Last year, we grew 22 of the newest seed company offerings. The hot temperatures and drought conditions in many parts of the country and the cool, wet spring in other areas adversely affected the growth of some varieties. Despite the tough weather conditions, there were many outstanding introductions that testers deemed worthy enough to buy and grow again. Here, we discuss the testers' top 10 vegetable variety picks for 1996. The chart below summarizes how those winners measured up.
The hot pepper popularity wave has been riding strong across the country for some time now. This year's results prove the trend continues. Hot peppers--one loved for its hotness, the other for its lack of it--ranked number 1 and number 2 in our testers' trials.
'Senorita' hybrid (60 days from transplant) is a large-sized jalape-o pepper with high yields and a very mild flavor. Testers across the country loved the sturdy plant and the mild but flavorful fruit. "'Senorita' produced a compact plant with large peppers that turned red early and had very little heat but still had a nice jalapeno flavor," notes Joyce Rabellino of Atascadero, California.
Even testers who didn't like 'Senorita' said it was only because they like hotter jalapenos better. "It was like eating a sweet pepper," explains David Saltzman of Windsor, Connecticut. "I don't see the purpose of a sweet jalapeno."
For gardeners like David, 'Sizzler' hybrid (65t days) was right on target. This large, tapered hot pepper is quick to turn red and produces an abundance of peppers. It consistently outproduced the traditional 'Hungarian Hot Wax' in our test. "Sizzler was a compact plant that produced an amazing amount of huge 10-inch-long, moderately hot peppers that turned red earlier than any other pepper," reports Molly Hackett of Victor, Montana.
The two sweet peppers in our test didn't fare as well. 'Jackpot' hybrid (74t days) produced one of the largest bell peppers around, maturing to an attractive yellow-gold. Testers in the South and West had the best luck with this variety and claimed that the large, thick-walled fruits tasted great. Other testers reported slow fruit set and lower yields compared with standard varieties, such as 'California Wonder'.
'Red Beauty' hybrid (68t days) is known for its ability to turn red two weeks sooner than any other red bell pepper. Most testers agreed the quick-maturing, crisp, meaty fruits were a pleasure to eat, but some testers (especially those in the Northeast and Rocky Mountains) had trouble maturing red fruit and reported low yields.
All three of our trialed cucumber varieties finished within the top 10. Leading the pack was 'Sugar Crunch' hybrid (50 days), a small slicing cucumber that tastes good picked young for pickles or large as a slicer. Testers liked the strong vine and crisp, tender, sweet flavor. "'Sugar Crunch' tasted good no matter what size you picked it. It grew faster and produced more than any other cucumber I've grown," reports Susan Halverson of Baldwin, Iowa.
'All Season' hybrid (49 days) is an early, gynoecious (meaning all flowers are female and therefore all produce fruit), disease-resistant slicing cucumber that performed comparably to 'Sugar Crunch' in many testers' gardens. "'All Season' is an extremely prolific, early yielding, crunchy, burpless cucumber. It's the best cucumber I've grown in 17 years of gardening," says Lin Westhorp of Denver, Colorado. "It produced an abundance of fruit under difficult growing conditions, each with good texture and taste. The plant stayed large and healthy right to the end of the season," she adds.
Tying for the number 10 spot in our trial is 'Aria' (45 days), a thin-skinned, bitter-free, four- to six-inch-long slicing cucumber. Testers agreed the flavor and fruit uniformity were good, but some had problems with the weakness of the vines. "Although the flavor was mild, 'Aria' didn't bounce back from bacterial blight, ended production early and wasn't as productive as my other slicing cucumbers," reports Earl Blasiman of Bowling Green, Ohio.
A good-tasting early sweet corn crop can be tough to grow, but 'Early Choice' hybrid (65 days) was exceptional for its early, sweet, tender, sugar-enhanced yellow ears, rivaling midseason varieties for taste. It consistently produced two ears per stalk. For Sharon Clifton, of Greeley, Colorado, it was the perfect corn: "In my family, everyone likes their corn differently - my husband likes his mature and tasty, I like mine crisp and crunchy, my daughter likes hers sweet and Grandpa likes his with well-filled, tight kernels. 'Early Choice' is the only corn that ever satisfied everyone with its flavor and texture."
It's hard to find a new lettuce that can outperform old standards such as 'Bibb' or 'Buttercrunch', but 'Optima' (52 days) did just that. By a margin of 3 to 1, our testers chose 'Optima' over the old standards for its large, green, sweet, buttery heads and crisp outer leaves. "'Optima' had thick, slightly frilled, light green leaves that were pretty enough to plant in a flower bed but which had a mildly sweet flavor," notes Kathy Stone-Downie of Alameda, California.
