Wednesday, 8 February 2017
My Favourite Vegetable Varieties - A Retrospective
When we first started gardening we tried lots and lots of different varieties. That's part of the fun of getting started gardening, and we still like to trial at least a few new (to us) things each year. As time has gone on though, certain varieties have moved into the position of being regulars, or even "the one".
While I hope my sharing this list with you will be helpful when you make decisions about varieties for your garden, keep in mind this is a personal list. It's the varieties that suit our garden soil, our climate, our exposure, our gardening habits, our cooking style, and our personal tastes both in vegetables generally and specific varieties in particular. One persons ideal garden may look absolutely nothing like anothers.
We lean towards heritage varieties, and things that are indeterminate and need support. Partly this is determined by our personalities (we both like to do work up front to save labour later), our locality (short tomatoes don't produce for us, due to septoria leaf spot fungus in the garden), and our tastes (many people including us think pole peas and beans produce better-tasting vegetables). Our near-by gardening friends prefer f1 hybrids as a matter of their personal culture, and short, determinate plants due to their exposed hilltop location - anything staked is likely to blow down pretty quickly, and the list of varieties we each grow has hardly any overlap at all.
Something else to keep in mind: when you grow a variety for a while, you form a relationship with it. You learn how to grow it, how to store it, and how to cook it. Some varieties that have been disappointments to us may have been so because we don't understand them and what they need. I will mention a few things that I suspect fall into that category.
Still, now that we've been gardening in this site for nearly 10 years, we can tell you what works for us and to some degree, what doesn't, and why. Of course this is a work in progress, and our garden will continue to evolve. Some of these are obscure and hard to find; for that I apologize. Most of them are sold by at least one Canadian seed house. For now though, these are our favourites:
Broccoli in general has not done that well for us; our soil doesn't suit brassicas. However, we have had some success with Green Sprouting, Di Ciccio, Solstice, and Goliath. Purple Peacock (a cross between broccoli and kale) is the only broccoli that has overwintered for us (once) and produced in the spring. I keep meaning to plant it late and try again, and keep forgetting.
Again, not a lot of success with Brussels sprouts. Catskill (aka Long Island) are widely available and do okay. Red Ball (aka Red Bull) and Roodnerf are red sprouts and have been even more iffy for us. Kale sprouts (a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale) have done reasonably well for us; the ones I've grown have been home-made hybrids.
One of the better brassicas for us. Chieftain Savoy is the only savoy we've tried; it's done okay enough for us to persevere with it but I'd be open to trying another when the seed runs out. Early Copenhagen and Early Jersey Wakefield have both done well as mid-summer, eat-now cabbages.
January King and Late Flat Dutch have been good late storage cabbages. Our best cabbages however, have been grown from seeds of January King crossed with Chieftain Savoy in our own garden. Presumably even in that one year of growing we got seeds better adapted to our garden, so if you can get cabbages to overwinter I believe it is well worth while to save your own seed. Mind you don't get a sterile hybrid if you want to do that though.
In red cabbages, Kalibos has been moderately successful, and Red Express not at all. The only Chinese cabbage we have grown was Bilko hybrid, and it did very well.
Results have been mostly dire. On occasion, we have gotten a cauli, mostly from Early Snowball and Amazing. Expensive hybrids have not done any better for us, if even as well. Romanesco types seem to be easier and more reliable (for certain values of "easy" and "reliable") than the white ones.
Celery & Celeriac:
Bog standard Utah52, Golden Self Blanching (preferred) celery and Giant Prague celeriac have done well for us, which is not to say they have done really well. Again, our soil is not friendly to plants of marsh origins. In general, celeriac does much better for us than celery. Various red celeries in particular have been poor - tough and hollow - and pricey hybrid celeriacs such as President, Mars, and Prinz have been good, but not so distinguished as to really justify their hefty prices.
