Growing organic produce for farmers' markets for seven years gave me a tremendous opportunity to try out dozens of varieties each year. All in all, we've grown nearly 100 kinds of tomatoes, more than 50 peppers and at least three dozen lettuce varieties, along with an endless medley of others. occasionally I was disappointed by varieties that performed poorly or were lacking in flavor, but sometimes it was like discovering gold. When I find a winner these days, it joins the ranks of outstanding favorites I can count on for their high quality, adaptability and prolificness.
While our farmers' markets days are now over, we still take on the challenge of trying out new varieties in our large country garden. The majority of space, however, goes to a select group of outstanding vegetables and companion flowers that shine throughout the country. Some are award-winning heirlooms and hybrids, and all are treasured and grown for their dependability, productivity and winning flavor.
Best Beans and Peas
These days I usually try only one or two new varieties of beans and peas each year-I know that nothing will beat the sweet flavor of Sugar Snap and Sugar Ann. With vines growing to two feet, Sugar Ann (1984 All-America Selections winner) produces pods about two weeks earlier than Sugar Snap (1979 AAS winner), a pole variety that grows to six feet. I grow both, which extends my season of culinary joy with the sweetest peas this side of heaven.
Bean pods can be different sizes and shapes that range in shade from yellow to green to purple — sometimes even speckled. For ornamental appeal, the choices are limitless, and many bring great taste to the kitchen as well. Though there are several worth mentioning, tasty and tender pods make French/filet beans like Totem (a bush variety) and Kentucky Blue (a pole bean; AAS 1991) a must-have delicacy. Another renowned all-star is climbing Kentucky Wonder. Fresh lima beans are in a class by themselves, and so is King of the Garden, a pole variety that produces full-flavored pods even on cool summer nights.
Increase your flavor potential by growing beans and peas in full sun and a compost-enriched soil — cool for peas and warm for beans. Their shallow root system demands a steady supply of water to produce succulent pods, and be sure to keep them picked when they're young and tender so they'll keep producing.
Cabbage Family Champions
Here's a heads-up for one of the earliest, best-tasting varieties with super large domed heads — Super Dome broccoli. For summer and fall harvests, I found the best flavor and vigor with heat-tolerant Arcadia broccoli. My personal favorite, with a buttery-smooth, cashew-like flavor is Romaneseo, a lime green cauliflower-type head that swirls into a fascinating maze of conical clusters.
In our home, cabbage finds its way into salads, slaws, stews and the ultimate homemade sauerkraut, so a multipurpose variety with firm heads and a fabulous, long-lasting flavor always catches my attention. Golden Acre (also known as Derby Day ) boasts excellent flavor with big heads for a very early cabbage. For fall and winter harvests, the late stars in our garden are Krautman and Danish Ballhead, the latter being an old-time favorite.
Most of the cabbage family produces best when the heads are allowed to mature during cooler weather. Unless you garden in the South, transplants are generally your best bet in the spring garden. Fall crops are usually more vigorous with direct-seeded plants, especially when transplants are more than six weeks old or have become root-bound. Cabbage and its relatives are generally moderate feeders that thrive in soil enriched with compost, aged manure or a nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer.
Corn preference is pretty subjective — some swear by white, others insist on yellow, and those who can't make up their mind often say bicolor is better. For me, the best tasting variety of all is Platinum Lady, with a perfect balance of sweetness and full corn flavor. Unfortunately, it went out of production last season, and the search is on for a tasty competitor. In the meantime, I'll grow Ambrosia and Lancelot, both sugar enhanced bicolors with a tender-sweet flavor.
For an extra-early corn harvest, I've had great luck using seedlings that I plant around the time of the last spring frost.
Seedlings are covered with a cloche or row cover such as Reemay until warm weather arrives. Once the cover comes off, I sidedress a 1-foot-by-2-foot area with rabbit manure to increase yield and flavor. Develop well-filled ears by planting corn in blocks of at least four rows for maximum pollination.
Classic Cukes and Squash
Planting and harvesting my way through dozens of cucumber varieties has been a tasty adventure. My favorite pickler is Snow's Fancy Pickling, a tender and prolific heirloom introduced in 1905. Another heirloom with a crispy sweet flavor that's especially loved by kids is Lemon — adored for its lemon-like color and shape. Jazzer is my pick for an early, full-sized slicer that's sweet and bitter-free, with Marketmore excelling above other open-pollinated varieties.
In the world of summer squash, a new sensation has landed with eye-catching appeal — Starship, classically scallop-shaped, dark green and soaring with fresh flavor. Another favorite is the gold-flecked, medium-green Ambassador. In the class of crooknecks, bland-tasting hybrids always lose out to the sweet, old-time flavor of Yellow Crookneck, sometimes called Summer Crookneck.
Outside of waiting for warm weather to arrive before planting, the three most important factors in growing great cukes and squash deal with soil, water and air (everything but the plant itself). Soil must be rich and well-drained to produce top fruit; fertilize at planting and when flowers appear. If your soil is lacking calcium, add crushed eggshells, powdered milk (it can be past its sell-by date) or oyster shells. Water consistently to prevent the hourglass effect, which can happen when fruit swells with ample water and deflates when it's lacking. Also, give plants plenty of space to increase air circulation and decrease the chance of disease.
From spring through fall we enjoy delicious salads almost every day, with greens fresh from the garden. Thus, lettuce is important to me, and I won't waste time growing a variety that's bitter or quick to bolt when I can rely on a few dependable standouts. Incidentally, I like to grow several different types and colors to provide a feast for the eyes as well as the belly.
