Choosing Vegetable Varieties for the Home Garden

Author’s Note: This week’s column focuses on vegetable variety selection.  Marjorie and I offer the following thoughts from our new book, The New England Gardener’s Year (Cadent Publishing, Thomaston, Maine), available as e-book in December 2012 and in print version in February 2013.
After the decision of which crops to grow (discussed in last week’s column) comes the more daunting task of choosing the right variety of each vegetable.  Of the forty tomato varieties listed in the seed catalog, which should you grow in a New England garden?  Or should you simplify the decision, narrowing the choices to the half dozen varieties of tomato transplants offered at the local garden center? What loaded questions!  Ask ten gardeners and you’re likely to get ten different answers, each gardener biased by his or her reason for growing tomatoes or even for gardening at all.

Yes, there are published lists of recommended varieties of tomato and every other vegetable that can be grown in a New England garden.  But in planning our garden, if we really want to know which variety will grow trouble-free or which variety has real flavor, we rely on the experience of local gardeners.

For example, when Harvard Jordan at the Ellsworth Feed and Seed says that nothing beats Kennebec potatoes, we are likely to plant Kennebecs.  Or when a reader of Reeser’s weekly column suggests the Bolero carrot as the best variety for winter storage, a recommendation based on twenty years of gardening, we pay close attention.  The same reader put us onto a softball-size kohlrabi variety that keeps all winter in her root cellar.

For new gardeners there is a decision-making process that begins with deciding which crops to grow, followed by careful winnowing of the many varieties available for each crop. My advice is to start with the seed catalogs to pick varieties of both direct-sown crops and crops transplanted as seedlings.  With one or more current seed catalogs in hand, go through the following decision-making process and then, if the local garden center offers transplants of varieties that fit the bill, you still have that option.  On the other hand, you can produce your own transplants from seed for crops such as tomatoes, peppers, brassicas, and cucurbits, a topic that I will deal with in an upcoming column.

Begin the variety selection process by deciding if you will be growing for fresh consumption only or for preserving some of the harvest by storing, freezing, or canning.  If the latter, you may want to grow two varieties of a crop, one for eating fresh, the other for preserving.  Again, tomatoes serve as an example.  There are paste varieties for making and preserving tomato sauces and scores of varieties for fresh eating.  When it comes to storing onions, braided together and hung in a corner of the kitchen, we have always considered Copra to be one of the best varieties.

Next, study the different growth habits found in different varieties of each crop.  In gardens with limited space, pole beans that make use of vertical space make more sense than bush beans that tie up a lot of ground.  And the compact-growing form of Delicata winter squash takes up far less room than the vining form of the same variety, although you get more squash fruits from the vining form.

Your garden’s soil texture may influence variety selection of root crops such as carrots.  For heavier soils, tapered carrot varieties such as the Chantenays or Danvers types grow best, wedging their way through the soil.  In loose sandy loam or silty soils, most types will grow well.

Disease resistance is another consideration in variety selection.  Many catalogs will identify varieties that have been selected for resistance to certain diseases.  For example, beans are susceptible to root rot fungi, mildew fungi, and several viruses, all of which can be avoided to some extent by cultural measures such as never handling or harvesting when the foliage is wet and planting with enough space between plants to ensure ample air circulation for rapid drying of leaves. (Fungal diseases spread more quickly when plants are wet.)

Heirloom Vegetable Varieties

In our opinion, when it comes to flavor there is no better variety of cherry tomato than Sungold.

Heirloom vegetable varieties are the champions of flavor.  Passed down from one generation to the next in the form of seed saved from the garden’s best performers, their names reflect their origin, history, or something of their character: Cherokee Trail of Tears Pole Bean, Boothby’s Blonde Cucumber (from Livermore, Maine, where the Boothby family grew it for several generations), Chadwick’s Rodan Lettuce (developed by Alan Chadwick, the English leader of the organic movement), Early Hanover Melon (first introduced to Virginia in 1895), Sweet Chocolate Pepper, Collective Farm Woman melon—the list goes on.

And while heirloom vegetables have been selected primarily for flavor, they have also stood the test of time with respect to disease resistance, performing for generations in organic gardens where proper cultural methods trump the use of chemicals.  I would not rule out a flavorful heirloom variety that meets all other criteria just because it has not been specifically bred for disease resistance.

A few years back, I resolved to include more heirloom varieties in our family’s vegetable garden.  We grew Black Prince tomato, an heirloom from Siberia, thinking that any tomato that grew in Siberia would produce fruits in the coolest Maine summer.  Sure enough, through July and August we picked dozens of purple-black tomatoes with a rich fruity flavor.

The following season I increased the number of heirloom tomato varieties in our garden to include Amish Paste, a deep-red oxheart variety often used for tomato paste; Pink Brandywine, with large, potato-leaved foliage and pink beefsteak fruits; Principe Borghese, an Italian heirloom producing clusters of red, plum-shaped paste tomatoes; Cosmonaut Volkov, a Ukrainian tomato with high yields in cool summers; and Caspian Pink, a mild and sweet Russian tomato.

And I added Boothby’s Blonde cucumber to one of my seed orders.  This is a relatively short, stout cuke with creamy white skin at the picking stage, yellow skin when older and seedier. It is very prolific and very tasty.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)