Not our favourite veg, so we haven't grown a lot of it even though it is probably the easiest brassica for us to grow. Red Russian is practically a weed. We let it go to seed 7 years ago, and still had a self-seeded plant pop up last summer. Black Tuscan (lacinato, dinosaur) was a bit harder to grow, but it did, and I like it better for flavour. If I was inclined, I suspect it would improve for our garden through seed saving. Groninger Blue is another one that did very well.
As usual with brassicas, generally a slog in our garden. Gigante has done better than the more commonly found Vienna White and Vienna Purple, which have done poorly.
Giant Musselburgh has been our standard since we first started gardening. Bluer leaved varieties such as Bandit are supposed to be winter hardier, but we've never had a leek of any variety that hasn't pulled through (except Inegol, which isn't available in Canada anyway, and even then about 95% made it). Verdonnet is one we got from the U.S., also not available here at this time, but which has done well.
We've had some problems with lettuce too. Yes, this is a theme throughout the leaf crops - our soil is sandy, fast draining, low in organic matter, and a bit on the acidic side. On the other hand, lettuces have proven to be more adaptable than the brassicas, on a more varietal by varietal basis. Ones which have done well include Tom Thumb, which will stay edible even as it starts to bolt - the only such lettuce I know of. Adriana is a fine standard leaf lettuce, as is Black Seeded Simpson. Aussie Yellow is very similar but does not seem to do any better in my experience even though it is described as heat tolerant. May King (sometimes known as May Queen) can be planted earlier than most varieties and has done really well for us. If you are looking for red leafed lettuces New Red Fire, Ruby, and Red Sails have been the best for us. All of the varieties which are green with red spots (freckled) that we have tried so far have done really well. Amish Deer Tongue and Taiwan Sword Leaf did not suit us; we found them tough and uninteresting. Notably, they are traditionally varieties for cooking not eating raw. Dixter MI grows beautifully for us, but we find the flavour bitter. Likewise Merlot is beautiful and probably the darkest red variety out there, but again, we find it too bitter.
Bloomsdale is widely available and grows well. We find it a little thick and firm for raw eating, and prefer Giant Winter. There are a lot of strains of Giant Winter; I don't know that any of them are all that different. We've tried various hybrid spinaches at times, and have found them no better; just more expensive.
We have grown and liked Bright Lights (Rainbow or 5 Colour), Green Perpetual, and Lucullus. All of them are good and easy to grow. Bright Lights is the prettiest, Green Perpetual stands the latest in the fall, and Lucullus is the best tasting in our experience and opinion.
In general, although we love them, we have found Chinese greens hard to grow. Many of them are small plants, slug magnets, and inclined to bolt to seed. Container growing has worked best for us. Tatsoi has been the easiest to grow by far; alas we find the least desirable for flavour.
Rapini has been mixed. We get the "40 day" variety and in cool springs it is fabulous. If it turns hot though, your rapini will be bitter. We don't bother with the "60 day" varieties because the odds of it being ready in cool weather are even worse.
Arugula does well for us. Mr. Ferdzy doesn't like it. We tried Astro, which is a milder version, last summer and Mr. Ferdzy's verdict was that he "dislikes it less". So I guess I will continue to grow it, and sneak a little into salads for my own tastes. It grows just as well and as quickly as the standard.
Orach has in theory grown well for us. In practice the deer eat it. I guess I should mention I have no corn recommendations for the same reason (well, raccoons rather than deer, but yeah. Gone before harvest).
For turnip greens I actually like any rutabaga variety instead. I've been growing Spigiarello like broccoli and have not been happy with it but it occurs to me I should be growing it like it's a turnip green. I will try and report back this summer, maybe. Does that apply to Piracicaba too? Possibly.
We haven't found any fennel all that different from any other fennel thus far.
For pickling, Sumter has been best but if you can't get it Chicago Pickling is fine. Kaiser Alexander had excellent flavour but lacked disease and insect resistance.
