A Farmer’s Advice: The Best Vegetable Varieties for 1988

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PHOTO: JEFF MERMELSTEIN
There's nothing Brent likes better,than a good mess of greens, unless it's the rich flavor of a golden Kushaw squash.

Brent Elswick provides a roundup of the best new vegetable varieties recommended to MOTHER EARTH readers for 1988.

The Best Vegetable Varieties for 1988.

There are literally hundreds of new vegetable varieties on
the market this season, and–to save you both time and
potential disappointment–I’ve already tested many of
them in my garden. Here are some of my winners for 1988.
Addresses for the seed companies I mention can be found in this issue on page 126.

Lettuce

Though 1987’s weather wasn’t as bad as that of ’86, an
unusual 18-inch April snowfall here in the Appalachian
Mountains, followed by several rainless weeks, didn’t
exactly provide optimum growing conditions for early,
cool-weather crops. Even so, some of my trials thrived. For
example, Lollo Biondo from Le Marche Seeds proved to be a
sensational new looseleaf lettuce. Maturing in around 55
days, it’s akin to last year’s highly recommended Lollo
Rosso, and its bright, frilly, yellow-green leaves, tinged
with red, are as prettyto look at as they are tender and
tasty.

Biondo a Foglie Lisce (don’t try to pronounce it, just grow
it) is another wonderful leaf lettuce, from The Cook’s
Garden. Its smooth, pale green leaves can be picked as
early as a month after seeding.

This year, Shepherd’s Garden Seeds has one of the best
Batavian-type lettuces–so esteemed by the
French–that I’ve ever grown. Called Antina, its
pretty, medium-green leaves edged with red are juicy yet
crunchy. Left to grow to maturity, they form crisp
rosettes; immature leaves can serve as a most acceptable
loose-leaf lettuce. Antina stands up well to warm weather.

There are three fine new butterhead types on the market.
Cobham Green, introduced by Bountiful Gardens, matures in
65 days and stands up to heat well. Musette, a similar
variety from Garden Import, matures at the same time and
has large, medium-green hearts that remain in good eating
condition longer than those of most lettuces on the market.
Musette is also resistant to lettuce virus. Fisher’s Garden
Store specializes in early maturing and midget types, and I
especially like its Green Mignonette; the small heads are
extremely crisp and tender.

The most unusual crisphead lettuce I’ve found is The Cook’s
Garden’s superb La Brillante, which combines the shiny leaf
of a crisphead with the unmatched tenderness of a fine
butterhead. And though Stokes’ South Bay is fairly late to
mature, the taste of its deeply cut, dark green foliage is
worth the wait. It can also claim the best disease
resistance of any crisphead I’ve grown.

Spinach and Other Greens

Popeye would be powerfully tempted to try gardening this
year, because some of the new spinach varieties are
exceptional. Mazurka–a bolt-resistant 45-day hybrid
from Territorial Seed Company–has large, smooth, very
dark green leaves that are mild and slightly sweet. They’re
delicious either cooked or served raw in salads. Shepherd’s
offers a smooth-leaved Dutch type called Nordic that is
fairly heat-tolerant. Italian Summer, also from Shepherd’s,
is a crinkled savoy leaf that’s wonderful for freezing.
This heat-resistant newcomer is especially good for
late-summer plantings. Basella Malabar Red Stem, produced
by Park Seeds, is a good spinach substitute and a great
improvement on the old Malabar types. It can be trained to
grow to a height of six feet or more, and–raw or
cooked–its thick, dark green leaves and red stems are
mild and delicious.

If Japanese-type greens are to your liking, Territorial has
a worthy new hybrid called Tokyo Beau. This mizuna variety
has extraordinarily sweet leaves that are dark and shiny,
and its thick, white stalks make a good celery substitute.

The best new chard in my trials was the Vintage Green
hybrid from Gaze Seed Company. Its green leaves with
whiteribbed stalks grow in absolute abundance month after
month. Erbette Leaf Beet, from The Cook’s Garden, is used
like chard and is a great cut-and-come-again variety. When
cooked, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish from spinach.

