Back to Basics

The best of the best from the 2011 OG Test Gardens.

March 2, 2012

To celebrate our 70th anniversary, we brought back some of our favorite vegetable varieties from the past. Caught up in the promotion of new varieties of vegetables, gardeners can lose track of the proven performers. In the Organic Gardening Test Garden, we’re as guilty as the next gardener in our obsession with all things “new and improved.”

In 2011, to prepare for the 70th year of Organic Gardening, we decided to take a different approach: We brought back some of our favorite vegetable varieties from the past. At the same time, we quizzed the horticulturists at some trusted seed companies to tell us what varieties in their catalogs had undiscovered virtues—outstanding vegetables that we should be growing, but weren’t.

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We then dedicated our trial beds at the Rodale Institute, near Kutztown, Pennsylvania, to these tried-and-true standards, familiar open-pollinated varieties, and lesser-known heirlooms. Our team of 13 test gardeners scattered around the country grew the same varieties. What follows is the best of our 2011 harvest.

Lime Basil

Easily grown like sweet basil, lime basil has a refreshing citrusy tang all its own. Use lime basil leaves to flavor marinades, salad dressings, or salsa—or brew a cup of herbal tea.

Seed source: John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

Growing tip: “Harvest often! With the onset of heat, most basil varieties will start going to seed, leaving you less foliage for culinary use,” says Leslie Halleck, our Dallas test gardener. Instead of pinching off individual leaves, Leslie harvests by cutting the stems back about a third, prompting new growth. “Regular harvesting will result in sturdier plants that continue producing new foliage,” she says. And when the Texas sun and heat become brutal in late summer, Leslie drapes floating row covers over her basil plants to protect them from scorching.

Carrot

‘Scarlet Nantes’

This is the carrot to turn to where the soil is heavy with clay or shallower than ideal. Not as fickle as longer varieties, ‘Scarlet Nantes’ is a reliable producer of sweet, crisp roots.

Seed Source: Nichols Garden Nursery

Growing tip: Carrots are worth the extra effort they require in clay soil, says test gardener Linda Crago, of Wellandport, Ontario. “After I’ve tilled my soil as finely as I can, I take my hoe and draw a good deep trough 6 to 8 inches in depth. I fill this trough with finely sifted compost and seed my carrots quite thickly,” Linda says. She waters as often as twice a day if the weather is dry while the seeds are germinating. “I find the carrots germinate very well in the compost and they grow long and straight. Another bonus is that because the compost is so light, I do very little thinning, because they can push each other out of the way as they grow.”

Pole Bean

‘Musica’

Gardeners who find the bean harvest to be tedious, rejoice: It takes less time to fill a basket with this big flat-podded Romano bean than with little filet beans. Best of all, stringless ‘Musica’ has all the flavor you expect from a bean.

Seed Source: Renee’s Garden

Growing tip: Don Boekelheide, our test gardener in Charlotte, North Carolina, grows vining beans on tepees constructed of 7-foot poles, secured at the top with twine. He inoculates beans and other legumes with the symbiotic bacteria they need to begin fixing nitrogen on their own. “‘Inoculate’ sounds intimidating,” he says, “but all it means in this case is moistening the seed and shaking it in a bag of inoculant powder until coated. Plant immediately.” The bacteria capture nitrogen from the air and deposit it in nodules on the roots, where it nourishes the bean vines.

Kohlrabi

‘Superschmelz’

We were skeptical when the folks at Territorial Seed told us that this kohlrabi could grow to monstrous proportions without losing its crisp, mild quality—but they were right. Still, it’s best to have a heavy cleaver handy to cut through the thick skin. Or harvest before they become huge.

Seed Source: Territorial Seed Company

Growing tip: Timing a cool-weather crop such as kohlrabi can prove difficult in climates where spring proceeds quickly into summer. Test gardener Bill Nunes, who operates a 2-acre market garden in Gustine, California, lives in such a climate. “Winter-sown kohlrabi can bolt quickly here, come what passes for spring in central California. Fortunately, the greens of kohlrabi are delicious,” he says. “When I see signs of bolting before the bulbs start to form, I cut and bunch the greens over about a week’s time. Just because the bulbs fail to form, it doesn’t have to be a complete crop failure.”

Kale

‘Toscano’

With its substantial, deeply textured leaves, this variety of kale is ornamental in the garden as well as delicious and nutritious as a cooking green. In late December, we were still eating the frost-sweetened leaves from our early spring sowing in the test garden.