The hot, dry summer weather in many parts of the country was particularly hard on squash. The biggest surprise of this test season, however, was the performance of an heirloom pumpkin from Maine that most testers loved despite its unusual shape. 'Long Pie' (95 days) is described as an oversized zucchini when ripe, but the fruits have a smooth texture and flavor that rival any cooking pumpkin. For those testers who make pies from fresh pumpkins, most agreed that Long Pie was better than the standard, 'Sugar Pie'.
'Long Pie' had a wonderful taste in pies or just eaten plain pureed. The texture was firm and not runny," reports Judy Archer-Dick of Grabill, Indiana. On the downside, it did produce fewer fruits on longer vines than other pumpkin varieties and needs one month of curing after harvest to develop full flavor.
The best winter squash of the three trialed was another Eastern-bred variety, a hubbard type called 'Jade A' (92 days). This small green squash from Cornell University averages eight pounds per fruit. Testers were impressed with the vigorous vines - one tester called it the "northern kudzu" - and the thick, sweet flesh. "My vines produced 29 squash on four plants, and the taste and flesh color were excellent," says Joe Ledford of Newland, North Carolina. This squash is definitely not a space-saver, though, as it needs room to run.
'Autumn Cup' squash (95 days), a semi-bush buttercup, and 'Betternut' hybrid (88 days), an early butternut with a small seed cavity, didn't score in the top 10 overall, but two-thirds of the testers said they'd grow 'Autumn Cup' again. Testers liked it for its productivity, good flavor and "buttonless" (totally smooth on the bottom) trait, but many said it wasn't as compact as they'd hoped. Betternut's earliness and compact plant size wasn't enough to outweigh its low yields and poorer flavor when compared with other traditional butternuts.
We also tested 'Spacemiser' hybrid (50 days), a new zucchini. Its claim to fame is a plant size one-third that of normal zucchinis. Testers said it compared well with other zucchini varieties, the only complaint being that the fruits set close to the main stem and were hard to pick. Another common observation (not surprisingly): Do we really need another zucchini?
Two of the four tomato varieties tested made the grade for the top 10 ranking. 'Miracle Sweet' hybrid (67t days) is an indeterminate, disease-resistant plant producing sweet five-ounce red fruits. "'Miracle Sweet' produced an abundance of solid, crack-free fruits with a very sweet taste," notes Doug Gilliam of Normal, Illinois. The only letdown was the consistently small size of the fruits," he adds. 'Bush Big Boy' hybrid (71t days) is a compact version of the classic 'Big Boy' tomato, with all the same flavor. Testers loved large, meaty fruits produced on healthy plants, but many said it was just an average tomato: "The plant has good disease resistance and produced good-tasting, firm red fruits," notes James Campbell of West Union, South Carolina, "but it's not the best tomato I've ever grown."
Two tomatoes that didn't measure up as well were 'Sheriff' hybrid (70t days), a firm, red, plum-shaped tomato on determinate plants, and 'Flavormore' hybrid (75t days), an extended shelf-life, red tomato on disease-resistant, determinate plants. 'Sheriff' did produce an abundance of small, firm fruits that were good for processing, but the fresh flavor didn't rival other multiuse varieties such as 'Enchantment'.
Flavormore was impressive for its large, firm fruits and uniform growth, and it compared well with other extended shelf-life varieties such as Long Keeper. But many testers reported that its fruits cracked and rotted before harvest.
Two new carrots had qualities that merit attention. 'Dragon Purple' (68 days) is a purple-skinned variety with an orange core and fernlike top growth. The only thing against it was its uniqueness: Many testers didn't like the strong, "spicy" taste and large core of this decorative carrot. For the more adventurous, though, it was a treat.
'Elfina' hybrid (65 days) is a cylindrical, deep orange-fleshed mini carrot that has a uniform sweet, crisp flavor. But many testers reported that its qualities were only average.
'Farmer's Long' hybrid (65t days), a Japanese-type long, thin, violet-pink eggplant, is a strong, good-looking plant that did well in the South. However, many testers reported low yields and bland taste when compared with similar varieties such as 'Ichiban'. One of the most unusual varieties tested was an edible amaranth called 'Mirah' (45 days). This heat-loving, multibranching green has beautiful heart-shaped red and green leaves that can be eaten raw in salads or cooked like spinach. Although everyone loved the attractiveness of the leaves, the taste was too unusual for most testers; many described the flavor as bland or even "weedy."
Charlie Nardozzi is senior horticulturist at National Gardening.