Most gardeners feel a pleasant tension in having to decide between the very latest vegetable varieties and those dependable ones that performed well for them in the past. Obviously, we would like to grow them all, "had we but world enough, and time." In the end, though, most of us compromise; we experiment each year with a few new varieties but end up planting a lot of old favorites, too.
Planting new varieties helps keep the garden interesting and dynamic, season after season. But while you're testing some of the newest vegetables, don't forget about the classics--those hybrid and open-pollinated varieties that have stood the test of time and whose fame and reputation have been built by home gardeners. The following are a few superior, widely adapted varieties that I have grown and would recommend highly to all home gardeners.
Descriptive information for each variety includes days to maturity, which is the average number of days from seed to harvest. A lowercase "t" ater the number indicates the number of days from transplants to harvest.
'Low's Champion' (68 days snap, 90 days dry). This tasty variety, first introduced in 1884, features broad, meaty, 4- to 5-inch-long Romano-like green beans, and pods that mature to a beautiful mahogany red. It's excellent used fresh, shelled, or dry.
'Kentucky Wonder' (58 to 72 days). Since the 1850s, it's been one of the best and most popular pole bean varieties. The 7- to 10-inch-long meaty pods, borne in clusters, resist rust. 'Kentucky Wonder' is available in bush and wax forms, and can also be eaten dried.
'Trionfo Violetto' (62 days). This Italian heirloom is the most dependable purple-podded pole variety I've grown. Like other purple beans, the 7-inch oval pods turn olive green when cooked.
'Ingot' (63 to 66 days). A dark orange, 6- to 8-inch-long Nantes-type hybrid with strong tops. It's especially high in beta carotene.
'Red-Cored Chantenay' (60 to 74 days). These vivid red-orange, 6-inch-long cone-shaped roots were first introduced in 1929. Their fine-grained flesh has a sweet flavor that improves in storage. This is a good choice for gardeners with heavy clay soil.
'Golden Bantam' (70 to 85 days). From its introduction in 1902 until the development of corn hybrids in the 1930s, this open-pollinated classic set the standard in yellow sweet corn. The 5- to 6-foot stalks bear two or more 5- to 7-inch ears with a classic, not too sweet, corn taste.
'Silver Queen' (90 to 92 days). This 1960 introduction remains the standard for late white sweet corn. Stalks grow 8 to 9 feet tall and produce 8- to 9-inch well-filled ears. Seeds require warm soil temperatures (at least 65oF) to germinate.
'Lemon' (60 to 70 days). This 1894 heirloom produces oval, 2- to 3-inch-long lemon yellow cukes on disease-resistant vines. If harvested before they turn yellow, the tender cukes can be eaten unpeeled. They also make an excellent round pickle.
'Marketmore 76' (58 to 65 days). This open-pollinated cuke, introduced in 1976, is one of the best slicing varieties available. Disease-resistant vines produce mildly sweet dark green cukes 8 to 9 inches long. It's a favorite in cold-climate areas.
'Black-Seeded Simpson' (40 to 55 days). This widely grown standard among lettuces dates back to the 1850s. The crinkly, light green leaves are crisp, juicy, and tolerant of almost any growing conditions.
'Deer Tongue' (aka 'Matchless') (55 to 65 days). The popularity of this heirloom from before the Revolutionary War has grown in recent years. The tender green, triangular, mild-tasting leaves form a loose Bibb-type head 7 to 9 inches across that's slow to bolt. 'Red Deer Tongue' is another popular variety.
'Ailsa Craig Exhibition' (105 to 110 days). This huge, 2- to 3-pound, mild-tasting, straw-colored Spanish onion is popular in Britain. Because it doesn't need a long, hot summer to mature, it is especially well suited to latitudes north of a line running from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.
'Italian Red Bottle' (aka 'Red Torpedo') (95 to 120 days). This attractive spindle-shaped onion with a spicy flavor grows 6 to 8 inches long and 3 inches across. It doesn't store well and is best suited to the South.
'Lincoln' (aka 'Homesteader') (65 to 70 days). This dwarf (18 to 30 inches tall) shelling pea was introduced around 1908 and is still popular for its abundant 3- to 4-inch-long pods containing six to nine small, excellent-flavored peas.
'Sugar Snap' (65 to 72 days). An All-America Selections winner for 1979, it's still the standard for edible-pod peas. The 4- to 6-foot vines require support. Eat the 3-inch pods in the snap stage like green beans, or leave them on the vine to produce five to seven shell peas per pod.
'Antohi Romanian' (53t days). This heirloom is probably the best eastern European pepper I have grown. It bears a heavy set of 4-inch-long, tapered light yellow peppers that ripen through orange to red and have sweet, spicy flavor.
'Quadrato d'Asti Giallo' (70t days). This huge Italian bell pepper ripens around thesame time as the better-known 'Golden California Wonder'. The three- or four-lobed fruits have crisp, thick flesh and a sweet, spicy taste. Plants often need staking because of the heavy fruit set.
'Ronde de Nice' (45 to 65 days). This bushy French heirloom zucchini produces round, light green fruits that can be picked at the 1-inch size for steaming, or at 4 inches for stuffing. A very similar hybrid, 'Roly Poly', is now available.
'Sunburst' (52 days). This hybrid scallop squash, new in 1985, produces an abundance of yellow "pattypans." Steam or sauteed; whole baby squash; larger fruits are good for stuffing.
'Brandywine' (80t days). The hype you've heard about this 1880s heirloom is true. Gardeners love its exceptional spicy flavor. The vigorous, indeterminate potato-leaved plants require staking while producing 8- to 16-ounce dark pink fruits with red flesh. For a similar variety that ripens two weeks earlier, try 'Pruden's Purple'.
'Chadwick's Cherry' (aka 'Camp Joy Cherry') (65t to 80t days).This big 1 1/2-inch-diameter cherry tomato has a full taste, though it's nowhere near as sweet as 'Super Sweet 100'. Vigorous, productive plants vine to 7 feet or higher, and require caging or staking.
Ben Watson is a writer and editor living in Francestown, New Hampshire. His most recent book is Taylor's Guide to Heirloom Vegetables, (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996; $20).
Photography by National Gardening Association
Article published on June 23, 2008.