Experts' Favorite Vegetable Varieties

By Lynn Ocone

'Sunburst' summer squash

When I was asked to come up with a list of the best varieties of favorite vegetables, I turned to the most knowledgeable vegetable gardeners there are; the hands-on owners or founders of five national seed companies. To help account for regional differences, each one is located in a different part of the country.

All five are passionate organic gardeners who grow and compare new and old varieties in their own gardens every season. Who better, I reasoned, to guide me -- sure, their choices also show up in their catalogs. But that's because they sell what they believe is best.

I asked each one a simple question; What are your favorite varieties of each of these top 10 vegetables? Highlights of my interviews follow.

Shepherd Ogden

Located in the middle of USDA zones 3 and 4, Ogden gardens with a 90- to 100-day growing season.

Tomato: The superb flavor and radiant beauty of 'Big Rainbow' puts this heirloom slicer at the top of his list. "The flavor is rich without being too acid," he stated. The two-pound fruits are gorgeous as they ripen, banded in green, yellow, and red. Mature fruits are gold on the stem end and red on the blossom end. Flesh is marked with red streaks. Ogden plants in raised beds, stakes and prunes to a single stem to hasten maturity.

Sweet Pepper: 'Sweet Chocolate' is Ogden's favorite for its cold tolerance and because it flavors up sweet before fully mature. To maximize yield, Ogden recommends plucking flowers and fruits off seedlings before transplanting.

Beans: Ogden's top performer is 'Kwintus'. "It's the first bean in our garden to ripen, and the plants kick out beans all season long," he said. The pods of this pole bean are long and flat, and they stay tender and flavorful even when large.

Cucumber: The "clear, mild flavor" of lemon cucumber brings it to the top of Ogden's list, even though it lacks the disease resistance of newer hybrids. Ogden snacks on the round fruits when they are golf ball size. Plants are extremely prolific.

Onion: 'Walla Walla Sweet' is top choice because "it's big and sweet." Ogden plants onion plugs in the garden mid-April and harvests 2-pound onions late July or early August.

Lettuce: 'Diamond Gem', a miniature romaine, is the clear favorite. Ogden harvests entire heads for individual salads, and reports the firm, crunchy leaves are excellent in sandwiches. Plants are trouble free and bolt resistant.

Carrot: 'Touchon', a French Nantes type, grows to 8 inches. "It tastes good fresh and it stores well, which is important here because we have such a long winter."

Radish: 'Easter Egg Mix' is favored because a single planting produces a bouquet of colorful roots: red, white, lavender, pink, and violet. He gets excellent results from mixing radish and carrot seeds in the same row.

Squash: Ogden combines his three favorite varieties in the garden and in recipes: 'Sunburst' (golden yellow patty pan), 'Scallopini' (dark green patty pan), and 'Ronde de Nice' (round green zucchini). He picks summer squash young, with flowers still attached.

Peas: The heirloom shelling pea 'Lincoln' is the best tasting, according to Ogden, although it is only a decent producer and isn't as disease resistant as some newer varieties. For a fall crop, Ogden plants the bush shelling pea 'Novella' on July 4th. It offers both good flavor and high yields. "Three rows planted side by side support each other and are easier to cover if frost threatens," he explained. 'Carouby de Maussane' is his favorite edible pod peas. "It's incredibly beautiful with lilac flowers." He harvests it just as the peas begin to swell in the pods.

'Sugar Snap' peaMonte Thompson

In zone 5, Thompson has a 165-day growing season.

Tomato: 'Celebrity' is the top tomato in Thompson's garden. It produces equally in a wet or dry year. Firm, red, medium-size fruits grow on determinate vines. Deep orange 'Sun Drop' is her favorite small tomato. "This open-pollinated tomato with 2-inch fruits has a nice thick wall and is wonderful in preserves," she said. For sheer quantity, nothing approaches 'Sweet Chelsea'. It produces what seems like 1,000 small, super-sweet tomatoes on a single plant.

Sweet Pepper: 'Bell Boy' is Thompson's favorite. She prefers red sweet peppers over other kinds and this one, with its large, blocky, thick walls, fits the bill perfectly. She enjoys them broiled, then freezes the surplus. 'Jingle Bells' also rates high. Its small, 2-inch peppers come 30 or 40 to each compact bush. They're thin-skinned, color early and, though not as sweet as larger bells. They're great stir-fried, broiled and in salads.

Beans: High-yielding 'Astrel', a French filet type, is at its peak when 41/2-inches long. But the pods remain tender even at 6 inches. 'Dandy' also ranks high. The petite pods of this productive bush variety are very tender, plus they can and freeze well.

