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.
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.
Bush Wax Beans
'Beurre de Rocquencourt'
Seed source: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
“In regards to heirloom ‘Beurre de Rocquencourt’ wax beans, what’s not to like?” asks Leslie Halleck of Dallas. “First off, simply saying the name gives one the feeling of being a supremely sophisticated gardener. But don’t let the fancy name fool you; in the garden this bean is both a racehorse and a workhorse. Plants are reliable and yield early (about 55 days from sowing) and produce heavier the more you harvest.”
Leslie, who previously managed a retail garden center, is now a horticultural consultant. Years of gardening experience have taught her what vegetable varieties perform best in Dallas’s unforgiving climate, including ‘Beurre de Rocquencourt’.
“They are heat-tolerant, which comes in handy down here in Texas,” she says. “Because it’s a fast crop, we can sow twice for both summer and fall harvest. Plants can tolerate a bit of shade in the afternoon and still produce well.”
Best of all, this bean is tasty. “‘Beurre de Rocquencourt’ offers up a wonderful natural buttery flavor,” says Leslie. “It’s the ‘Yukon Gold’ of the bean world, if you will. I typically lightly steam or braise them with a bit of garlic and butter, although the natural flavor of these beans doesn’t require the addition of much butter or oil. Their crispness and color make them good for pickling, as well.”
Seed source: John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds
When it comes to vegetables, kids can be a picky crowd. That’s one reason Michelle Zettel, the mother of two sons, always plants ‘Yaya’ carrots.
“I tried these carrots when I first started test gardening for Organic Gardening, 6 years ago,” Michelle says. “My older son, then 10 years old, has always been a fresh carrot connoisseur.” ‘Yaya’ immediately became his carrot of choice. “He has always said they are the best-tasting carrots ever.”
Michelle, who grew up on a farm, now operates a whitewater rafting company with her husband. In her high-elevation garden in mountainous central Idaho, frosts in the middle of summer are not unheard-of. Cool-season vegetables, including carrots, are the best season extenders.
“I usually leave them in the ground over the winter,” Michelle says. “I cover the rows with bales of straw, which insulates the ground from freezing too hard to dig. When I want fresh carrots, I go out, move a bale of straw, and dig them up. I think this is the perfect way to have fresh carrots all winter.”
And ‘Yaya’ is Michelle’s choice for a perfect carrot. A Nantes-type variety, it grows about 6 inches long with a stubby, smooth profile.
Portaits by Robert Peacock, Paulette Phlipot.
Seed source: Nichols Garden Nursery
Broccoli is a stalwart presence in John Lewis’s garden. “It’s not a show pony like eggplant or long awaited like the first ripe tomato,” he says. “It’s just sort of always there—yet incredibly versatile and tough.” John, a university librarian whose urban yard is small and shady, maintains a vegetable garden on his uncle’s farm nearby. Every year, he includes the open-pollinated sprouting broccoli ‘Calabrese’, a prime example of a hardworking, reliable vegetable.
“I’m sure it was the first broccoli variety I grew when I started gardening 23 years ago,” John says, “and I know my father grew it, as well, because I came across some of his old seed packets in his garage a few years ago.” As a sprouting broccoli, ‘Calabrese’ is known for its steady production of small side shoots instead of a single massive head. Many cooks praise the hearty flavor of its leaves and florets.
“My preferred method of cooking is to throw the side shoots into a stir-fry with some carrots, peppers, onions, and chicken or beef,” John says. “I also like to steam them quickly as a side dish, or if I’m really buried in broccoli, I make cream of broccoli soup. Occasionally I throw small florets raw into a salad.”
Seed source: Sustainable Seed Co.
Andres Mejides has a 5-acre farm in subtropical south Florida, where he specializes in microgreens, edible flowers, tropical fruits, herbs, and vegetables. He began gardening at a young age and remembers discovering ‘Tahitian’ squash as a teenager. Five decades later, Andres is still growing this huge, butternut-type winter squash.
“Of course, the taste is very good,” he says. Also praiseworthy is this long-necked squash’s healthy constitution—an essential trait for any vegetable exposed to Florida’s countless pests and diseases. Its fast-growing vines spread far and wide; ‘Tahitian’ is not a vegetable for small-space growers. “You probably should keep an eye on it when working in the garden,” he jokes. “It may decide you’d make a good trellis.”
Andres can harvest fresh produce year-round in his climate, so he doesn’t necessarily choose vegetables for their storage capabilities. But ‘Tahitian’ excels in that category, too. “It’s nice to toss the extra ‘Tahitian’ squash in the pantry or garage and be able to enjoy it months later,” he says. With a hacksaw or machete, cut off the portion you plan to cook, Andres suggests, and leave the remainder at room temperature for later use. “Refrigeration is actually a detriment to the keeping qualities.”
