As the growing season draws to a close, I wanted to take a few minutes and reflect on the successes and failures of some of the plants we grew this year.
When you move away from the few (usually lackluster) options available at big box stores, there is a staggering amount of diversity in the plant world. I’m always looking for the ideal plant varieties for my growing conditions, intended usage, and taste buds, but it can be really hard to wade through the masses of available cultivars to find the right plants for me. Hopefully, this post will help some people in similar growing conditions to mine (Western NY, zone 5b) to put together a few pieces of the puzzle.
As I mentioned back in June, I grew 43 different plant varieties this year. I won’t bore you to death going through all of them, but I’d like to share a few highlights (and low-lights).
Let’s start with the most important crop in my garden (no biases here), tomatoes! I grew three varieties this year, and all of them are worth mentioning.
Brandywine tomatoes are my deep love. They are an heirloom pink beefsteak type, and they have the most beautiful flavor I have ever tasted in a tomato – dense and meaty, yet succulent, with a light, sweet-tart flavor with deep, almost smoky undertones. I could eat them like apples. They are utterly wonderful.
However. They are slow to ripen, have mediocre growing habit (floppy, brittle), and aren’t very heavy producers. They’re also not an all-purpose tomato (no such thing, really). They are wonderful for fresh eating, but their gnarly shape and juiciness make them less than ideal for canning.
I’ll grow them again next year, but only a few plants for fresh eating, and I want to trial Rose de Berne, another delicious pink beefsteak that’s smoother in shape and supposedly more productive, for comparison. I also plan on growing a lot more canning-friendly tomatoes next year – probably a mix of paste and heart types.
An early variety (but not as early as I’d hoped – it only beat the Brandywines by a week) with good growth habit, consistent high productivity, and good taste for an early tomato. I want to trial these alongside another early variety for comparison, since it would be nice to get a tomato harvest a little earlier.
A yellow cherry type, and supposedly an alternative to the very popular hybrid Sungold. Lousy. Thick skins, very poor (and late!) productivity, and blah taste. Only good thing about these guys is the vigorous, sturdy growth habit.
Blue Jade Dwarf Sweet Corn
Fun for the wow factor, and decently good for fresh eating, this isn’t a corn I’d recommend to anyone who does a lot of processing (i.e. canning, freezing) with their sweet corn.
The dwarf size is nice for fresh eating, especially for those with smaller appetites. However, processing dwarf corn is nearly twice the work as processing standard-sized ears, when you count harvesting, shucking, and slicing. I want a freezer-friendly corn.
Until I grew the Marketmores, I thought I just wasn’t that great at growing cucumbers. I’d grown heirloom varieties before, and they always turned out kinda funky – weirdly shaped, often bitter, with very little transition time between tiny and shriveled and inedibly large and tough.
Well, apparently I wasn’t bad at growing cucumbers, I was just growing bad cucumbers. The Marketmores performed beautifully. They were tasty and crisp, with nice thin skins and few prickles, all the way from tiny pickling size to a nice large fresh eating size. The Marketmores were bred for commercial growers, and they look like it. They look and taste like a grocery store cucumber, only fresher.
The other side of the coin. Another heirloom variety that promised good things, but didn’t deliver. They produced some fairly funky, not-so-tasty fruits, and succumbed to powdery mildew much faster than the Marketmores.
Now there’s a place for heirloom quirkiness. But not, I think, in cucumbers.
New York Improved Eggplant
Fantastic. Get it. Get it now. If you’re in a climate with relatively cool, short summers, and you’ve struggled with getting your eggplant (originally a tropical plant) to thrive, I highly, highly recommend this cultivar.
As the name implies, it’s been selectively bred to thrive in shorter, cooler summers, and the difference between it and other, more standard eggplant varieties I’ve grown has been astounding. My plants grew 50-100 percent larger than any eggplant I’ve grown before, fruited earlier, and fruited prolifically all through the season. And the fruits themselves are wonderful – vibrant purple and uniform, with a tender, meaty texture even when allowed to grow quite large. I honestly can’t think of a flaw for this one.
I had very spotty results with the Iroquois melons. I had one or two that tasted at least decently sweet, but the rest ran from bland to… odd. Now, this was my first year growing cantaloupe, so this could be gardener error, but this trial from the University of Wisconsin suggests that it might not just be me. “Bland”, “slightly sweet”, and “sour and weird” all seem pretty on target for my experience.
Sacred (Holy) Basil
I was excited about this one, as I’d heard holy basil was absolutely essential for authentic taste in a number of Thai dishes.
Well, I don’t like it. The smell makes me nauseous, and the taste isn’t much better. I kept it in my garden all season this year because the honeybees loved it, but I’ll stick with regular Thai sweet basil from here on out.
King of the North Bell Peppers
Another absolute star. Big healthy plants, and steady high yields throughout the season of good, blocky, medium-sized peppers.
Peppers, which prefer long periods of moderate temperatures, can be tricky to grow in the North, where we have short seasons, and temperatures that go from cold to hot quickly, with little in between. So a variety like this, which has been selectively bred to thrive in Northern conditions, really stands out. This variety blew anything else I’d grown, pepper-wise, out of the water. And they made it look effortless.
Benning’s Green Tint Patty Pan Squash
These guys just make me laugh. I love growing zucchini that look like little alien spaceships. And the plants are mega productive! In a spot with full sun, I’ve seen plants put out 3-4 squashes a day! That’s 21-28 squashes a week! From one plant!
And the squash are delicious. They taste almost exactly like zucchini, but they hold their texture much better when you cook them, not turning to mush at the drop of a hat like a typical zucchini. I would grow them for the texture alone.
Keep in mind, though, that these plants want to take over the world. Most summer squash are bred as bush types, meaning they stay confined to about a 3 ft radius, Not these guys. I have one patty pan vine that filled as much garden space as six (!) of my winter squash plants. This isn’t a problem, as long as you have the room to spare. Or you can put them in partial shade, where they’ll be a bit more restrained.
Hey! Congratulations if you’re still reading! I hope this post was helpful to some of you out there. If it was, let me know! I’m thinking about doing a similar post in a few months on my winter storage crops. If there’s anybody out there not snoring already…