Cucumber: 'Southern Delight' is tops. The long, slender fruits of this burpless variety stay 1-inch in diameter even if a foot or more long. There's never any bitter taste in the skin. The plants produce well even through excess heat and moisture.

Onion: 'Red Wethersfield' is prized by Thompson for its excellent storage quality. Bulbs are red-skinned and flattened. Flesh is white, juicy and mild.

Lettuce: Slow-to-bolt 'Simpson Elite', is a tender cut-and-come-again variety that Thompson plants in early spring. "But 'Sudia', a small heading bibb lettuce, is so pretty and delicious. It looks perfect in a row," she told me. Its oblong, 1-pound heads are dark green, the hearts are yellow.

Carrot: Cylindrical, blunt-tipped 'French Primo' rates number one. It grows to 8-inches long. Leaves are short and strong. Thompson plants in mid- to late June once soil is thoroughly warm. Harvest comes just 60 days later. "They're sweeter," she adds, "Once touched by frost."

Radish: "I don't grow radishes," Thompson says without a trace of apology. It may be the eighth most popular vegetable in America, but not with her.

Squash: 'Early Summer Yellow' crookneck and 'Goldfinger' zucchini tie for first with Thompson. The crookneck is extremely prolific and has a smooth, buttery flavor. It's best picked young. The zucchini's nonbitter skin is a smooth, glossy golden orange. Both squashes have notably small seed cavities.

Peas: 'Alaska W.R.' is her top shelling pea. Round pods plump with six to eight sweet peas are ready to pick about five weeks after planting; 30-inch plants produce well into warm weather. Thompson plants in April, as soon as soil is workable. 'Sugar Snap' and 'Bush Snapper' rate tops for edible pod peas. According to Thompson, both are tender and produce well, even in warm weather.

Jeff McCormack

Balanced between zones 6 and 7, McCormack benefits from a 195-day growing season.

Tomato: 'Persimmon' and 'Brandywine' topped McCormack's list of flavorful tomatoes. He adds that 'Ozark Pink' and 'Eva's Purple Ball' rate highly for disease resistance, uniform ripening and productivity. Both also have good flavor.

Sweet Pepper: 'Gambo', with its thick, meaty flesh, is McCormack's favorite sweet pepper: It gets sweeter as it cooks. For fresh eating, he picks the super-sweet orange-fleshed 'Corona' bell pepper. Early-maturing 'Bull Nose' ranks highly for its very thick walls, productivity and unique flavor.

Beans: 'Contender' bush green bean has, in McCormack's opinion, the right combination of flavor, disease resistance and productivity. But when it comes to canning or freezing, he prefers 'Blue Lake' bush. For planting early in the season before soil is warm, he recommends 'Black Valentine', it's less prone to rot.

Cucumber: 'Edmonson' is McCormack's top-choice. Technically a pickling variety, it's delicious eaten fresh, too. "The flavor is buttery and this variety has good resistance to disease," he said.

Onion: The multiplier 'Yellow Potato' is a fixture in McCormack's garden. "The bulbs are very dependable, and you don't have to mess with seeds or transplanting," he added. A large bulb produces 10 or so small bulbs at the soil level.

Lettuce: 'Cosmo', a romaine with broad, crumpled, crisp leaves, is McCormack's favorite. "I prefer lettuce that offers some substance to bite into. And I don't like to fuss with wimpy lettuce leaves," he adds.

Carrot: 'Nantes Half Long' is McCormack's pick. It's dependably sweet and performs well in his clay soil. He notes one drawback: The tops break off easily.

Radish: The white, elongated 'White Icicle' is tops. Flavor is mild and it handles heat better than red varieties do.

Squash: 'Early Straightneck' is favored, primarily because the fruits are easier to prepare. He harvests the lemon yellow summer squash young, 3 to 5 inches. Plants are vigorous and productive. He chooses 'Golden Bush Scallop' for its superior disease resistance. Another favorite is 'Grey Zucchini' because, as he explains, "The fruit is produced over an extended period, and the plants don't attract squash bugs as much as other varieties."

Peas: 'Wando' is best in McCormack's book because it tolerates the wide temperature swings common in spring. 'Sugar Snap' wins hands down as the best-flavored edible pod pea.

Rose Marie Nichols McGee

Smack in the middle of zone 7, McGee enjoys a 260-day growing season.

Tomato: 'Oregon Spring' is McGee's pick. In her garden, 4-inch fruits ripen from July (10 days earlier than the popular 'Early Girl') into September on determinate vines.

Sweet Pepper: 'Gypsy' is her sweet pepper of choice. Plants are compact, extremely vigorous and productive. Young tapered fruits are greenish yellow ripening to orange-red.

Beans: "'Oregon Blue Lake' pole beans have wonderful flavor and produce over a long period," says McGee. "The stringless pods are excellent fresh or frozen," she adds.