Portaits by Gabriella Bass, Sonya Revell.
Seed source: Johnny's Selected Seeds
Many gardeners express a love-hate attitude toward the ‘Brandywine’ tomato. It can be notoriously slow to ripen and stingy with fruits, and its rambunctious growth overwhelms traditional staking systems. But when the first massive pink fruit is ready to savor, all is forgiven.
“I love the flavor of ‘Brandywine’,” says Kathy Shaw. “It has a true tomato taste that isn’t too tart or too sweet. The fruits are very meaty and the few that make it to a weekend canning session add a lot of bulk to the kettle.” Dual-purpose tomatoes like ‘Brandywine’ are important to Kathy and her husband, who depend on their home garden to produce more than 90 percent of the vegetables and fruits they eat year-round.
She isn’t alone in her admiration for this heirloom variety: In the Organic Gardening 2013 taste test, ‘Brandywine’ won top honors, outscoring 14 other varieties. And it’s big, with some fruits weighing more than a pound.
“These are bragging-size plants and fruits,” says Kathy, who works for a manufacturer of sustainable forest products. “I must admit that we don’t always get as large of a harvest as other indeterminate varieties in our climate, but I wouldn’t be without it for its flavor or looks.”
Seed source: Seed Savers Exchange
For those who have not experienced a ground cherry, it can come as a revelation: Inside the papery husk is a small berry with a tropical taste, hinting of pineapple and guava. Like other small fruits that ripen in abundance, many of them never make it to the kitchen.
“Because they are tedious to pick when you have a lot of plants, the snackability factor makes the job go much faster,” says Linda Crago, who runs Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm in the Niagara region of Ontario, Canada. “I pick, I eat. It is nice when some get into the kitchen, though, as they make a stunning pie or tart.” Ripe fruits stay fresh for a surprising 3 or 4 weeks in the husk.
Thriving in hot summers, ‘Aunt Molly’s’ is cultivated in a manner similar to tomatoes, but it doesn’t share the tomato’s pest and disease problems. “Other than the odd flea beetle damage to the leaves, I’ve had no pest or growing problems with them, making them one of the more reliable and dependable plants in my garden,” Linda says. Her customers like them, too.
“When my CSA customers see that little husked fruit sitting on top of their veggie basket, they usually dig in before they can make the trek back to their car on pickup day.”
Portaits by Julie Schroder Photography, Mollie Crago.
Seed source: Renee's Garden
Anyone who gardens in the South knows that some vegetables don’t hold up well to unrelenting heat. “Lettuce is a particular challenge during the Carolina Piedmont’s hot summers, and most varieties bolt and become so bitter you can’t eat them,” says organic market gardener Don Boekelheide. “Luckily, ‘Jericho’ can take the heat. It stays sweet and holds in the field at least a couple of precious weeks longer than my spring lettuce varieties.”
Originally from Israel, ‘Jericho’ is a romaine lettuce that forms full-size heads in about 60 days from seed. “Since germination can drop for lettuce when soil warms up, I usually transplant ‘Jericho’ and my other late lettuce varieties, then water religiously until established,” Don says.
“In the kitchen, ‘Jericho’ is nice and crunchy, suitable for sandwiches and wraps. Not surprisingly, it really shines in Caesar salad. ‘Jericho’ makes a good edible scoop for Middle Eastern dishes like hummus and tabouli.”
Not content to grow the same vegetables year after year, Don is continually trying new varieties, and in 2013 he discovered another outstanding romaine lettuce, ‘Dov’, which was also bred in Israel. “To round out my summer lettuces, I also like batavia types, especially ‘Magenta’,” he says.
Seed source: High Mowing Organic Seeds
Sometimes the tastiest vegetables are hiding in plain sight—on the menu of a neighborhood restaurant.
“My husband and I often ordered ‘Shishito’ peppers as an appetizer at our favorite sushi bars,” says Nan Sterman. “They are served lightly salted, sautéed whole in oil and a bit of garlic, then served hot. A couple of years ago, it occurred to me that I could probably grow my own ‘Shishito’ to cook at home.”
Nan, who is the host and coproducer of the San Diego–area television program A Growing Passion, located a source for the seeds and planted them. Soon she was harvesting “tons” of the slender, thin-walled, 3-inch peppers. Many gardeners pick ‘Shishito’ green for a quick sauté; it matures to glossy red if left on the plant. Green or red, the fruits are lightly spicy—usually.
“The funny thing about ‘Shishito’ peppers,” Nan reports, “is that 9 out of 10 are mild, but that 10th one—watch out, it has a bite! There’s nothing visible to alert you to the ones that will start your eyes tearing, so it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette. Even so, the peppers are so delicious that it’s well worth taking the chance.”
Portaits by Kyle Pearce, Lyudmila Zotova.
