The pandemic has been bad for so many things, but good for home gardening. My Starter Vegetable Gardens book sold out in May, but it soon will be back after substantial updates. Many of those updates are in the varieties section, where I name trusted varieties of vegetables and herbs a beginner might want to grow. Much has changed in 10 years, with several clear shifts in gardeners’ needs, preferences and practices.
It does appear that gardeners are an adventurous lot, willing to try new things and then share the news on outstanding varieties. The varieties discussed here became widely available in the last decade, and successfully entered the garden seed market while dozens of other new varieties failed. Here are highlights I gleaned from changes in vegetable varieties over the last 10 years.
Downy Mildew Resistant Basils
Basil downy mildew was once a rare sight in gardens, but not anymore. In summer, this fungal disease causes leaf undersides to become gray-green before withering to brown. It’s frustrating, because cutting the plants back does little good, and the disease laughs at homemade sprays. Red-leafed basils, tulsi basil and other furry-leafed types seem resistant to basil downy mildew, but resistant ‘Prospera’, ‘Rutgers Passion’ and ‘Amazel’ are breakthroughs because they have tasty Genovese type leaves. Including only one or two plants of one of these resistant varieties can prevent the loss of your favorite summer herb to basil downy mildew in an unlucky year.
A Broccoli Transformation
Square foot gardening was a megatrend ten years ago, and it was thought that miniature broccoli varieties that could be crowded into beds at close spacing were a logical choice. The rewards were underwhelming, and sales of dwarf broccoli varieties fizzled as gardeners found that growing one fabulous full-size broccoli plant was more fun than growing three puny ones.
Then another thing happened. Seed companies began offering vigorous varieties of tenderstem or broccolini types of broccoli including ‘Apollo’, ‘Artwork’ and ‘Aspabroc’, which make exquisite cut-and-come-again vegetables for gardens large and small, and even grow well in containers. Under good conditions and with twice weekly cutting, the plants stay productive for more than a month.
A similar innovation has occurred with cauliflower, one of the most finicky crops to grow. Cauliflower needs perfect nutrition and a long stretch of cool, stress-free weather to produce big heads, but long-stemmed “stick” cauliflower, like sprouting broccoli, is a game-changer. Little can go wrong with ‘Fioretto’ (70 days), which bears loose clusters of delicious little white heads on light green, tender stems. If you use lightweight row covers to exclude cabbage worms, stick cauliflower comes through as a carefree crop rather than a worrisome one.
Baby carrots were a big thing ten years ago, when most carrots were orange, but not anymore. Now we have colorful varieties with orange roots cloaked in purple, or maybe they are sunshine yellow or deep red all the way through. Most seed companies carry colorful carrot mixtures, or you can try yellow ‘Gold Nugget’ or gorgeously bicolored ‘Cosmic Purple’ or ‘Dragon’. Super-nutritious but somewhat fibrous and not very sweet, dark-fleshed ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Atomic Red’ are at their best when cooked, particularly on a grill. They are great bed and plate partners for parsnips.
The decade saw two winning innovations in purple-podded snap beans, a category long ruled by stringy old ‘Royal Burgundy’. Purple podded ‘Amethyst’ is a huge improvement, with short, stringless pots, and dainty purple ‘Velour’ filet beans are even more refined. Both varieties feature pretty purple flowers and purple pods that turn green when cooked. They are wonderfully productive in warm summer weather.
As I revised the book, I kept a list of varieties that had earned spots in seed catalogs, but I have yet to try. For example, I need to grow ‘Redventure’ celery, an open-pollinated cross between ‘Giant Red’ and ‘Ventura’ that was 20 years in the making, and personal-size ‘Small Wonder’ spaghetti squash has been haunting my dreams. Have you discovered new varieties in the last few years that are so good, you think everyone should grow them? Please name names in the comments below.