To decide the best new varieties, we don't rely only on growers and our own judgment. Nationwide, more than 250 home gardeners grow many of these varieties the summer before they're released to the public. Our volunteer testers are a diverse group: many are Master Gardeners, while others are simply passionate about gardening. For the 1999 season, they tested in the summer of 1998, 27 new vegetable and flower varieties donated by 11 seed companies. They rated the varieties, on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), for production, vigor, and taste against a comparable established variety; they also let us know if they'd plant the variety next year. We multiplied the two scores to get an NG score, from which we ranked all the varieties and chose the top 10 new vegetables for 1999.
Last summer's weather made it difficult to garden in many areas. Blame it on El Nino: the West was cool and wet, while drought plagued areas of the Southeast. Perhaps because of the weather, this year's top winners were some of the easiest vegetables to grow, including beans, radishs, summer squash, and lettuce. Not only did they grow well under any weather conditions, but they were highly productive and tasted good, too.
1. 'Benchmark' bush bean: NG score: 6.5. Test score: 8.6. Testers who would plant it again: 76%. Days to maturity: 53.
Green bush bean varieties are numerous and well known. This one's production, taste, and vigor outperformed the standard, 'Blue Lake'. It also featured good disease resistance and a longer production season. The only drawback was the brittle stems that some testers said broke easily during harvesting.
2. 'Cherriette' radish: NG score: 6.4. Test score: 8.0. Testers who would plant it again: 81%. Days to maturity: 26.
'Cherriette' exceeded its comparison variety 'Cherry Belle' in vigor, taste, and production. Its main distinction from standard round red radishes was that it stayed mild, tender, and crunchy, and didn't bolt even when the root grew large. A winner in home gardens across the country.
3. 'Shade' bush bean: NG score: 6.2. Test score: 8.2. Testers who would plant it again: 76%. Days to maturity: 54.
This variety also compared favorably to 'Blue Lake' in all categories. It produced straight beans on vigorous plants. The disease-resistant plants were so productive they tended to fall over from the weight of the beans. By the way, the name refers to the beans' dark green coloring, not an ability to grow in the shade.
4. 'Zephyr' summer squash: NG score: 6.0. Test score: 7.8. Testers who would plant it again: 77%. Days to maturity: 53.
It's hard to imagine anything new in summer squash, but 'Zephyr' is unique for its yellow- and green-striped gourdlike fruits. Like all summer squash, the plant is very productive; the quality and flavor of the fruit is comparable to 'Yellow Crookneck'.
5. 'Green Vision' romaine lettuce: NG score: 5.7. Test score: 7.7. Testers who would plant it again: 74%. Days to maturity: 60.
If you're a romaine lover, 'Green Vision' is for you. The large, sturdy plants grow strong in all kinds of adverse weather, and particularly well in hot climates. The leaves have a crisp texture and are sweet and juicy. The only complaint was that some testers thought the leaves were tough.
6. 'Tendersweet' cabbage: NG score: 5.7. Test score: 7.8. Testers who would plant it again: 73%. Days to maturity: 70 (from transplant).
If you're looking for a good midseason green cabbage, this one's worth trying. Its moderately sized heads were sweet and made excellent coleslaw. It compared well with the tried and true 'Stonehead' and 'Early Flat Dutch' varieties. There were a few reports of heads splitting because of dry weather.
7. 'Hungarian Semi-Hot Stuffing' hybrid pepper: NG score: 5.6. Test score: 8.3. Testers who would plant it again: 68%. Days to maturity: 60 (from transplant).
Big and tasty were the adjectives used to describe this semihot pepper. The large, vigorous plants produced large, meaty 5-inch-long and 3-inch-wide fruits with light yellow shading. They matured to scarlet red. The winning point was the taste. The hotness was just right for many testers, and it was considered better-tasting than 'Hungarian Hot Wax'.
8. 'Crispy Frills' lettuce: NG score: 5.4. Test score: 8.1. Testers who would plant it again: 66%. Days to maturity: 50.
Testers loved the frilly leaves, upright growth habit, and the sweet-tasting, not bitter, heads. This variety forms an upright, 10-inch-wide head like a romaine, but its frilly leaves stay green to the core like a leaf lettuce. The plant is heat resistant and grows back vigorously after cutting.
9. 'Diva' eggplant: NG score: 5.4. Test score: 7.6. Testers who would plant it again: 71%. Days to maturity: 75 (from transplant).
The highlight of this bushy plant was its ability to produce lots of fruit early in the season. The cylindrical black fruits were smaller than 'Black Beauty', but the flavor was very good, especially when picked young when there were few seeds.
10. 'Brilliance' hybrid sweet corn: NG score: 5.3. Test Score: 7.7. Testers who would plant it again: 69%. Days to maturity: 79.
The short stalks of this sugary-enhanced (se) white sweet corn consistently produced two ears. The tender, sweet ears compare well with standard white varieties such as 'Silverado'. However, some testers still preferred the taste of these old-time varieties, and noted that 'Brilliance' produced smaller ears.
Charlie Nardozzi is senior horticulurist at National Gardening.