Seed Source: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Growing tip: Although kale is generally a trouble-free crop, cabbageworms can turn its leaves to lace in midseason, says test gardener Jackie Smith, of Belle Plaine, Minnesota. “I hand-pick the cabbageworms from where they are lurking on the undersides of the leaves. If the infestation is more extensive, I pull out the BT [Bacillus thuringiensis] spray once or twice. The plants generally recover nicely by fall,” Jackie says. “My best kale tip is to plant it along with ornamentals in the flower border or in containers. It’s stunning!”

Lettuce

  • ‘Blushed Butter Oak’ (looseleaf)
  • ‘Tom Thumb’ (butterhead)
  • ‘Anuenue’ (Batavian)

An assortment of tender lettuces keeps the salad bowl interesting. ‘Blushed Butter Oak’ (bottom, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds) adds bronze tones with its wavy leaves; ‘Tom Thumb’ (center, The Natural Gardening Company) forms perfect single-serving heads; and ‘Anuenue’ (top, Fedco Seeds) is notable for its heat tolerance.

Growing tip: Test gardener Debbie Leung, of Olympia, Washington, thins her direct-seeded rows of lettuce diligently—without wasting a single seedling. “If the lettuce seed is planted somewhat thickly, there are plenty of thinnings to eat,” she says. “I thin first to 2 or 3 inches apart. Then when the remaining seedlings get crowded, I thin them to 4 to 6 inches, and maybe repeat again until they can grow to full-sized heads.” At every stage, from delicate microgreens to nearly mature heads, the thinnings are deliciously edible.

Tomato

‘Snow White’

Our test gardeners rarely agree on tomatoes, but ‘Snow White’ brought unanimous praise. Its pale amber color and tropical fruitiness made it a standout among the 22 tomato varieties we trialed in 2011.

Seed Source: Tomato Growers Supply Company

Growing tip: Tomatoes, especially some heirloom varieties, are susceptible to many fungal diseases. John Lewis, our test gardener in Newport, Rhode Island, recommends two techniques that help keep tomato plants healthy. “I mulch to conserve water, but also to cut the spread of disease,” he says. “No soil splashes up on the bottom leaves,” keeping soilborne disease spores away from foliage. And once a week, John inspects his tomatoes and snips off any spotted or yellowing leaves. Regular cleanup of blighted foliage prevents disease from gaining a foothold.

Onion

‘Shimonita’

This onion starts out like a typical scallion, or bunching onion, but it just keeps growing, eventually reaching the stocky size of a leek without bolting. Harvest it at any size along the way.

Seed Source: Territorial Seed Company

Growing tip: Barbara Miller, our test gardener in Boulder, Colorado, prefers the quality of onions grown from seeds to those grown from onion sets. “I start all my onion seeds really early, before anything else,” she says. Barbara grows the seedlings in a cool hoop house, but a coldframe or indoor light setup would also work. “When the seedlings are 4 to 5 inches tall and it’s time to transplant them to the garden, I soak them well and use my fingers to unbraid the tangled roots—a process that can feel a bit brutal. Each plant then gets its own hole, 4 inches or so apart, in the garden. The young onions take the rough treatment in stride.”

Broccoli

‘Piracicaba’

Combining characteristics of heading broccoli and broccoli raab, ‘Piracicaba’ offers a long season of miniature heads on large, bushy plants. The fall harvest is especially sweet and flavorful.

Seed Source: Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seed Initiative

Growing tip: Gardeners everywhere, but especially in Florida, sometimes need to shield seedlings from heat and sunshine, says Andres Mejides, our test gardener in Homestead, Florida. Andres creates a temporary shelter alongside rows of newly transplanted broccoli and other vegetables, using a 3-foot-wide strip of shade cloth secured to rebar stakes with twist ties or twine threaded through the loosely woven fabric. “Rather than putting the shade cloth perfectly vertical, I like to lean it to the east, over the row,” Andres says. “That way plants get protection from slightly before noon through the afternoon.” He removes the shade cloth after the transplants are acclimated in the garden.

Snow Pea

‘Oregon Giant’

We found ourselves snacking on these right off the waist-high vines. If any of the harvest makes it into the kitchen, the sweet and crunchy pods are tasty in stir-fries and salads or lightly steamed.

Seed Source: Nichols Garden Nursery

Growing tip: Pea plants are floppy and need some support. Kathy Shaw, our test gardener in Neenah, Wisconsin, uses straight 4-foot sticks—usually shrub or tree prunings—to weave simple pea trellises in place. “I love the look of the woven pea trellis, since it reminds me of Colonial gardens and makes me feel in tune with gardeners over the centuries,” Kathy says. She sows her peas in a double row 6 inches wide, then pokes the sticks down the center of the row to form the trellis. “I arrange the sticks diagonally in both directions about 3 to 6 inches apart, making overlapping Xs and weaving them back and forth.”

Keep reading: The Best Heirloom Varieties from the 2011 Test Garden