A few years ago, Twilley Seeds introduced a greatly
improved Vates-type kale, Blue Knight, that is one of the
best hybrid kales on the market. The firm’s new Blue
Armour, though, is probably even more prolific. It also
seems to be the most suitable of all varieties to
winter-over–a definite plus for those wanting greens
extremely early in the spring.

Radishes

Shepherd’s Roodbol (Dutch for “Redball”) is an extra-fancy,
ball-shaped radish that won’t get woody with size and can
be harvested in little more than three weeks. Though
similar to Roodbol in many ways, lovely Marabelle from
Johnny’s Selected Seeds won’t take heat as well, but it
does grow with an amazing uniformity that’s perfect for
those wanting a red variety for successive crops.
Territorial offers Scarlet Globe (Ribella), one of the more
refined Cherry Belle types. Though maturing a few days
after Roodbol and Marabelle, it rapidly obtains a large
size and resists pithiness.

Stokes Seeds offers two odd new varieties. Its round-shaped
Valentine is green and white on the outside, and the inside
turns red at maturity. Though strange-looking, this radish
is tasty and easy to grow. And Stokes’ Martian, shaped like
the old French Breakfast-variety, has a long root that’s
green, not red, at the top. I like the way it looks (and
tastes) in salads.

Peas

While most better-known English peas mature about
midseason, William Dam Seeds offers Frostiroy that’s ready
in 55 days and is resistant to fusarium wilt and yellows.
The two-and-a-half-foot vines produce a big harvest of
tiny, very sweet peas.

Among the midseason types, disease-resistant Aurora from Ed
Hume Seeds has fairly short pods brimming with large sweet
peas that mature about a week later than Hume’s Olympia
(which I heartily praised last year). Other fine midseason
peas include Tillinghast’s Icer No. 93, a greatly improved
type of Dwarf Telephone from Tillinghast Seeds, and Freezer
69 from Early Seed & Feed Ltd. Both have strong,
sturdy, short vines that produce heavy yields that freeze
well.

Park offers two fine new edible-podded peas for ’88.
Blizzard lives up to its name by producing a literal
snowstorm of tasty snow peas on tidy 30-inch plants early
in the season. The company’s new dwarf snap pea called
Sugar Pop has space-saving 18-inch plants loaded with
three-inch, sweet, stringless pods. It’s disease-resistant
as well.

Rogers Brothers’ Honey Pod is a real taste sensation. (T
& T Seeds lists this variety.) Growing on sturdy,
compact vines, its nearly stringless, three-and-a-half- to
four-inch pods have a honey-sweet flavor which will make
them salad favorites.

Onions and Potatoes

Neither of the two top scallions in my trials is
traditional in color. Johnny’s Purplette, which is pastel
pink when cooked or pickled, is considered a minionion,
but–if picked early–it also serves as a most
delightful bunching onion. Shepherd’s Red Beard is a
scallion that can also double as a mini-onion if left to
mature. The red color in the stem develops better in cool
weather, so plant this variety so it can be harvested in
the fall. Both of these unusual alliums are ready in about
60 days.

Rarely do you find a sweet Spanish onion that produces a
very large bulb yet has the storing capability of the more
pungent types, but Fiesta 61 is just such a rarity. This
new wonder from Liberty Seed Company also matures almost
two weeks earlier than most Spanish varieties.

If you want a lot of onions to store, Bountiful’s James
Long Keeping produces small-to medium-size bulbs that are
some of the most remarkable keepers ever developed.

Leeks are becoming increasingly popular, and both Le Marche
and The Cook’s Garden sell the lovely, tasty and very, very
firm Blue Solaise that turns almost purple after an autumn
cold spell. No variety is better to leave in the garden for
winter harvests.

This year, the most outstanding potatoes are
yellow-fleshed. Both Tillinghast and Seeds Blum offer
Yellow Finn. This excellent all-purpose potato is
especially good for baking or boiling. Though not large in
size, it’s a good producer.

