Vastly more flavorful sweet corn, tomatoes, cabbage,
cucumbers, snap beans, radishes, yams, and squash! That’s
what Derek Fell — former manager of the Burpee seed
catalog, author of Countryside Books’ How to Plant a
Vegetable Garden, one-time director of All-America
Selections (the national seed trials), and gardener par
excellence — promises … and delivers.
When I was new to the seed business, I found it difficult
to understand how anyone could breed a “better” vegetable
variety … an improved type of cabbage, say. Cabbage is
cabbage, I reasoned. How in the world could anyone claim to
have improved upon a crop that’s been cultivated for
hundreds — perhaps thousands — of years?
Eventually — as I gained experience raising and writing
about new vegetables — I began to see how breeders
could indeed create better crop varieties … varieties
that (through increased disease resistance, added
productivity, etc.) could ensure greater success and
enjoyment for the home gardener.
I also began to realize that although vegetables can be
bred for many characteristics — early maturation, large
size, extra vigor, high nutritional value, bright color,
and so on — good flavor is probably the single most
important quality a vegetable can have. After all, a tomato
can possess exceptional disease resistance or have
tremendous productivity … but if it doesn’t taste good,
what’s the point in growing it?
Factors that Affect Vegetable Flavor
In order to grow truly tasty vegetables, one must know
something about the factors that affect the development of
good flavor. Factors such as:
THE AGE OF THE VEGETABLE (OR FRUIT) AT HARVEST. As a
rule, the mildest — and best-tasting vegetables are
those that’ve been harvested as soon as possible after
they’ve matured. This is particularly true of root crops,
such as turnips and carrots.
WEATHER. Moist, cool conditions favor the development
of good flavor in root crops and leafy vegetables (lettuce,
cabbage, etc.), while sunshine and summer-like temperatures
promote palatability in melons, sweet corn, tomatoes,
eggplant, and other warmweather fare. (Proper amounts of
moisture, of course, are also vital to these crops. Drought
conditions — for instance — at the time of
ripening can drastically affect the eating qualities of
corn and melons.)
GENETIC BACKGROUND OF THE PARENT PLANT. Thanks to the
efforts of seed companies and independent plant breeders
the world over, home gardeners needn’t eat the pithy,
tasteless droppings of agribiz. Instead, they can grow
spectacularly flavorful varieties of vegetables … strains
that’ve been bred not for good transportability or long
shelf life, but for outstanding taste. Let’s take
a look at some of the more toothsome vegetable varieties
currently offered by seed companies, and the problems (if
any) peculiar to them.
Super-Sweet Corn, Anyone?
There’s a familiar saying that in order to eat delicious
corn you’ve got to have the water boiling as you pick the
ears. With standard varieties of sweet corn, this is true
… but not so with the new “super sweet” strains, such as
Early Xtra Sweet and Illini Xtra Sweet. Thanks to the
presence of what plant breeders call “extra sweet” genes,
the conversion of sugar to starch takes place much more
slowly in these varieties than in other types of corn …
making it possible to enjoy good-tasting ears several days
after they’ve been picked.
Super-sweet corns do have one drawback: They must be kept
isolated, since cross-pollination with regular sweet corn
will result in loss of the varieties’ unique flavor.
Breeders, however, are well on the way to developing
improved super-sweets that don’t require isolation. (I’m
told that one of these — Golden Beauty — will be
available this year for the first time.
Another incredibly delectable sweet corn — a dazzling
white hybrid — is Silver Queen. Despite the fact that
it matures slowly (it needs 92 days, on the average, from
planting to harvest), the super-sweet taste and huge ears of
this relative newcomer have already converted many folks
from yellow to white corn.
Pole Beans for Old-Time Good Taste
Sweet corn is one crop the flavor of which has been vastly
improved in recent years. But that game is played both
ways. I can, for instance, name a least one “old favorite”
which — though developed long ago — tastes better
than its modern equivalents. That old favorite is a pole
bean called Lazy Wife, which was first introduced in the
1880’s and then dropped from most catalogs around 1930.
Lazy Wife does have several faults. Lack of resistance to
disease, for one Extreme sensitivity to cold temperatures
(seeds must be planted well after any danger of frost), for
another. And slow maturation (you’re not likely to get a
first picking until late August or early September), for a
third. But its plump, buttery-flavored, completely
stringless beans are superb eating, and the older they get
the better they taste (until, finally, the pods turn yellow
Bush Beans: Easy Growing, Easy Eating
Although pole beans generally taste better — and crop
over a longer period — than bush-type snap beans, many
gardeners find the compact bush varieties easier to grow.
