This has happened to me two years in a row and hasn’t happened with any other variety so far. So you may want to start one extra to be on the safe side.
Last year, I grew three varieties of leaf lettuce: Simpson Elite, Bronze Arrow, and Deer Tongue. Deer Tongue was my favorite for flavor and texture. It almost resembles a Bibb lettuce in these areas, though it’s a little less “buttery.” Bronze Arrow gets the award for productivity, growing very quickly even in colder temperatures. And Simpson Elite gets the award for bolt resistance. Honestly, I think all of these varieties deserve a place in your garden. Lettuce doesn’t take up much room (I plant mine 6-12″ apart on each side), and a salad is more enticing the more colors and shapes of leaves it contains. Simpson Elite is a bright green, Deer Tongue a dark green, and Bronze Arrow green to red depending on how much sun it gets.
As I wrote in an earlier post, the award for taste in tomatoes definitely goes to the Large Red. Contrary to its name, its tomatoes are actually on the small side. But what deliciousness! These tomatoes don’t need any olive oil, basil, or mozzarella to taste like a gourmet dish. These are the tomatoes you’ll want to serve at all your dinner parties. These are the ones you’ll want to take to friends. These are the tomatoes that will convince anyone that growing your own produce is worth it. And you know what’s funny? These are one of the oldest varieties grown in the U.S. SESE’s catalog says, “Prior to the Civil War, one of the most commonly grown and best documented tomato varieties in the country.” Check these out; you won’t be disappointed!
As for yields, in my experience Large Red varies greatly from year to year. In 2011, I got about 13 lbs. per plant (in 24 sq. ft.). In 2012, I got only 3.5 lbs. per plant (same spacing). They do self-sow readily, though, so I had a couple of volunteer Large Red plants last fall that produced quite well–better than the ones I’d started indoors.
My other award for tomatoes goes to Eva Purple Ball. Eva has a fine taste (though not rivaling that of Large Red), but its real strengths are productivity and freedom from blemishes. In 2012, which was overall quite a bad year for my tomatoes, Eva Purple Ball managed to produce over 16 lbs. of fruit on one plant (in 24 sq. ft.). And almost all of those were good for canning. (Also, Eva Purple Ball isn’t really purple. It’s quite red, with maybe a light purple cast.)
And now, the Oscar for most exotic plant in the vegetable garden goes to…the ground cherry! Ground cherries are a kind of husk tomato. They come in a papery skin like tomatillos. But their flavor is more like pineapple! They’re tiny fruits, only about a half-inch across, but there’s really nothing else like them. And you certainly can’t get them at the grocery store. They’re also easy to grow. Start them indoors just like tomatoes and then plant them out giving each plant about 12 sq. ft. of growing room. They stay low to the ground, so there’s no need for staking. Just keep an eye on them, and when the papery husks have fallen to the ground, that means the little ground cherry inside is ripe!
I’d love to hear what vegetable or fruit varieties are your faves. Drop me a line!