Becker’s Seed Potatoes has several good varieties. Yukon
Gold is the firm’s biggest seller and my personal favorite,
because it combines super-culinary and good-storage
qualities. Becker’s Pink Pearl has long tubers with
entirely pink skin. This good-eating potato is
disease-resistant, too.

Turnips, Rutabagas and Beets

New turnips are scarce this year, but DeGiorgi Company is
proud of a unique variety called All Seasons that will be
ready to eat in 28 days. The white-skinned, white-fleshed
roots stay sweet much longer in hot dry weather than do
those of most varieties.

Among rutabagas, the best I’ve grown is Stokes’ very
mild-flavored Altasweet. It’s a special cross between the
well-known Macomber and Laurentian varieties. Its deep
yellow flesh is somewhat sweet, and Altasweet keeps well.

While my trials included quite a few odd-shaped and
odd-colored beets, most of the outstanding newcomers are
more traditional. Le Marche’s Boldet is a full-flavored
British canning variety that grows vigorously and keeps
well in the field. Big Red, a new hybrid from Porter &
Son Seedsmen, is excellent for canning, pickling and using
fresh.

One winner that doesn’t fit the normal beet mold is
Macgregor’s Favorite from The Cook’s Garden. It has long,
dark, carrot-shaped roots with a rich beet taste, and
narrow, spear-shaped leaves that are a deep, metallic
purple. In fact, the foliage is so lovely I’d like to
include it in my flower border.

Carrots and Parsnips

There are so many outstanding new carrots this year that I
can only touch on a few. Crunchy Hybrid from D. V. Burrell
is one of the very best–and
bolt-resistant–Imperator types ever. Its nine-inch,
blunt-tipped roots live up to the crunch in their name.
Pinetree Garden Seeds offers Berlicummer, a long nantes
type that’s first-rate in all respects, including flavor
and color. Territorial’s Tamino, a very fine nantes hybrid,
is especially noteworthy because it can be left in the
ground nearly all winter without losing its quality.

Midget vegetables have become all the rage lately, and
Liberty’s Minicore produces three- to four-inch roots that
are extra sweet and flavorful. Another fine small carrot is
Johnny’s Parmex. Its round root matures so early it’s often
ready to harvest with peas. Unlike other round carrots,
Parmex develops a sweet flavor and bright orange color even
when immature.

No one knows parsnips like the English, and Johnny’s offers
Cobham Improved Marrow, developed by England’s leading
parsnip breeder. This half-long type has an incredibly high
sugar content. Another fine-flavored parsnip, Tender &
True, is reputed to be the longest variety. Offered by
Thompson & Morgan, it’s certainly large, as parsnips
go, and it doesn’t have the usual hard core: On the other
end of the spectrum, McFayden’s Short Thick is one of the
shortest varieties, and its quality is excellent. It’s
early to mature but will keep in the ground well into
winter.

Cole Crops

Among new cabbages, Charmant from Twilley is the best early
variety I’ve seen in a while. It’s attractive in
appearance, very vigorous and disease-resistant. A
Stonehead type, Charmant is ready for harvest in a little
more than 50 days.

To bridge the gap between the early and the larger
midseason varieties, try Johnny’s Perfect Action. Its fine
appearance, excellent flavor, and split- and
yellows-resistance make it a winner, while Burrell’s
eight-pound Ocala is one of the better late-season hybrids
(110 days) and is ideal for kraut.

Among savoys, Bountiful’s Best of All is very early, and
has extra-large, solid heads that withstand cold. Drumhead
Savoy from Allen, Sterling & Lothrop, which matures a
little later, has a delightful interior quality. It’s very
firm, well-blanched and crisp, yet tender.

Shepherd’s offers one of the better new red cabbages. Its
Scarlet O’Hara is a Japanese introduction, whose
three-pound heads are a brilliant burgundy-red color with a
crunchy, mild taste. It matures in about 72 days. Park has
a very fine new Chinese cabbage called Green Rocket. This
hybrid is a Michihili type that’s sweet, crisp and
tender-perfect, either for salads or Oriental recipes.

