Thoughts on Selecting Vegetable Varieties for the Home Garden

Avalanche produces more tendrils than other pea varieties, a plus for those who like to use the tendrils as garnishes. (Photo courtesy of the National Gardening Bureau)

Seed catalogs began arriving earlier than ever this year.  The pile on the living room floor of my Eastport rental began in late November with the arrival of Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ impressive 200-plus-page publication for commercial growers and home gardeners.   Then came catalogs from Totally Tomatoes, Vermont Bean Seed Company, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  These were the real early birds.  By the end of January there will be a wall-to-wall carpet of slick pages filled with color photographs of every vegetable variety that can be grown from seed.

For the most part, I will stay with the tried and true.  But there are a few new varieties for 2013 that tempt me.  For example, Johnny’s (Johnnyseeds.com) offers a new snow pea variety, Avalanche, that produces dark green peas for summer harvest.  The vines grow to about 3 feet tall and can be grown with or without support.  Avalanche produces more tendrils than other pea varieties, a plus for those who like to use the tendrils as garnishes.

One of my favorite seed catalogs comes from The Cook’s Garden (www.cooksgarden.com).  For gardeners who like green peas, this year’s catalog features a 1902 introduction by Burpee, Blue Bantam Dwarf.  To quote the catalog copy, “compact vines just 15-18” tall bear bushels of 4” long blue-green pods, loaded with eight berries per pod.”

When it comes to cherry tomatoes, Marjorie and I will always grow Sungold, a bright tangerine-orange tomato with exceptionally sweet flavor.  I am tempted, however, to grow a plant of two of Johnny’s new red cherry, Jasper, selected for resistance to late blight.  The fruits are also resistant to cracking (a major problem with Sungold) and rot.  The texture is described as pleasantly chewy, the flavor sweet and rich.

Johnny’s bred Jasper for high yield and adaptability, characteristics valued by commercial growers.  Sungold, on the other hand, is a home gardener’s delight, a fruit to munch as you work in the garden.

For fun on the porch or patio, Burpee (www.burpee.com) has introduced  a novel sweet corn hybrid, On Deck, advertising it as “a phenomenal sweet corn that sets 2-3 ears in even the smallest of gardens- including containers! This variety grows to a maximum of 5’ tall and can be used as a tidy little wind screen on the porch or in the back of the garden. The 8” long bicolor ears are delectably sweet and have a great crispy kernel.”  The kernels are bicolor, yellow and white.

My favorite catalog is the tome published by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com), over 200 pages stuffed with photographs of heirloom vegetables coupled with interesting histories and growing tips.  Whatever your vegetable passion, this catalog offers varieties that have been passed around the world and from one generation to the next for decades.

For example, I have come to think of spinach as a fall crop, my spring sowings always bolting too early.  Baker Creek offers Amsterdam Prickly Seeded, a spinach grown by Thomas Jefferson in the early nineteenth century and considered the hardiest of spinach varieties.  A late-summer sowing of this variety should continue to yield until a truly hard frost and, with some protection, even beyond.

Baker Creek also offers a white bush-type acorn squash, Cream of the Crop, which can be picked small and used as a summer squash or ripened for use as a winter squash.  Its bush-type growth habit makes it ideal for small spaces.  Summer squash is one of my passions and I think I will have to give this variety a try next season, perhaps letting a few fruits stay on the vine until fall.

For any garden vegetable, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the number of heirloom varieties offered in Baker Creek’s catalog.  There are tomatoes, peppers, squash, and other crop varieties from every corner of the globe.  How does a gardener begin to know what will grow well in her garden?

I have had reasonable success in such decisions by finding the origin for an heirloom vegetable variety on a world map.  If the variety comes from a region that is close to the same latitude as Ellsworth, Maine, I consider it worth a try.

But for the best advice on vegetable varieties, whether heirloom or modern hybrids, nothing beats talking to veteran growers.  Farmer’s markets are great places to learn which varieties will grow best in your region.  Talk to the growers there, asking them what varieties they recommend.

As an example, last spring I asked a grower at the Ellsworth farmers’ market to recommend a tomato variety, putting the question this way:  “What tomato varieties do you grow in your home garden?”  To my delight, he reached under the table and produced a six-pack of tomato seedlings, an heirloom variety called Japanese Black Trifele.  I planted them in Marjorie’s Garden and, sure enough, they performed admirably, despite the cool summer.

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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.)