Tante Alice is impressively productive and hardy. Muncher is an easily found and grown Beit Alpha (Persian) type that will grow outdoors very happily. Telegraph Improved has done well for us. We grew Yamato Sanjaku for a few years but it's hard to get and we ran out of seed; I will be trying Shintokiwa which looks very similar in its place. Little Leaf H19 is one I remember doing well in our allotment days; hard to find now but a good choice for container growing.
Ping Tung is probably our favourite eggplant. Kamo and Listada de Gandia also did well for us. We were unimpressed by Little Fingers.
Melons can be pretty iffy with many doing well one year but not another. Consistent performers for us have been Gnadenfeld (orange fleshed), Early Hanover (green fleshed), Collective Farm Woman (white fleshed - a winter storage melon, actually) and Sweet Freckles (an orange fleshed Crenshaw type melon).
Peppers - Mild:
Like tomatoes, peppers are awfully subjective. They are a little harder to grow in Ontario than tomatoes though, so some of the best are the best just because they grow well here. Anyway, our regulars are Cubanelle (getting to be hard to find), Hungarian Sweet Banana (more reliable than exciting), Doe Hill, Alma Paprika, and Chervena Chushka. We liked Jimmy Nardello but somehow it has not become a regular. Alma Paprika is productive and good fresh or dried and ground.
Peppers - Hot:
We don't go for anything too crazy. In order of hotness, we seem to have settled into growing Ancho Poblano, Aleppo, Fish, Early Jalapeño, Long Red Cayenne, Aji Rojo and Orange Thai. One plant of that last will produce enough very hot little dried peppers to last us several years.
Zucchini to you, but also scallop squash (those little flying saucer shaped, uh, zucchini). These are pretty much all of the species pepo, which means that with each other they will cross. Black Beauty is the standard but Costato Romanesco tastes better, even if it produces a little less. Golden is very popular here, but productivity is not that great. Ronde de Nice looks like a novelty but again, it has excellent flavour and works well for stuffing. Lebanese White Bush is another good one. Tatume is a bit different in that it is one of the few long vining (as opposed to bush) varieties available, but if you have the space it's terrific. Pattison Panaché and Woods Early are two good scallop squash.
In general varieties of moschata and maxima species are considered better tasting than pepo varieties, but people's tastes do differ. Acorn squash have gotten to be the only pepo varieties we grow for winter keeping, and they don't really keep past January. Table Queen is the standard, and it's fine, but we have liked the smaller, golden-skinned Thelma Sanders and Gill's Golden Pippin (in particular) better.
Galeux d'Eysines and Baby Blue Hubbard are the stand-out maximas we've grown, and Waltham Butternut has been the standard in moschatas for a long time for a reason. You are starting to see smaller versions such as Nutter Butter which work better in smaller modern households, and which are just as good. In the other direction, we really liked Pennsylvania Neck Pumpkin. We are letting our moschatas all grow together and saving seed, which produces variable results but is a lot of fun. So far it's all been decidedly edible.
These are so much a matter of personal taste it's hard to make recommendations, but I'll try! Note that there are a lot of terrific tomatoes we will not grow or try because the plants are too short to cope with our septoria leaf spot problem, but which may be the perfect tomatoes for someone else. I'm thinking, for example, of Bellestar as a canner, and Mountain Princess, which is an early, determinate, heavy producer of good slicers - kind of useless for the home gardener, but if I was a market gardener, I'd be all over it (along with other varieties for later in the season).
In cherry tomatoes, we like Snow White, Ildi, Sun Sugar*, Isis Candy, Matt's Wild, Black Cherry, and Dancing with Smurfs. Why yes, this does give you a nice little rainbow selection. Green is the only colour not represented here, and there are certainly green cherry tomatoes out there. I haven't found one because I admit I'm not looking very hard. I'm also growing either a sport or a cross of Isis Candy that is a plain red and the first red cherry tomato I've really liked.