Packman, from S & B Seed Sales, is the top broccoli
variety in my trials. The heads on this new hybrid are
quite large for an early type, and it has excellent
side-shoot development. For warmer areas, try
drought-resistant Green Valiant from Midwest Seed Growers.
Finally, Shepherd’s offers Violet Queen, a hybrid version
of the old favorite, purple broccoli. While the leaves look
like a cauliflower’s, the deeply tinted, purple florets
(which turn bright green when cooked) have a very mild
taste. The plant matures earlier and is much more compact
than the old purple types.

If an early cauliflower suits your needs, try Early Glacier
from Vesey’s Seeds. The quality of this hybrid is
outstanding and the curd size is quite large. Midwest’s
Candid Charm matures slightly later but can be harvested
for up to three weeks after that.

Dolmic, a European introduction from Stokes, is my choice
of the new Brussels sprouts. It takes over 100 days to
mature, but that’s still fairly early for one of these
vegetables. The plants offer very high yields of small,
oval, excellent-tasting sprouts.

Celery

While celery isn’t one of the more commonly grown
vegetables in the home garden, recent varieties now make it
much easier to grow. Garden Import offers Ivory Tower, a
new 90-day self-blanching type. The plants are quite tall
with fleshy, smooth, white stems. Should you want to try a
traditional green celery, Twilley’s Green Giant, a very
fancy variety, has a fine flavor and uniform plants that
mature in 115 days.

If you’re looking for a celery substitute, celeriac
warrants a trial. Alabaster from Burpee Seeds is a superb
variety, whose celery flavored roots are great eaten raw,
used in soups or grated for slaw or salads. Maturing in 120
days, Alabaster is a very good keeper.

Corn

The early corn that tops my list isn’t one of the modern
superhybrids but a variation of the old Golden Bantam. It’s
Montana Bantam from Fisher’s, and it performed extremely
well in our terrible spring last year. Maturing in 65 days,
its Bantamlike ears are very slender and loaded with deep
golden kernels of delicious flavor and quality.

Of the more modern types, one of the best corns for
tolerating cold soil is Northernvee from McFayden Seeds.
Its eating quality may be a tad below that of the Bantams,
but it’s quite satisfactory, and no variety will tolerate
poor growing conditions better.

I’ve always been fond of Golden Beauty types, and T &
T’s Sweet Beauty surpasses its parents. It will mature in
about 70 days and can be counted on for perfectly shaped
seven- to eight-inch ears that taste fantastic.

For a midseason yellow variety, I recommend S & B’s
Royal Gold, an old-fashioned corn that’s ready to eat in
about 85 days. Its sturdy eight-foot stalks will each bear
two ears of bright, golden yellow kernels that are tender
and sweet. As an added bonus, Royal Gold is less
susceptible than most corn to attacks from birds and
earworms.

Despite its lackluster name, I can’t say enough good things
about midseason AVX 2539 from Burrell. This Sweet Gene
hybrid has pale yellow kernels that are tender and filled
with flavor. It freezes well, too. I also like Mevak, the
Asgrow midseason corn offered by Vesey’s, because the short
shank allows for easy picking (which isn’t true of a lot of
the new supersweets), and its good ear cover also fights
off birds and insects.

Stokes’ Tri-Sweet is the best very early maturing (65 days)
bicolor I’ve grown, and unlike other earlier varieties, it
offers windtolerance, plus ears that are lovely to look at
and great to eat.

Liberty has long been involved in developing new sweet corn
varieties–especially SE and SH types. Their new
bicolor SE is the 68-day Bodacious, a name that signifies
something extraordinarily good, and this corn, which has an
old-fashioned creamy texture, is just that!

Ferry-Morse’s best new variety is called Cornfetti. This
85-day standard type has super eye appeal and excellent
flavor. Letherman’s is one of the few sources to date for
this excellent bicolor.

