Part of the fun of gardening is growing new things that strike your fancy. Each new season brings new possibilities, and seed companies fuel the fire by presenting us with tempting new varieties, or remarkable old ones that have been lifted from obscurity by dedicated seed savers.
Many organic gardeners prefer open-pollinated varieties because of their special colors, textures, flavors, and strong reputations for growing well wherever they are planted, so my report on this year’s cream-of-the-crop varieties will focus mostly on varieties from which you can save your own seeds.
That said, traditionally-bred hybrids also can be key garden players because they can prevent common diseases before they start, which is often crucial in warm climates. Where summers are short and cool, hybrid varieties make it possible to grow semi-tropical vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes or spice peppers. In the discussion below, hybrid varieties have F1 after their names, which means they are a first generation cross between two carefully selected parents.
Which new vegetable varieties promise a perfect world in a seed? After studying two dozen catalogs from seed companies of various sizes on two continents, here is my list of promising new or almost-new vegetable varieties worth considering for this year’s garden.
Vigorous ‘Red Russian’ kale has graced my beds many times, but I often wished the leaves were a bit smoother and easier to clean. My wish may have come true with ‘Delaway’, a lovely red-tinted kale selected and saved by gardeners in Ireland and America. ‘Delaway’ looks like a ‘Red Russian’ strain that has been to finishing school, which shows what a century or so of backyard vegetable breeding can do.
Similar innovations have been taking place with dark-leafed Tuscan or dinosaur kale. Available only in the UK, the ‘Red Devil’ variety produces leaves with the same waffled texture as traditional Tuscan types, but the leaf veins are bright pink. Americans can try ‘Rainbow Lacinato’ kale, a cross between ‘Red Russian’ and dinosaur kale made by organic seed pioneer Frank Morton. The veins in the velvety smooth leaves can be red, pink or white, and the leaves have a remarkably tender texture, too.
I confess to being a pea snob, particularly with regard to pearly shell peas. I want elegantly long pods filled with mouthwatering little peas, and the ‘Canoe’ variety has been on my most-wanted list for a while. A similar new variety for European gardeners, ‘Vivado', could be the shell pea of your dreams.
Snap peas are more productive per square foot because you eat both the pods and the peas, and good old ‘Sugar Snaps’ have long been a favorite at my house. But this year I’m looking forward to a new adventure in snap peas with purple-podded ‘Sugar Magnolia’, bred by organic vegetable breeder Alan Kapuler. Like ‘Sugar Snap’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’ is a tall, indeterminate variety, but the dark color of the pods make them much easier to pick and a wonder to behold.
Carrots for Connoisseurs
All garden-grown carrots have vibrant flavors that come through best when the carrots are fresh, and this is especially true of varieties eaten as raw snacks. For ten years the German-bred ‘Sugarsnax F1’ variety has been the holy grail of carrot gardeners everywhere. A long, skinny Imperator type, ‘Sugarsnax’ is seldom grown commercially because the brittle roots break when they are mechanically harvested. To taste ‘Sugarsnax’ at its best, you have to grow it.
If you’ve already had that pleasure, two new ‘Snax varieties are available this year. ‘Candysnax F1’ is even sweeter than its predecessor, and ‘Purplesnax F1’ had dark purple skin over yellow interiors. Both are great excuses to deeply dig one of your best beds to create a luxurious planting site for carrots.
Spectacular Spice Peppers
Familiar sweet peppers and hot peppers make tremendous garden crops, but there is a third group called “spice peppers” that are grown for the complex flavors of the thin-walled fruits, which carry only a waft of heat. Spice peppers have never caught on with gardeners because they are notoriously late in setting their crop. Even where summers are warm, they often wait until late summer to load up with fruits.
Not anymore. Between careful selection of South American heirlooms and focused breeding efforts, excellent varieties of spice peppers are now ready for your garden. Last year I tried ‘Aji Dulce’ (shown in the photo at the top of the page), and it was so delicious and productive that I can’t wait to try more varieties like early-maturing ‘Aji Delight’, which will produce ripe fruits on the same schedule as full-season tomatoes. Or, you can cut weeks from maturation time with ‘Aji Rico F1’, which is capable of producing red-ripe fruit in only 75 days. Another fine spice pepper, funny-looking ‘Bishop's Crown ' also has been hybridized for earliness in the ‘Mad Hatter F1' variety, which can produce huge crops even in cool northern climates. If you are looking for a unique new gardening adventure, these big flavor peppers may be just what you need.