Cucumber: 'Sweet Success' ranks at the top: "The plants start producing very early, and I can harvest every day until the end of the season," reports McGee. Straight, practically seedless fruits are 10- to 12-inches long. Flavor is mild and sweet; texture is crisp.

Onion: McGee also sings the praises of 'Walla Walla Sweet'. "I love its mild, sweet flavor cooked or raw," she says. The onions are very large and fragrant. In her garden they thrive planted in spring or fall. She plucks thinnings from the fall planting through winter and harvests the mature crop in June.

Lettuce: 'Buttercrunch' has really nice flavor and large, tender leaves. The butterhead lettuce, green on the outside and creamy yellow inside, also takes the summer heat well. For salads with contrasting colors and textures, McGee mixes in 'Red Sails' (bronze red), 'Deer Tongue' (green tinged with red), and 'Brunia' (dark maroon).

Carrot: The most reliable carrot in McGee's garden is 'Touchon'. "It's sweet cooked or raw, and it has good texture," she explained. The roots are smooth, and they hold well in the ground.

Radish: 'Cherry Belle' tops McGee's radish list. She likes the traditional red, round, smooth root with its crisp texture. For best flavor, she recommends planting only in cool weather, in rich, loose soil.

Squash: 'Gold Rush' is her number-one zucchini. McGee loves its brilliant golden color that really jazzes up a ratatouille. She notes, "The texture and flavor are good, and it has all the productivity and earliness I need."

Peas: 'Oregon Trail' tops the list of shelling peas, chosen for its superb disease resistance. Tops among edible pod peas are 'Cascadia Snap' and 'Oregon Giant'.

Renee Shepherd

Straddling zones 7 and 8, Shepherd has the luxury of a 360-day growing season.

Tomato: Shepherd compares the beauty of 'Enchantment' to a jeweled Faberge egg. She loves this wonderfully disease-resistant variety for its glossy, crimson, three-inch oval fruits that cascade in large sprays on indeterminate vines. The firm, yet juicy tomatoes have full-bodied flavor and are excellent fresh or cooked into sauce.

Sweet Pepper: Shepherd chooses sweet peppers for their flavor, earliness and colors (she likes to slice and mix them). Her two top picks are the persimmon orange 'Ariane' and the elongated, deep red 'Vidi' (excellent roasted). Both are vigorous plants that bear sweet, meaty fruits.

Beans: 'Vernandon', a French filet green bean with long, slender pods, is Shepherd's favorite. She savors their delicate, sweet taste raw or steamed tender-crisp. For best quality, she harvests the beans when under 1/4-inch thick.

Cucumber: Her hands-down-favorite cucumber is the mid-Eastern hybrid 'Kidma', with very smooth, glossy, thin skin. "I like it because it's so crunchy," Shepherd says. "The fruits are very juicy and quenching. They're best eaten out of hand when five to eight inches long." 'Lemon' cucumber ranks high as well. Plants are extremely productive and fruits are mild and crunchy with nonbitter skins. Shepherd says they are best when picked very young.

Onion: 'Borettana' tops Shepherd's list for its beauty and versatility. It looks like large, 2-inch-diameter buttons. "I love them for kebabs. They're also wonderful served whole in a sweet and sour sauce or pickled," she told me.

Lettuce: The favorite is 'Nevada'; "It has the crispness of a romaine with the shape of a butterhead." She harvests individual leaves or entire heads, which hold well even in warm weather. For a tender, buttery lettuce, she prefers the red butterhead 'Juliet'. Its velvety texture is perfect with creamy dressings.

Carrot: Bright orange hybrid 'Bolero' is her first-choice carrot. This French Nantes type is consistently sweet even in Shepherd's garden of soil that doesn't make good carrots. They have no off or soapy taste. The 6- to 7-inch roots are slender and smooth-skinned.

Radish: 'Scarlet Red Gala' ranks tops for its crunchy texture and mild flavor. Shepherd plants radishes only in the cool season and harvests roots young. She uses fabric row covers to protect plants from flea beetles and root maggots.

Squash: "My favorites are 'Sunburst', a golden yellow scallop squash with a sweet, nutty flavor, and 'Clarimore', a pastel green zucchini with smooth, tender skin and creamy flesh," she said without hesitation.

Peas: Shepherd's best and most abundant pea is the edible-podded 'Super Sugar Mel'. For full, sweet flavor, she lets the peas fully develop in the pods. Shepherd notes these peas require warmer soil than other peas to germinate. But they are also more heat tolerant and powdery mildew resistant than other snap pea varieties.

Formerly a senior editor for Today's Homeowner magazine, Lynn Ocone has been a frequent contributor to National Gardening.

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