For fast flavor that's extra slow to bolt, burgundy-hued Red Sails (AAS 1985) still beats the other red loose-leaf varieties I've tried. Another salad essential is Sierra, a French crisp/Batavia type boasting a perfect blend of a crunchy, crisp head with the hearty rich flavor of a loose leaf. When it comes to looks alone, one of the most stunning I've ever seen is Freckles (also known as Forellenschluss or Trout's Back), a romaine-type heirloom splashed with burgundy speckles on glossy green leaves. Even better than its attractive appearance is its excellent meaty flavor which holds up well in heat.
For the best flavor, grow lettuce in full sun during the cool season and partial shade in hot summers. Also, grow it fast — lettuce that grows slowly is more likely to taste bitter. Get it off to a speedy start with a nitrogen-rich soil and plenty of water so the soil stays slightly moist all the time. Other essentials to r emember are to side-dress with a nitrogen rich organic fertilizer three to four weeks after planting; add mulch in the summer to conserve moisture; and provide some shade to growing lettuce during summer's heat.
Premium Peppers and Eggplant
There are probably hundreds of pepper varieties out there, and I've tried more than 50 of them. Even then, it's been pretty hard to narrow that list down to a few select favorites.
Three full-size peppers that color and sweeten up fast — even in the North — include bell-shaped Red Beauty and New Ace, and the horn-shaped Corno di Toro (red bull's horn), an Italian heirloom that ripens to a sweet fruity flavor. A recent bell-shaped pepper that won me over is Blushing Beauty, a 2000
AAS winner with a sweet, mild flavor. As you might imagine, its name is a reflection of its appearance blushing from ivory to an orange pink and then finally red.
If you like your peppers hot, the spicy hot Surefire is a sure bet. One of the best hot peppers to produce under marginal conditions, Surefire is a hot wax that turns from yellow to red when mature. Picked green or red, Garden Salsa gives you flavor without burning your mouth. Another that's equally tasty whether picked green or red is Serrano, an extremely productive and easy-to-grow pepper that lasts well in storage. For a real kick, use all three for a salsa that sizzles.
Water consistently to prevent the hourglass effect, which can happen when fruit swells with ample water and deflates when it's lacking.
I never liked eggplant until tasting the ones I grew myself. (Eggplant found at most supermarkets is harvested when too mature and ultimately bitter.) Then I grew nearly two dozen varieties, just to be sure I had the best. While many were good, Neon, Dusky and Orient Express were tops when it came to flavor, ease of growing (even in the North) and abundant yields. All are tender and delicately flavored, and all look completely different. Dusky is glossy-black with long, oval fruits; Orient Express is a Japanese-type with slender, glossy, purple-black fruits growing to ten inches; and Neon is dazzling with bright-lavender, semicylindrical fruits.
You can gain some extra weeks of harvest by planting seedlings instead of seeds. Wait until after frost when temperatures have warmed before planting hardened-off eight- to ten-week-old starts. They thrive in a sunny location in moist soil rich in organic matter. Use a complete organic fertilizer to get plants off to a good start. In our garden, good-old aged rabbit manure with additional oyster shells produces the best quality peppers and eggplant.
If all you've ever grown is a red tomato, it's time to get yourself out of the rut. Great-tasting tomatoes aren't always red, and they definitely don't taste the same. Here's my pick for several outstanding varieties, in both the garden and kitchen.
Pineapple (85 to 95 days) is a colorful beefsteak-type heirloom with a tropical fruity flavor that's streaked with red, orange and yellow both inside and out. Once every five years or so it doesn't fully ripen in our garden, but the extraordinary flavor is always worth the risk. Another eye-catcher introduced in 1985 is Green Zebra (75 days), a deliciously tangy, salad-size tomato that ripens to a yellowish-green with darker green stripes. How about a juicy black tomato? Actually more of a reddish-brown hue, the Russian-bred Black Prince (70 t o 80 days) is a real treasure of regal flavor.
There are a lot of good paste tomatoes, but none so beautiful as the roma-shaped Italian Gold (70 to 75 days). If the intense golden-orange color doesn't amaze you, the prolific yields and naturally thick, rich sauces and salsas you'll make with it will. If you're still set on red, no garden should be without Early Cascade (50 to 65 days), a proven performer with extra-early abundant yields of delicious saladette-size fruits that keep going all season long.
You can make a good-tasting tomato even better by starting it off right in your garden. Plant tomatoes where they'll receive at least eight hours of direct summer sun. Enrich the soil around each plant with one shovelful of compost or aged manure, then sprinkle in flavor-producing trace minerals such as rock dust. Cage or trellis plants so fruit and foliage stave off the ground, water consistently, and mulch in summer to maintain even moisture. If you're watering correctly but still notice blossom end rot on fruits, spray your plants with diluted milk or work in a handful of oyster shells by each plant.
Favorite Flowers and Herbs
Herbs and flowers make excellent companion plants in the vegetable garden. While I've grown numerous varieties, there have been several that are exceptional. Rich gold blooms artfully flecked in red make Juliet French the most stunning and prolific French marigold I've ever grown. For a softer side of marigold, I enjoy the pale-yellow flowers of Safari Primrose. Since nasturtiums are edible, I grow a lot of them - especially Strawberry Ice and heirloom favorite Empress of India. And while no garden is complete without sunflowers, no sunflower bed is complete without bicolored Floristan or the fuzzy yellow double blooms of Tohoku Yae.
Perhaps the two most popular culinary herbs are basil and garlic. Popular varieties throughout the country include the clove spicy Siam Queen basil and large leaved Genovese, an Italian sweet basil especially noted for pesto. Garlic lovers know that fresh is the only way to go. If your space is limited, be sure to include these two varieties: Spanish Roja, an easy-peel Northwest heirloom with a rich, spicy, true garlic flavor, and Inchelium Red, which has a mild lingering flavor that sharpens with storage.