In salad sized tomatoes, Stupice and Bloody Butcher (which I havne't grown) are the standards for earliness. Garden Peach and Green Zebra are novelty colours but really good tomatoes nevertheless. My favourite red is my own variety that I developed from a cross between Jaune Flammé - awfully good in it's own right - and an unknown red beefsteak. Goose Creek and Cosmonaut Volkov are maybe a little large to be in this group, but a little small for the next. They are both very fine tomatoes.
The big slicers are the royalty of the tomato garden, and there's quite a list of ones we want to grow: Persimmon, Pineapple, Great White, Striped German, Paul Robeson, Franchi's Red Pear, Japanese Black Trifele, We've kind of given up on Mammoth Cretan and Carol Chyko's Big Paste - they were impressively huge tomatoes with good flavour, but production was a bit variable, and once you've marveled at how enormous your tomatoes are, well then what? Three tomatoes that we tried and really didn't like at all were Marmande, Eva Purple Ball, and Sasha's Altai - but lots of people love these, so again, it's an awful lot to do with personal taste.
As for paste tomatoes, Opalka has been a mainstay. Amish Paste is hugely productive but too watery to be a real paste tomato and we are slowly moving away from it. San Marzano Redorta and Hungarian Italian were a bit short but showed some septoria leaf spot resistance. Federle just didn't produce well, and Speckled Roman, much as we liked it, was too susceptible to the septoria leaf spot and had to be dropped. We've only grown Kosovo and Donskoi once, in a bad year; they looked promising enough I'm planning to try them again this year. Romeo can be hard to find but it's a fine paste tomato. Santa Clara Canner we got from 2 different sources because we couldn't believe how terrible it was the first time, but second time was same as the first, so no, that's what it's like - sour and watery. Martino's Roma are a really cute size, but thick tough skins make them hard to peel and too much work, and they are too juicy to can nicely as whole tomatoes so they too are rated as a bust.
The last few years we've been saving seed from our best paste tomato plants and mixing them together without regard for the variety. There is definitely some crossing going on, and we are happy with the tomatoes we've been getting. We will continue to do this, perhaps occasionally throwing something new into the mix.
Well you all know by now that I am now letting things cross and seeing what happens, but having grown a lot of watermelons in the last few years there are definitely a few that stand out. Golden Midget is amazingly early and better for flavour than it's reputation, especially in a cool summer. Small Shining Light is better than the look-alike Sugar Baby. Early Canada did very well for us. Grover Delaney is a very small watermelon, but with excellent texture and flavour. Sweet Siberian is a reliable small orange fleshed variety. Crimson Sweet is an extremely common watermelon as it is indeed the best and most reliable of the larger open pollinated red oblong watermelons. I haven't grown Early Moonbeam but hear nothing but good reports about it. Cream of Saskatchewan was sweet but bland and not productive for me, Moon and Stars was coarse fleshed and had a tendency to fail to close up properly and then rot, Orangeglo is really too late for our shortish season, and Blacktail Mountain didn't do much for us either.
Early Wonder has been our best standard red; for some reason Detroit Dark Red refuses to grow in our soil. Cylindra is great for pickled beets or if you really want nice even slices and it grows well too. Touchstone Gold is the best yellow and Chioggia is the classic red and white bulls-eyed patterned beets; both well worth growing. MacGregor's Favourite requires long cooking but is a really lovely garden plant.
It took us a while to acclimatize our garden soil to carrots and to learn how to grow them, so we probably should go back and try a few varieties that didn't impress us at the start again. However, we have done well with St. Valery and Flakkee (Autumn King) as standard broad-shouldered winter storage carrots. Amsterdam Maxi is marketed as a baby carrot - and indeed you can pick them very small - but they grow to be a nice slender but substantial carrot that holds well in the ground if left. Pfalzer Yellow has been the best of the yellow carrots we have grown. We have not been impressed by white carrots in general (although we will keep trying) and for some reason have not really gotten into other colours.
