Not a Research Station, but I do Test
It seems that every couple of years or so, some kind gardener offers me seeds, plants, or just a recommendation for the best-tasting, earliest ripening, or longest keeping tomato. I’m appreciative, but these days usually refuse the offer or ignore the recommendation.
True, In addition to providing a year ’round supply of fruits and vegetables, my farmden provides a testing ground for innovative techniques in growing fruits and vegetables, and provides a site for workshops and training. All this would surely include trying out new kinds and varieties of fruits and vegetables.
But I want to avoid having my plantings become like those described by Charles Dudley Warner in his 1887 classic My Summer in the Garden: “I have seen gardens which were all experiment, given over to every new thing, and which produced little or nothing to the owners, except the pleasure of expectation.”
Still, I have studied plants and soils in both academic settings and in my own “back forty” (actually, my own back 2 and 3/4). I’m in New York’s Hudson Valley, Hardiness Zone 5, more specifically the Wallkill River Valley. This low spot is notable for good soil and bad air. The soil is fertile, perfectly drained, and pretty much free of any rocks or stones. But cold, damp air, being heavier than warm air, pours down hillsides into this valley. It suits disease-causing fungi and bacteria of plants just fine.
The above paragraph is a preamble to my offering a few recommendations on species and varieties worth growing in similar settings, but also, in many cases, where conditions don’t match those here on the farmden. I’ve also gardened in the Upper Midwest and in the South, and I think these recommendations would be well received over a large swath of our country. Some may be worth a spin in your own “back forty.”
Best Tomatoes, imho
Tomatoes are a good place to start because everyone has their favorites. My main criterion for a tomato variety is good flavor. In the past, I would grow twenty or more varieties of tomato in a single season. One year I grew, in addition to other varieties, twenty varieties of canning tomatoes. Another year I grew twenty varieties of cherry tomatoes. (I was doing the planting for articles I was writing on each of these kinds of tomatoes. What a waste of space! Most in each category were not worth growing.)
This year I pared the number of tomato varieties in all categories down to eight. For canning, hands down it’s San Marzano. Not only here, but also throughout Italy. Over there and on the Ball canning jars in my basement, canned San Marzano tomatoes are labelled as such. Almost as good canned and, in contrast to San Marzano, also flavor-packed fresh or dried, are Amish Paste and Anna Russian. With similar flavor, texture, and oxheart shape, their main difference is there color, pinkish for Anna Russian and orange-ish for Amish Paste.
Speaking of pink tomatoes, I find that they generally have good flavor. Another pink one I grew this year, this one very pink, is Pink Brandywine. It’s a winning combination, because all the varieties with “Brandywine” in their names are also very flavorful, and juicy.
Dark tomatoes are also a category that generally appeals to my taste buds. One of my favorites is the variety Paul Robeson.
Rounding out this year’s tomato collection are Carmello and Valencia, both round and very healthy-looking, Valencia stands out for its bright orange color.
And finally, of course there is one cherry tomato that I consider worth growing, Sun Gold. Does anyone not love these?
Moving on to perhaps my favorite vegetable, peppers. I need two things from peppers. The ability to bear well, and early morphing from unripe green to juicy, sweet, ripe red in reasonable time. My two favorites are Sweet Italia and Picnic Orange. (I also grow Carmen, which is almost as good in both respects, to bulk up our harvest.) Neither Sweet Italia nor Picnic Orange are hybrids so I grow them in isolation so that I can save seeds each year.
Now that I think of it, maybe my favorite vegetable is sweet corn. I grow only Golden Bantam, the standard of excellence in sweet corn a hundred years ago. I’ve written many times about this gem so won’t bore you further with it except to say that it’s got old-fashioned corny flavor and a chewy texture. If you enjoy the very tender, very sweet, modern “supersweet” varieties, you probably wouldn’t like Golden Bantam. But maybe . . .
There are so many new varieties of cabbages, carrots, and kale. In my opinion, for unabashed flavor, no other cabbage that I’ve tasted rivals that of Early Jersey Wakefield, an heirloom first grown by Francis Brill of Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1840.
Soil and climate have a say in carrot flavor, which is my excuse for being able to grow good, but not great-tasting, carrots. I learned about this while researching flavor for my book The Ever Curious Gardener: “Testing soils and growing conditions mimicking those of Wisconsin, California, Florida, and Texas, the best flavored carrots…drum roll…were those grown in mineral, especially loam, soils as compared with muck soils (drained swamplands rich in organic matter) under mild winter conditions (such as in California).” But I’m not moving. The variety that grows best for me is Scarlet Nantes, another old variety, this one developed in France in the 1850s by Vilmorin-Andrieux, a company that has been breeding and selling seed for almost 300 years!
For kale, my go-to variety is one variously called Vates, Vates Blue Curled Scotch, Blue Curled Scotch, or Scotch. By any name, it’s tasty, cold hardy, and was free of whiteflies while neighboring Russian Red kale, which, for some reason I also grew this year, let loose what was like hundreds of tiny Tinkerbells whenever brushed against.
Can a Giant Thistle be a Good Thing?
I’ll close with a vegetable that I just started growing four or five years ago. And I don’t eat it. The vegetable is cardoon, closely related to artichoke but more cold hardy. The only variety I grow, very popular in southern Europe, is Gobbo Di Nizzia, which translates into the much less euphonious, Hunchback of Nice.
Those who enjoy eating this vegetable harvest the leafstalks which usually are blanched for a couple of weeks before harvest to make them less bitter and more tender. Then, they are fried.
The flavor did nothing for me but the giant, thistle-y leaves, each more that three feet high, did and do. That’s not all. From the center of this gray green whorl rises a flower stalk capped with blue flowers. Yes it’s a thistle, beautifully thistly, with bristly flowers buds almost the size of softballs.