Seed source: The Cook's Garden
Tracey Parrish counts herself among those who enjoy their greens on the zesty side. Her partiality to spicy flavors makes mustard an essential crop on her ¾-acre urban farm in Boulder, Colorado.
“I love the tastes of mustards and grow a number of different varieties,” says the former plant geneticist. “‘Osaka Purple’ is one of the prettiest mustards I’ve grown; it has a very large leaf, dark purple on the upper surface and lime green underneath.”
Mustard is a cool-season crop and matures quickly. Baby greens of ‘Osaka Purple’ can be harvested in as little as 3 weeks from sowing. “Here in Colorado, I seed it under glass as early as early March, in the open garden in April and May, and then again in late summer for a fall crop,” Tracey says. Like many mustards, ‘Osaka Purple’ is very easy to grow and readily self-seeds in the garden.
“I eat mustard raw as a salad green, very thinly sliced with a simple vinaigrette. It’s not suitable for all palates, as it is rather spicy and becomes even hotter with warmer weather,” she acknowledges. Its sharp taste mellows with cooking.
'Black Seeded Simpson'
Seed source: Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply
Before she retired in 2012, Jackie Smith’s job included coordinating vegetable and flower trials for the University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener Program. She has grown countless varieties of edible crops over the years, always with an analytical eye toward weighing positive traits against faults. When it comes to lettuce, Jackie recommends the heirloom loose-leaf variety ‘Black Seeded Simpson’.
“Red and speckled lettuce varieties add visual spice, but nothing beats ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ as the dynamite background lettuce in any salad,” she says of this prolific standby. “The pale green to chartreuse leaves never fail to look delightful and taste sweet with a tender, yet crisp, texture. And the plants hold well in the garden without turning bitter; I have even harvested them as they were starting to bolt and found the flavor still perfectly acceptable.”
An advantage that open-pollinated varieties hold over hybrids is their ability to reproduce true to type from seeds the gardener collects—or from seeds that fall to the ground.
“Since ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ is an open-pollinated lettuce variety, I generally let a few plants go to seed in late spring, when they will happily spread their seeds around the garden,” Jackie says. “Most years, I am able to harvest a second crop in the fall from these spring-sown volunteers, and I can reliably count on self-sown seedlings the following spring—all without any more work on my part!”
Portaits by Esther Cummings, David Bowman.
Seed source: Sweet Tomato Test Garden
Most beefsteak tomatoes simply drop their blossoms when faced with the intense, dry heat of a Las Vegas summer. In her quest for a heat-tolerant beefsteak, Leslie Doyle found ‘Hawaiian Tropic’.
“Although the smallish and cherry-size tomatoes seem to grow without concern for our sizzling temperatures, most of us lust over the big guys,” she says. “I was joyful when I discovered that this tomato, besides being very productive and large, is also delicious.”
Leslie teaches other desert gardeners how to grow vegetables through workshops, books, and videos. She has developed a technique for cultivating tomatoes in the desert, using plastic film mulch—and no stakes or cages. “Because of our dry climate, I can let tomatoes sprawl on the silver reflective mulch that covers the soil. It is cooler for them when they grow in a heap,” she says.
Because ‘Hawaiian Tropic’ performs so well in her extreme climate, Leslie now sells the seeds to fellow desert gardeners. “It has become my main-crop tomato, weighing in from 8 ounces to a few as big as a pound, and is very popular among gardeners in Las Vegas,” she says.
Seed source: Seeds of Change
Despite his love for heirloom vegetables, CSA farmer Bill Nunes turned to the hybrid cauliflower ‘Skywalker’ after becoming disenchanted with the small heads and inconsistent results of the older open-pollinated varieties. ‘Skywalker’, with heads as large as 2 pounds, doesn’t disappoint.
“Here in California’s Central Valley, we grow cauliflower right through the winter,” Bill says. “Freezing temperatures here rarely go below 26°F, so crucifers just breeze right through.” When spring arrives and temperatures begin to climb, ‘Skywalker’ is better than the older varieties at withstanding heat, he says.
The leaves of ‘Skywalker’ curl over the developing head, helping to keep it white. “As we reach warmer, sunny days in spring and early summer, the curds can take on a cream to light tan color, which doesn’t seem to affect the flavor,” Bill says. “Still, I sometimes close the leaves over the maturing head with a rubber band. This blanching method works well, but covering the heads for too many warm, damp days can bring on dots of black mold.”
Bill, an adventurous cook, prefers a classic approach to cauliflower, steaming the head whole until the stem end is barely tender.
“I put good olive oil and apple cider vinegar on the table so each person can drizzle a little of each over the top. Occasionally I’ll make a simple mustard dressing instead. I love the flavor of cauliflower, raw or cooked, so I generally keep preparation very simple.”
Portaits by Jared McMillen, Michael Harlan Turkell.
Vegetable photography by Patrick Montero.
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, February/March 2014