For such grow-your-own enthusiasts, I recommend: a
savory new dwarf Romano called Roma, and the delicious
new yellow wax bean called Goldcrop. (The latter produces
heavy yields of long, straight, pencil-thin and
It’s probably hard for a beginning gardener to believe that
the mild flavor of a cucumber can vary from one variety to
the next, but it can … and does. If you doubt my
statement, try growing the new, non-bitter Burpless
cucumber this summer. Its long, slender, dark-green fruits
are heavily spined, but so tender you can eat them
whole — skin and all — just like sticks of candy.
(And, if you grow the plants on a trellis so that the
maturing cukes hang straight down and don’t curl, they’ll
also be as straight as sticks of candy.)
I met the “inventor” of the Burpless cucumber — Mr. T.
Sakata — during a recent visit to Japan. When asked why
he’d chosen to call the plant “Burpless,” he replied that
the name had been suggested to him by an American housewife
who found that the fruits failed to give her indigestion
… and he liked it.
When I was young, I was served turnips with school dinners,
and — as many youngsters do — found them repugnant.
For that reason I avoided eating the vegetable altogether
for the next several years.
Then one day — at a barbecue buffet — I helped
myself to some small, white, golf-ball-like victuals that I
thought were new potatoes. They were sensational, juicy,
super-sweet, mild-but definitely not potatoes. I was later
amazed to discover that what I had eaten were, in fact,
turnips … a new variety called Tokyo Cross. I’ve been
growing them in my garden ever since.
The beauty of Tokyo Cross turnips is that they mature
within just 35 days of the time they’re planted. For best
flavor, pick them when they’re the size of baby beets.
(They can be left to grow larger, if you wish …
and — of course — their tops are edible.)
Tomatoes Types (Large and Small)
If you like tomatoes — and you want to experience good
“old-fashioned” flavor — I recommend you try a variety
(first introduced around 1892) called Ponderosa. The
pinkish-red flesh of this tomato is exceptionally meaty,
with very few seeds, and has a smooth, low-acid flavor.
Although Ponderosa is a late-maturing variety and won’t win
any prizes for productivity, the gigantic (up to two pounds
apiece), succulent fruit are — in my opinion — well
worth the wait.
Then again, for a dependable combination of good size,
superb flavor, AND high yield you might want to try Joseph
Harris’s Supersonic tomatoes. I grow several varieties of
“love apples” every year out of curiosity, but I always
rely on Supersonics for my main crop of beautiful, red
And a new cherry tomato that’s being offered for the first
time this year is Sweet 100 … so called because it’s
sweet-tasting and it has the remarkable ability to
produce 100 ripe tomatoes on a single stem ( 500 or
more fruits per plant ). According to its creators,
Sweet 100 is not only flavorful and prolific but it also
has the highest vitamin C content of any tomato.
I grew Sweet 100 in my garden last year and can vouch for
the fruit’s superb taste. (I was also fascinated by the way
the plant’s long, slender flower stems uncurled like watch
springs before giving rise to numerous fruit-studded
Cabbage Par Excellence
Cabbage-lovers agree that the savoy varieties — with
their dark, crinkly outer leaves and sunshine-yellow
centers — are tops in the flavor department. And one of
the best-tasting of these is the new Savoy Ace, which
All-America Selections has chosen a gold medal winner for
1977. The tight, solid heads of this magnificent vegetable
will stand in the garden for more than a month without
bursting, even in the hottest weather … and the flavor
certainly won’t let you down. Try it. You’ll love it.
The Secret of Good Radishes
My favorite radish is the Cherry Belle, a red variety with
crisp white flesh that’s ready to eat within 22 days of
planting … providing there’s been no hot and/or dry
weather during the intervening period. (Constant moisture
throughout the growing period — and an early harvest
thereafter — is the secret of clean-tasting, crisp
Unless I’m wrong, the entire gardening world is about to be
revolutionized by an entirely new type of vegetable called
Snap Peas. This edible-podded pea will feature many of the
characteristics of snap beans, yet will be earlier than
beans, sweeter-tasting than sugar peas, and twice as
productive as any green pea. (If you ask me — and I’ve been
growing trial plantings of this unusual vegetable for some
time — Snap Peas will, when they hit the market in a
couple years, vie with the tomato in national popularity.
They’re that good.)
Until we can all grow Snap Peas, however, the best we can
do is to sow our regular peas early and provide them with
plenty of moisture to bring out their full flavor.
(Moisture is particularly important to these plants, since
even the slightest dry spell will halt their growth.)
Have you grown sweet potatoes lately? I tried raising them
years ago as a beginner, with poor results. Last year,
however, I had good luck with two varieties — a vine by
the name of Centennial and a bush-type called Puerto
Rico — which I planted as late succession crops in
place of some spinach.