As with the early yellows, an older, open-pollinated
variety, Early Pearl from Good Seed is my pick among
today’s white corns. It was once one of the most popular
offerings of the venerable firm, Charles C. Hart Seed, but
now, sadly, has been almost forgotten. While not as early
as the early Bantams, I did eat my first delicious ears
after about 75 days. And, like all open-pollinated
varieties, its harvest is extended because all the ears
don’t ripen at once. Be sure to try this “new-old” variety.

Another fine white is White Satin from The Meyer Seed
Company. Maturing in 73 days, it has excellent
cold-tolerance, tight husks for bird protection, and sweet
and tender kernels bursting with flavor. Twilley’s new
white this year is Summer Flavor 80W, which has the
distinctive supersweet taste of the SH types but retains a
creamy texture. Better yet, it will hold its flavor on the
stalk or in the fridge for days after maturity.

Those who like the sweet crunch of the SH types should try
Stokes’ Bunkerhill. The sturdy plant is disease-resistant,
and the ears snap off much easier than do those of most SH
types. Phenomenal is a bicolor SH from Stokes that’s very
sweet. Good tip coverage is a big bonus, since birds and
bugs seem to like supersweets as much as some people do.
This 85-day hybrid is definitely the leading SH bicolor of
the season.

Beans

No eastern Kentucky garden (like mine) would be complete
without White Half Runners, and I’ve always found Hastings
to be among the best sources of these. The firm lists two
varieties of Half Runners: State and Mountaineer. While
State is more disease-resistant, Mountaineer offers better
quality.

Leading the list of new bush beans is Harvester Teepee from
Pinetree. It differs from the old Harvester variety in that
the delicious, slender pods grow high up on the vine,
making for cleaner beans and easier picking. Fifty days
after planting, you can begin a long harvest of these
delicious legumes.

Of all the new beans I grew, Ballack from Seeds Blum was
the best. It has dark seeds (a drawback for canning), but
it’s as sweet and tender as any bean I’ve eaten, with the
exception of the Half Runner. The final bush bean of note
is Ajax Broad Stringless, one of the flat European slicing
types from William Dam. Not commonly found in this country,
it’s good fresh, but even better canned.

Shepherd’s offers Serbo, a very fine new European pole
bean. The vines are literally covered with small pods that
are best eaten before they plump out. Northeaster from
Johnny’s is the more usual pole type. At 55 days, it’s one
of the fastest-maturing full-size poles, and its tender
eight-inch pods are stringless with a delicious, sweet
flavor.

Hastings has one of the oddest new poles in its Alabama
Pole No. 1. This cultivar’s green pods have a purple cast
when ripe, and the seeds are black. The rather short, plump
pods mature fairly late, come in absolute droves and are
indeed delicious. Another strange pole bean is the Anellino
from Le Marche, in either green or yellow. The pods grow in
the shape of a hooked 0 with the bottom curving to meet the
top. The vines produce an abundant crop of these lovely
curlicues, which have a first-rate flavor.

Among the horticultural beans (we call them fall beans
around here), Allen, Sterling & Lothrop has one of the
best pole types. Their Worcester Horticultural has mammoth
pods that resemble the old fallor cranberry-type bean. The
heavy pods, splashed with red, are excellent when cooked.
When dried, they make a good pinto soup bean.

Of the half-dozen dry, or baking, beans I grew, Vesey’s
Kenearly, an improved Yellow Eye cultivar, was among the
best performers. The most unusual was Johnny’s excellent
French flageolet shell bean called Flambeau. The slender
pods have eight to 10 mint-green beans that are tender and
firm and will remind you of fresh limas.

Cucumbers

Stokes’ superb new Slice King is one of the finest
cucumbers I’ve ever grown–period. Though it has some
of the shiny gloss of the burpless variety that it is, it
looks more like a regular cuke. The attractive fruits are
eight to nine inches long, and mature in about 50 days.
Though you’ll grow Slice King for its taste, it’s also
enormously productive and disease-resistant.

