The Organic Gardening Test Garden, a 40-by-70-foot plot at the Rodale Institute near Kutztown, Pennsylvania, is a handy proving ground for vegetable varieties. But because the readers of this magazine deal with a wide range of climates—many of them less forgiving than our USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 6 with ample rainfall—we rely on a crew of intrepid organic gardeners in 13 additional locations from coast to coast. Our test gardeners provide valuable feedback on the vegetables in our trials, while reminding us of the regional growing challenges they face.
Near the end of 2012, as we were making plans for our 2013 garden, we embarked on a new strategy: Instead of the magazine’s editors dictating what we’d be growing, we asked each of the 13 test gardeners to select a favorite variety—or two or three—for all of us to grow. Their picks, a mix of much-loved heirlooms and newer hybrids, are the time-tested and reliable vegetables that they always include in their gardens. Some demonstrate broad adaptability; others were chosen for their superiority in a particular climate.
Here are our test gardeners’ choices—and why you should grow them, too.
Seed source: The Natural Gardening Co.
Test Gardener: Debbie Leung
Kale comes in many forms. All are nutritious—kale is often called a superfood, after all—but as Debbie Leung points out, they aren’t equally delicious. “I like to eat the Russian kales more than the curly-leaved or the currently popular Tuscan or lacinato kales, which I find dry and prickly,” Debbie says. “I always grow ‘White Russian’ kale with the more common ‘Red Russian’ for a colorful show. Their large, beautiful, tender leaves are flavorful and succulent all season long.”
Debbie, who teaches taiji and qigong when she’s not writing or gardening, lives in the Pacific Northwest, a climate known for summers that are barely hot enough to ripen a flavorful melon or tomato. On the other hand, crops like kale thrive.
“It grows easily from seed in early spring, will continue to produce all through the summer after numerous cuttings, and usually survives our winters with bouts of deep freeze to provide the first greens in early, early spring before anything else is ready to eat in the garden,” Debbie says. “When young and small, the leaves are excellent in salads with lettuce and other greens. I like the large, mature ‘White Russian’ leaves cooked all different ways: braised, in stir-fry and soups, and by themselves or in stews, quiche, omelets, or any dish that would be enhanced by a leafy green.”
Portait by Michael Harlan Turkell.