For sweet onions, we've been growing Siskiyou Sweet, a strain of Walla Walla. Early Yellow Globe was a reliable if slightly unevenly sized yellow storage onion. Rossa di Milano is an excellent red storage onion. I just saw it listed in Canada for the first time this year, but I've been growing and loving Rose de Roscoff (Kereval) which I don't think is exactly the Pink Onion that was available a few years back, but similar, for the last 2 years. Best French onion soup ever!
Most seed-grown shallots are hybrids, often sterile hybrids. Look for Zebrune (Banana) shallot which is a French seed-grown heirloom variety. Otherwise, shallots and potato onions are usually grown from sets. There are a lot of strains being passed around and I don't have much experience with most of them; also amateur hybridizers are playing around with seed from them. The true French Grey Shallot (allium oschaninii) is presently impossible to get; Richters is the only company in Canada listing them and they have been out of stock for the last 2 years. (If anyone has this, I would love to get some!)
Are mostly fairly indistinguishable; Hollow Crown, Harris Model, Guernsey and Turga have all been good. Kral is the only one a little different; it is very wide at the shoulders and tapers down quickly, making it a good choice for heavier soils.
My favourite potato ever is the good old Russet Burbank, and it grows well but needs steady moisture. Envol is an excellent fast summer potato, but it doesn't store well. German Butterball is similar to Russet Burbank, but yellow fleshed. Purple Viking is beautiful and delicious, but not a good keeper. Pink Fir Apple is an excellent fingerling, but it took us some time to figure out how to grow it and how to use it. Blue Russian and Red Thumb are pretty and we continue to grow some, but they are not staples for us.
Radishes & Turnips:
In summer radishes Cherry Belle is widely available, and has been very reliable for us. French Breakfast and White Icicle are also good. Ostergruss Rosa are large and carrot shaped, but tender and good growers. We're still experimenting with different winter radishes; in general the Asian types are the best. The Black Spanish radish is a bit dull but improves with storage. Watermelon always looks so tempting but refuses to grow in our garden.
I'm not a fan of white turnips, so no recommendations. I really like Goldana though; it's so sweet and nice it can be eaten raw. We grew Red Round very briefly and have not been able to get seed for it since but it too was excellent. I don't know if Scarlet Ohno Revival is similar or not; I haven't been able to get my hands on that either.
We have only grown Laurentian and York of the standard widely available rutabagas, and both were okay but struggle in our soil. We've saved seeds and I think they are doing better. Gilfeather also struggled a bit, but had an interesting more potato-like quality to it. Maybe a good choice for low carbers who want a potato substitute? And again, rutabagas make better turnip greens than turnips, for my taste.
Georgia Jet is by far the best for productivity and reliability in our climate. Toka Toka I prefer for flavour. Frasier White was very nice but it took me a while to get used to it. Tainung 65 and Owairaka Red were similar to Georgia Jet but less productive. Purple Flesh is another one that will take some getting used to - the flesh really is an amazing purple. None of the sweet potatoes we have grown have had the strong orange colour of most commercial varieties.
A note about legumes in general - there is no other class of vegetable that is so easy to save seed from, and none that has shown such HUGE improvements from doing so. When we plant a new-to-us dried bean we expect to DOUBLE our subsequent production through careful seed selection. Peas are not quite so improvable, but we see steady increases in average number of peas per pod and general productivity as well.
Beans, Bush, Fresh:
We quickly gave up on growing these. Provider was pretty good, and Pencil Pod Black wax was delicious but diseases prone. Roma II was a good flat green bean. Goldrush was okay. Royal Burgundy was not at all impressive, as I recall - I can't recommend it. We have switched to pole beans without regret.
Beans, Bush, Dry:
A much more viable option. We've tried and liked Soldier, Kahl, Hidatsa Red, and Arikara Yellow which has become our favourite. Thibodeau de Comté Beauce has done okay, but always seems to get some nasty white fungus on it, so it's off the list.