Among pickling cukes, I especially liked Pik Master from
Seedway. The blocky, five-inch, white-spined fruits are
perfect for whole pickles. The vines are highly productive
and extremely disease-resistant. The cukes mature in about
53 days, a bit later than most picklers, but worth the
wait.

Watermelons and Cantaloupes

My favorite cantaloupe is Boule d’Or from Le Marche. In
certain areas of France, this melon is as famous as the
renowned Charentais. However, it’s an entirely different
type of melon, requiring a long, warm growing season. (I
planted the middle of May and harvested the first of
September.) The large, round fruits are pale yellow, and
the light green interior is indescribably delicious.

The very best large watermelon I grew was the lovely Moon
& Stars from Seeds Blum. This variety derives its name
from the yellow moon- and star-shaped splashes on its dark
green skin. (The foliage is also speckled, making it
attractive to grow.) Inside this pretty exterior is one of
the best-eating melons you’ll ever sink your teeth into.
The flesh is bright red and sugary sweet.

Peppers

The most impressive sweet pepper among many was Pinetree’s
Midal. The tall, rugged plants are loaded down with long,
cream-colored sweet fruits that turn an unusual orange-red
at maturity.

The hottest (literally) among the hot peppers I tried are
Habanero from Porter, Hot Apple from Stokes, and Sandia
from Burrell. All produce huge crops of fiery fruits that
will singe your tastebuds. Less hot, but still snappy, is
Hastings’ Festival, whose fruits change from green to
orange to purple. Not only are the small, pointed peppers
pretty enough to allow this variety to double as an
ornamental plant, but their feisty flavor adds spice to any
number of dishes.

Squash

There are some excellent new summer squashes, such as the
lovely Green Magic zucchini from Vesey’s; Elini, a similar
variety from Twilley; and Butter Swan, a highly refined,
high-quality crookneck from Park.

Appealing winter squashes include the very early-maturing
(less than 90 days) Mountaineer from Fisher’s. Its small,
slate blue, hubbard-type fruits are delicious baked, and
they keep well. I’m also really excited about Johnny’s
Honey Delight, whose small, flattened globes are somewhat
like a buttercup variety without the button on the bottom.
No matter how you prepare them, their rich, orange flesh
will be flaky and sweet.

Tomatoes

Few tomatoes ripen earlier than Brookpack from Early Seeds.
In 55 days, you can pick bright red, flattened globes that
are surprisingly large (up to eight ounces) and quite
tasty. The vines are dwarf and compact, yet hold their
fruit off the ground.

Now let’s move to the big tomatoes. Personally, I go for
the Better Boy types, but clones of the recent All America
Winner, Celebrity, are increasingly popular. Such a variety
is Summer Delight from Burpee. The eight- to 12-ounce
fruits, which mature in 75 days, are thick, meaty and
flavorful.

Among yellow tomatoes, I can recommend Vesey’s Golden
Delight. The small plants are good producers of little
yellow fruits that are sweet and delicious. They are ready
in 60 days and make good companions to early reds. My other
favorite is Seeds Blum’s delicious Persimmon. I’ve seen
more productive plants, and disease is a problem if no
preventive measures are taken. What makes it worth growing?
Sweet-flavored, meaty-textured fruits, with the lovely
color of ripe persimmons, that can reach a pound or more.

While I grew a lot of cherry tomatoes, the variety that
beat all the rest was Sweet Cherry Hybrid from Tomato
Growers Supply Company. It produces some of the sweetest,
best-tasting little fruits ever.

The Creme de la Creme

As usual, I try to ask myself, of all the new varieties
I’ve tested, which ones would I pick if my garden space was
very limited. Here, to recap, are my very top ’88 choices:

Crunchy carrot from Burrell, Bodacious bicolor sweet corn
from Liberty, Slice King cucumber from Stokes, Ballack
beans from Seeds Bhim, Boule d’Or cantaloupe from Le
Marche, Moon & Stars watermelon from Seeds Blum and
Summer Delight tomato from Burpee.

Gardening expert Brent Elswick has been testing new
varieties for MOTHER EARTH NEWS for over nine years.