Based on our results, 1997 is a year of large vegetables. Among our top 10 are a huge chili pepper, a colossal sweet corn, a large-rooted radish, and a fat-leaved spinach. Also tested were two remarkable basils, one notable for its big leaves. Only 'Dynamo' cabbage bucks the "bigger is better" trend.
Of the 23 new varieties our test gardeners evaluated last year, these are the top 10. At the end of the season, each tester had to answer two key questions for each variety: "How would you rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 meaning outstanding)?" and "Would you plant it again next year?" I averaged the ratings of all the testers for a given variety and figured the percentage of testers who would plant it again. Then I multiplied the two numbers to get the NG score.
For example, if the average rating of a variety is 9, and 90 percent of the testers would plant it again, the NG score would be 8.1 (9 times 0.9). This score represents most succinctly how a variety fared with testers.
When comparing 'Dynamo' with standard cabbage varieties such as 'Stonehead', testers liked the small size and small-cored, densely packed green heads that were "as firm as a rock." The 2-pound hybrid cabbages matured as early as one month after transplanting. All the heads matured at once, but you don't have to hurry to harvest because they resist splitting, even in hot weather. A 1997 All-America Selections winner.
More testers are ready to plant 'Hector' next year than any other variety tested. The big, pointed, smooth, thin leaves had a milder taste, and the hybrid plants were slower to bolt than standard varieties such as 'Bloomsdale Longstanding' or 'Olympia'. One of the benchmarks in a quality spinach plant is its production and ability to hold quality in the garden. 'Hector' scored high on both counts, producing good-quality leaves later into the season than its comparisons did.
'Big Chili' lives up to its name. Testers were impressed with hybrid plants' large size, quick growth, and bushiness. The large fruits were noticeably longer and milder-flavored compared with other hot peppers such as 'Anaheim', but still offered strong chili flavor. Production was high and, especially important for gardeners in colder areas, these chilies turned red early. Testers from Arizona to New Hampshire thought 'Big Chili' was a big hit, especially roasted green or red.
While many early corns may not have big ears, 'Colossal Yellow' hybrid impressed testers by producing large, fat ears early in the season. The sweet, crisp taste was similar to other Sh2 corn (a supersweet type that holds its sweetness longer after picking). The growth and overall performance surpassed the closest comparison, 'Early X-tra Sweet', but some testers noticed more smut disease on this new one.
This midseason SE-type (a sugar-enhanced sweet corn that's sweeter and more tender) hybrid bicolor corn grew well in cool soil conditions, and was rated high for consistently producing two ears per stalk. The stalks are tall and sturdy, and the ears have good flavor. Although 'Sir Prize' scored higher than other midseason sweet corns like 'Ambrosia', taste differences among them were considered minor.
If you're tired of limp, mild-flavored loose-leaf lettuces, try 'Loma'. This French Batavian type got high marks for its large, dark green, wavy, crisp leaves that some testers compared to the texture of spinach. Although the leaf quality and size were impressive, testers added that production and vigor didn't surpass standard loose-leafs such as 'Black-Seeded Simpson'.
This green, curly-leaved hybrid lettuce scored well more for its looks than for performance and taste. The extremely frilly leaves, described as "fluffy" by one tester, look almost like curly endive. In growth and flavor, this decorative lettuce is comparable to standard varieties such as 'Oak Leaf' and 'Salad Bowl'. On the downside, some testers reported early bolting, especially when the weather turned warm, and noted that the frilly leaves were hard to clean.
It's difficult to imagine an improvement in small, round radishes, but 'Red Beret' was superior to standard varieties such as 'Cherry Belle' for its large, uniform, 2-inch-diameter roots that didn't get pithy or woody. Many testers considered 'Red Beret' to be quick-maturing, even for a radish. The flavor was described as not too pungent, but not dramatically different from that of other radishes.
This white Sh2 hybrid corn combines great sweet corn flavor with earliness. Almost three-fourths of the testers noted its sweetness and large 8-inch ears. Plant vigor was average, and some stalks produced only one ear.
If you've had trouble growing zucchini, you might want to try 'Excel'. This hybrid grew under adverse conditions in many testers' gardens and still outproduced other varieties. The vigor, yield, and long production season were superior to those of other varieties. Of course, a zucchini tastes like a zucchini, so flavor isn't a selling point.
Charlie Nardozzi is senior horticulturist at National Gardening.