Beans, Pole, Fresh:
Early Riser is our earliest pole bean and keeps going all summer if you keep them picked. Blue Lake S7 is our absolute favourite and the best for freezing. Other family members loved Fortex; we thought it was just okay and it struggled a bit with yellow bean mosaic virus the year we had it. Grandma Nellie's Yellow Mushroom bean is tasty and fun, but we seem to be gravitating to Annelino Yellow more these days. This one also makes a terrific dry bean if you leave them. Cherokee Trail of Tears is also a good dual-purpose bean. Purple Podded is probably better than Purple Peacock or Trionfo Violetto, but they are all good purples.
Beans, Pole, Dry:
In additon to Cherokee Trail of Tears and Annelino Yellow mentioned above, Blue Lake S7 makes a surprisingly good dried bean. Dolloff and Deseronto Potato Bean are our best beans just for drying, and they are terrific. I'm also giving more room to a Deseronto - Something else cross that showed up in the garden 2 years ago, as well as Anseloni's Bologna, which I don't believe is commercially available so oops for you. Snowcap was beautiful, as was True Red Cranberry but both of those struggled with diseases before bean diseases were a widespread garden problem here; we no longer grow them.
Lima beans have not done well; we are still looking for a good variety. The same with long beans; Farmers Long did well the first year we grew it but struggled a little in last years extreme heat and seems to be no longer listed anyway. We will be starting to look more at cow peas in general but right now I have no tried and true varieties (other than another one that is not commercially available).
Valencia is pretty much the only thing available. It did only so-so but has improved a lot through selection, both in yield and mould resistance. Unfortunately we lost our improved seed and are starting from scratch again.
Peas, Bush, Fresh Early:
Strike is the earliest pea we know of, and determinate; we've been growing it to harvest within a 2 week period and then pull them out and replace them with bush dry beans. We tried Knight last year for the first time. It was a few days later but more productive and, we thought, better tasting peas. We will be planting more of it. We tried Misty a few years back but hadn't developed this technique at the time - it got discarded for being too early and too determinate; but it might work in this scenario. We've given up on Tom Thumb as and not quite early or determinate enough.
Peas, Bush, 2nd Early:
Laxton's Progress is very determinate and too late for the above plan. Large Manitoba got planted next to it by chance and my conclusion is that it is a selection out of Laxton's Progress, and the better of the 2 peas. Sutton's Harbinger, Harrison's Glory, Carter's Daisy - all great peas and hard to decide between. Green Arrow and Homesteader are the standard varieties grown around here, but Green Arrow doesn't grab me for flavour and Lincoln (Homesteader) had serious disease problems the one time we grew it.
Peas, Pole, Mid to Late:
Ne Plus Ultra and Mrs Van are very similar, and overlap a little. Both excellent. Next come Tall Telephone and Champion of England. Carruther's Purple Pod is eye-popping, but the peas are an old fashioned olive colour, and a little bitter when raw - an acquired taste. Spanish Skyscraper is so late that the weather may be too hot for good fresh peas, but no problem - it's just as good used as a dry soup pea. In fact, they can be used in recipes that call for chick peas as they are very like them.
Peas, Snow & Snap:
Norli is a terrific little snow pea for early peas. Carouby de Maussane is our favourite later on, but it's a pole pea for sure. Golden Sweet is pretty but something of a novelty. People keep saying it's a good soup pea but I'm not impressed. We grow a few just to have a different colour.
For snap peas, we glommed onto Amish Snap before we tried anything else much, and that was that. They are SO good. We also grow a few Sugar Magnolia, not quite so good in flavour but an amazing colour.
Blue Pod Capucjiners is the only bush dry pea we've grown, and they can get pretty high actually. They have brown skins and seem more bean-like than pea-like when cooked. Zeiner's Gold (dries yellow) was not as productive as St. Hubert, which is a green pea when dried, but we think the taste is better. St Hubert is still good enough that we grow it regularly! I've just started selecting Zeiner's Gold for better production so we will see how it does over the next few years.