The Best of the Test Garden: 2010

These 10 plants proved outstanding in our variety trials.

Doug Hall January 31, 2011

At a couple of bucks a packet, seeds are an amazing bargain.

The array of choices you’ll find in any seed catalog, from brand-new hybrids to time-tested favorites, makes every growing season a new adventure. But that same abundance of choices poses a dilemma: Which new varieties are really worthy of garden space?

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To help you navigate that decision, Organic Gardening trialed nearly 50 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers in 2010. Most were varieties recently introduced to gardeners; a few were heirlooms that haven’t been widely available in the past. We grew them at the Rodale family farm near our editorial offices in Pennsylvania, and our far-flung crew of 14 test gardeners planted them in diverse climates and soil conditions. If you follow our “From the Test Gardens” blog, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the process and read some of our preliminary impressions, both positive and negative, of the trial varieties.

In the end, nearly every variety revealed at least one commendable quality, whether it was regional adaptability, special culinary uses, or unique beauty. Some were good enough to challenge the standard varieties we’ve grown for years. What you see on the pages that follow are the best—our 10 favorite plants from the 2010 trials, with comments from our test gardeners.

‘Cavili’ Zucchini
Source: John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

Ghostly ‘Cavili’, shown on pages 42 and 43, is notable for its creamy texture, mild flavor, and small seeds. The fruits hold well after harvest. ‘Cavili’ is parthenocarpic, which means its female blossoms develop into fruit without having been pollinated. This trait is handy in greenhouse culture, where no pollinators are present, or under floating row covers in regions where insect pests destroy squash.

“The kids loved the huge size of this zucchini (we always have a contest for the biggest), and I loved the flavor and productivity.” —Michelle Zettel, Challis, Idaho

‘Beananza’ Green Bean
Source: W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

Although it’s a bush bean, ‘Beananza’ showed the sort of summerlong stamina you’d expect from a pole bean. The harvest lasted about 10 weeks with consistent quality. ‘Beananza’ is a French filet-type bean with slim, stringless pods about 6 inches long and traditional bean flavor.

“Tender and flavorful. They didn’t seem to get tough as quickly as other filet beans.” —John Lewis, Newport, Rhode Island

‘Sea of Red’ Leaf Lettuce
Source: Renee’s Garden

With the unexpected luster of each wine-red leaf, ‘Sea of Red’ contributes exceptional good looks to the garden and the salad bowl. The sword-shaped leaves are ideal for cut-and-come-again harvests starting about 40 days after sowing seed. Our harvest lasted well into summer, longer than other leaf lettuces in our trials.

“‘Sea of Red’ was slow to germinate, but once up and growing, the plants produced beautiful, deep burgundy leaves that stand upright like little soldiers. The variety has a nice flavor and makes a great addition to salads. Fantastic in containers mixed with ornamentals.” —Leslie Halleck, Dallas, Texas

‘Dakota Tears’ Onion
Source: Fedco

With tear-inducing potency, ‘Dakota Tears’ is for those who love their onions strong and robust. In our trial beds, it was notable for its healthy disposition and generous size. This hard yellow onion is a long-day type that will perform best in Canada and the northern half of the United States. Giving the seeds a head start in a greenhouse results in larger onions at harvest.

“The plants grew faster and larger than the other onion varieties that I grew. I was impressed with the uniformity of size.” —Lisa Gabory, Emmaus, Pennsylvania

‘Double Zahara Fire’ Zinnia
Source: All-America Selections winner; widely available

This compact zinnia fits our definition of easy. After sowing the seed directly in the garden, all we had to do was water and mulch—and enjoy several months of nonstop flowers. ‘Double Zahara Fire’ and its sibling, ‘Double Zahara Cherry’, gave us plenty of color all summer long, although the flowers fade as they mature. The foliage remains strong and healthy, unlike that of lesser zinnias.

“The two zinnias are definite winners. They bloom like gangbusters—no deadheading required—and are self-branching. They also last well as a cut flower.” —Andres Mejides, Homestead, Florida

‘Red Pearl’ Cherry Tomato
Source: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

A surprise standout in our blind taste tests was ‘Red Pearl’, a grape-shaped cherry tomato that our tasters praised as rich and tangy, though not especially sweet. It’s nearly seedless and as meaty as a paste tomato, which makes it a good candidate for bruschetta or grilled kebabs. Unlike the other cherries we trialed, ‘Red Pearl’ didn’t crack after heavy rains, yet its skin is relatively tender.

“Despite the cool, cloudy growing season, ‘Red Pearl’ produced lots of small, bright red, meaty tomatoes by late fall. They had a good savory tomato flavor. Very pretty.” —Debbie Leung, Olympia, Washington

‘Pinot Noir’ Bell Pepper
Source: W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

Several of our test gardeners reported that ‘Pinot Noir’ was the first pepper to fruit in their gardens, and it performed well in cooler climates that are not always favorable to peppers. The plants were weighed down with fruits that undergo a color transformation, starting pale green with purple streaks and finishing bright red. The flavor was good at all color stages but especially sweet when fully red.

“Crunchy, juicy, and absolutely beautiful. I love the yummy range of colors, from shades of berries and melons and bicolors to lilac and dark purple. I took some to show off at a chef’s market and they were the first to sell—at $4 a pound.” —Leslie Doyle, Las Vegas, Nevada

‘Moonsong Deep Orange’ Marigold
Source: All-America Selections winner; widely available

Packed with crinkly orange petals, the 3-inch blossoms of this hybrid marigold held up beautifully to the heat, humidity, and storms of summer. The 15-inch-tall plants were bushy with healthy foliage, and they continued to bloom until frost. Plants looked tidier when we took a moment every week to clip off the spent blooms.

“I certainly didn’t fuss over this marigold, and it just kept pumping out the blooms.” —Linda Crago, Wellandsport, Ontario

‘Aton’ Basil
Source: High Mowing Organic Seeds

This ‘Genovese’-type sweet basil has the zesty taste we crave for pesto and salads, plus extra holding power in the garden. Short internodes—the spaces between leaves—result in a plant that is dense with foliage. Although it’s marketed as a compact variety, ‘Aton’ grew vigorously for us, reaching a height of 30 inches in some locations. The appearance of flowers, which can signal a decline in leaf quality, came later than for other basils.

“‘Aton’ didn’t start flowering as early as other varieties and was quick to regrow after pinching back. It had the best leaf production of all the basils we grew during our very wet summer.” —Kathy Shaw, Neenah, Wisconsin

‘Bitonto’ Cherry Tomato

Source: Territorial Seed Co.

For a plant that grew barely a foot tall, ‘Bitonto’ amazed us with its prolific and early set of tart, bite-size fruits. This hybrid is a determinate variety, so after a productive harvest season, it relinquishes its spot for fall crops. It’s the right size for patio containers or hanging baskets, or wherever garden space is at a premium.

“This was a star performer, bearing scads of tomatoes in a large pot. The kids kept it stripped.” —Barbara Miller, Boulder, Colorado