Since in Virginia there are still a few weeks left for ordering mainstay vegetable seeds like tomatoes, peppers, etc., I thought I’d spotlight a few things that did particularly well in the garden last year, in case you’re looking for something new to try. Seeds for all of these plants are available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a highly reliable mail-order company based here in Virginia. (In fact, they’re right at the epicenter of last summer’s earthquake, in Louisa County.)
Tomatoes always seem to steal the spotlight in the garden. It doesn’t matter how beautifully the green beans are coming along, or how plump the ears of corn are getting, it’s those luscious red globes that get people oohing and aahing. Last year brought us 62 lbs. of red deliciousness, from six plants (each given about 25 sq. ft. of garden space). There would have been more, but our family decided to vacation at the beach in prime tomato season (the second week of July), and by the time we got back, at least ten pounds were already rotting on the ground. (I’ve learned my lesson and this year will be staying home the entire month of July. To can.)
Those six plants were of three different varieties (two of each). Each one had its star quality.
The award for earliness goes to Zarnitsa, which means “summer lightning” in Russian. This Russian heirloom produces short, compact vines with nice round fruit 2 to 2.5″ inches in diameter. We ate the first one on June 1. They produced a pretty concentrated harvest in June and then a second one later in the season (August?). Good though not outstanding flavor.
The flavor award goes to Large Red, an heirloom variety that goes all the way back to the very first mail-order seed company, run by the Shakers. The vines are enormous and sprawling, but the fruits are a bit smaller than I expected, given the variety’s name. That doesn’t matter, though, because they are abundant, and they are my all-time favorite tomato for taste. They are wonderfully sweet. Just delectable. And the lobed shape is distinctively attractive (and not a hindrance to peeling, contrary to my fears).
Finally, the award for most likely to disappear from the kitchen counter while I have my back turned goes to Riesentraube, a German heirloom cherry tomato. Cherry tomatoes, I’ve found, are the best way to get other members of the family to snack on fresh vegetables. They won’t slice up a tomato when they’re hungry in the mid-afternoon, but they can’t resist popping a few of these into their mouth. These are fairly large cherry tomatoes, with a cute little point on the end. They have excellent flavor (they’re a taste explosion!) and are very productive.
I only grew one variety of bell pepper last year: Jupiter. It’s going to be my mainstay for green and red peppers this year, too, since it performed so beautifully. I planted four, three survived (I’m not sure what the other succumbed to), and those three produced 10 lbs. of peppers, more than enough for our family of four (though we’re not big pepper people, by any means). Also, these plants are gorgeous: lusciously green and tropical-looking. I’m thinking about planting some in the ornamental garden this year!
This was my first year growing watermelon, and I was pleasantly surprised by the productivity of my Sugar Baby vines. I planted one hill, with two vines, and got 71 lbs. of fruit. The real advantage of Sugar Baby is that the fruits are small, on average 6 pounds or so (though I did get one 12-pound whopper). This really helps save space in the fridge, as the four of us can finish off that much in a couple of days. Of course, Sugar Baby has seeds. But that gives you the possibility of volunteer watermelons in your compost pile next year… This variety produces well throughout the season.
I grew two varieties of sweet corn last year, both of which thrived. One was a hybrid (Silver Queen), and the other was an open-pollinated variety: Texas Honey June. I’d never tried open-pollinated corn before, but I was curious, since I’d read that it was “old-fashioned” (I love things that are old-fashioned, if you couldn’t tell from all my heirloom tomatoes) and that livestock prefer it over hybrid corn.
Well, when we cooked up the first ears, I have to say, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It was chewier than the hybrid corn we’re used to. And definitely not as sweet. Meatier. My mom said I didn’t need to worry about planting any of it next year, and I kind of agreed with her. But a curious thing happened. This winter, on multiple occasions I found myself thinking about this corn and wishing I had some of it still around. (I didn’t grow enough to freeze any last summer.) It seems that the taste grows on you (like sushi, maybe?). And that maybe I’m becoming like the pigs, chickens, and cows. I want that meatier stuff. The stuff with all the vitamins, and a whopping helping of protein. So I’ve changed my mind. I’m definitely planting Texas Honey June again, and putting in extra rows so I’ll have some in the freezer when the mid-winter cravings come on.