Centennial came through with the highest yields (and pretty
fair flavor), but the P.R.’s had a more distinctive taste
… one that reminded me of roasted chestnuts. From now on,
I’ll never be without my Centennials for sheer size and
yields … but — for that uniquely nutty
flavor — I’ll also always grow Puerto Ricos.
It’s hard to generalize about the flavor of squash, since
there are so many kinds (and since personal tastes vary so
widely). As a rule, though, winter squash varieties (acorn,
butternut, Hubbard) tend to have a deeper, more filling
flavor than summer varieties (zucchini, yellow crookneck,
etc.), and — among the winter varieties — the
vine-growing types seem to be tastier than bush types.
For the past several years, I’ve tested a really
remarkable — and incredibly large — new winter
squash called Pie Squash, Tahiti Squash, or
Melon-Squash. (I prefer the last name.) The
individual fruits — which grow to 40 pounds on vines
that resemble those of butternut squash — of this plant are
bow-shaped and feature a round, golden-yellow seed cavity
at one end, with an enormous neck full of edible flesh at
the other. When immature, the fruits are dark green … but
as they ripen, they turn a yellow color outside and a deep
I love to cut small pieces of Melon-Squash into sticks or
wafers and eat them with dips. (The sweet and flavorful raw
flesh has the texture of a carrot
and — roughly — the flavor of a cantaloupe.) The
meat, however, is also delicious when boiled for a few
minutes, or fried in batter and served for breakfast.
How To Grow Downright Delicious Melons
Fertile soil and warm, sunny weather at the time of
ripening are critical to the development of superb flavor
in melons. For this reason, I always grow my
cantaloupes and watermelons in a special bed loaded with
well-decomposed horse manure (and supplemented with a
general-purpose fertilizer), and make at least two
plantings — spaced a couple of weeks apart — so that even
if one crop becomes waterlogged as a result of a rainy
spell during the last crucial days of ripening, the other
probably will still be OK.
Also, a black plastic “mulch” is definitely beneficial to
melon crops, since it serves to advance ripening, conserve
moisture, and maintain an even soil temperature
(which — in turn — keeps those fruits growing
happily even on chilly nights).
If you’re growing watermelons for the first time, I’d
recommend you start out with a new ice box variety called
Yellow Baby. This fruit’s unusual, pineapple-yellow flesh is
absolutely delectable (right down to the outermost
millimeter or two of skin), and averages 50 percent fewer seeds
than other ice box varieties. (Moreover, I’m told by the
plant’s Chinese breeder that Yellow Baby is one of the most
cold-tolerant of all watermelons.) I’ve grown this novel
fruit for three years now, and haven’t had a bad one yet.
Seedless watermelons aren’t particularly easy to
grow — they require higher temperatures to ripen and
must have another hybrid nearby to act as a
pollinator — but if you feel up to the task, I can’t
think of a more splendid variety to try than Burpee’s
Triple Sweet Seedless Hybrid. Triple Sweet’s succulent,
sugar-sweet fruit makes all other watermelons seem insipid
The selection of cantaloupe varieties is a very personal
matter. Some folks like the highly productive and
large-fruited Burpee Hybrid … others are loyal to such
varieties as Pride of Wisconsin or Honey Rock. For sheer
mouthwatering flavor, however, I’ll take an Israeli
cantaloupe called Haogen any day. The outer flesh of this
small (5 to 6 inches across), smooth-skinned melon is greenish
in color, with a salmon-tinted seed cavity … and the
taste is — just as the Burpee catalog says —
Give Heogen a try. I think you’ll find — as I have — that
It’s the best-tasting cantaloupe of all.
Other Vegetables, Other Flavors
In this short space I haven’t been able to discuss anywhere
near all the distinctive and delicious varieties
of vegetables that are currently available from seedsmen.
(Rather, I’ve limited myself to just a few of my personal
favorites.) I hope, however, that this discussion has
inspired you to try new and unusual garden varieties of all
kinds … and that — as a result — you’ll
experience for yourself the kind of flavors that are so
good, you (and your friends) will never forget them.
Where to Obtain the Vegetable Varities Mentioned In This Article
Burpee Hybrid cantaloupe
Honey Rock cantaloupe
Pride of Wisconsin cantaloupe
Illini Xtra Sweet corn
Silver Oueen corn
Roma snap bean
Triple Sweet watermelon
Yellow Baby watermelon
W. Atlee Burpee Co.
300 Park Ave.
Warminster, Pa. 18974
Puerto Rico sweet potato
Steele Plant Co.
Gleason, Tenn. 38229
Early Xtra Sweet corn
Cherry Belle radish
Centennial sweet potato
Sweet 100 cherry tomato
Tokyo Cross turnip
Thompson & Morgan Inc.
Box 24 Somerdale,