Veggies of a Different Color

The Organic Gardening Test Garden yielded a rainbow harvest in 2012.

Doug Hall February 26, 2013

The vegetables and fruits we eat are made colorful by naturally occurring pigments. Beta-carotene in carrots, lutein in kale and red peppers, and lycopene in tomatoes are three well-known examples of the literally hundreds of pigments contained in garden produce.

The colors do more than just make our food more beautiful: Research points to the health benefits of these pigments, ranging from protection from heart disease and certain types of cancer to a reduction in cataracts and macular degeneration. Phytochemicals—natural antioxidant compounds that include plant pigments—are thought to boost the human immune system, reduce allergies, fight wrinkles, and assist the body in detoxifying contaminants.

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Although more research is needed to understand how pigments help ward off disease, nutritionists increasingly believe that a colorful diet is a healthy diet. With that in mind, we chose an array of unusually pigmented vegetables to plant in the Organic Gardening Test Garden in 2012—tomatoes, peppers, carrots, salad greens, and other vegetables in a rainbow of hues. Some of the varieties were new to us; others we’ve been growing for years. The vegetables that follow were the best of the 2012 harvest.

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

Carrots

American consumers have grown accustomed to the crisp, sweet, juicy flavor of orange carrots, such as the Chantenay-type carrot ‘Caracas’. How do carrots of other colors compare? We found the red, purple, and yellow carrots in our trials to be excellent in soups and stews, but too dense and dry for fresh eating. Because of their long roots, these non-orange varieties are best suited to deep, porous, loamy soils or raised beds.


‘Atomic Red’. Extra lycopene gives ‘Atomic Red’ a dark orange-red color that becomes even more intense with cooking.

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

Carrots Atomic Red
Carrots Caracas

‘Caracas’. This stubby orange carrot is a good choice for heavier soils. It’s ready to harvest in 2 months or less, and always crisp and sweet.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

‘Deep Purple’. Grated, this hybrid variety is a striking addition to coleslaw. The roots retain their rich color when cooked but bleed into the cooking liquid.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

Carrots Deep Purple
Carrots Yellowstone

‘Yellowstone’. The taste of this pale beauty can be somewhat bitter in hot regions but it sweetens in cooler weather.

Fedco Seeds

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

     

Eggplants

Even the eggplant avoiders on our staff were won over by two high-yielding varieties of this summer staple.


Clara Eggplant

‘Clara’. Ivory-colored ‘Clara’ is notable for tender, creamy fruits without a trace of bitterness. ‘Clara’ is a generous producer, too.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

‘Little Green’. The smaller stature of ‘Little Green’ makes it a good choice for growing in containers. The chartreuse fruits are smaller than ‘Clara’ but every bit as delicious.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

Little Green Eggplant
     

Lettuces

With a pleasant diversity of leaf forms and colors, lettuce is the ultimate mix-and-match vegetable—and they all look lovely in the salad bowl.


‘Brigitte’. ‘Brigitte’, with its lacquered burgundy leaves, was delicious in spring but bolted quickly in hot weather.

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

Lettuce Mayan jaguar

‘Mayan Jaguar’. We love the crunchy, tasty, two-tone leaves of this Romaine variety. Romaine lettuces don’t always form heads in some climates, but ‘Mayan Jaguar’ can be harvested like a looseleaf.

Fedco Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

‘Mottistone’. ‘Mottistone’ is a pretty speckled Batavian-type lettuce.

Territorial Seed Co.

Photo: Patrick Montero

Mottistone Lettuce
Three Heart Lettuce

‘Three Heart’. This petite butterhead with wavy chartreuse leaves and a soft texture was the favorite lettuce among our test gardeners in 2012.

Seed Savers Exchange

Photo: Patrick Montero

     

Sweet Peppers

Without a doubt, the pepper bed was the most colorful in the 2012 test garden. Our trials included four sweet peppers.


‘Cherry Stuffer’. ‘Cherry Stuffer’ impressed our test gardeners with sweet, thick-walled fruits of a consistently diminutive size.

The Cook’s Garden

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

Cherry Stuffer Pepper
Flamingo Pepper

‘Flamingo’. ‘Flamingo’ starts out ivory-yellow before transitioning to apricot and finally lipstick red. It’s slow to ripen, however, and we ended up harvesting many fruits in the unripe stages.

Territorial Seed Co.

Photo: Patrick Montero


‘Golden Cal Wonder’. A somewhat stingy producer, this sweet pepper bore the largest and best-tasting fruits in our 2012 trials.

Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

Flamingo Pepper

 

‘Tequila’. Lilac ‘Tequila’ is lovely to behold—and a heavy yielder—but the thin-walled fruits lack flavor.

Tomato Growers Supply Co.

Photo: Patrick Montero

     

Hot Peppers

Three hot peppers ignited our taste buds. All were amazingly productive.


 

‘Black Hungarian’. These spicy, smoky fruits ripen from near-black to dusky red. Mildly hot.

Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

Black Hungarian Pepper
Cayenetta Pepper

‘Cayennetta’. Slender, red ‘Cayennetta’ has the flavor and appearance of a cayenne, but with less heat. Trouble-free and healthy, it’s an All-America Selections winner.

Harris Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

‘Lemon Drop’. With a flavor that combines fire with citrus, ‘Lemon Drop’ is a zippy addition to relishes, chutneys, or pepper jelly.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

Lemon Drop Pepper
     

Tomatoes

We can’t resist loading the test garden with tomatoes—the new varieties that intrigue us with their wondrous catalog descriptions as well as our old favorites. Out of about two dozen varieties we grew in 2012, these rose to the top.


‘Big Daddy’. This new hybrid was the most consistent producer of flawless fruits in the 2012 trials, even if it wasn’t the most flavorful.

Burpee

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

  Big Daddy Tomato
Black Cherry Tomato  

‘Black Cherry’. These dusky-red fruits have a rich, not-too-sweet flavor. The yield is not as overwhelming as some cherry varieties.

Tomato Growers Supply Co.

Photo: Patrick Montero

‘Dester’. Unsurpassed for flavor in the 2012 test garden was heirloom tomato ‘Dester’, which dazzled us with a wonderfully rich melding of tart and sweet. Alas, the plants lack disease resistance, so the harvest ended too soon.

Seed Savers Exchange

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

  Destor Tomato
Green Zebra Tomato  

‘Green Zebra’. Returning to the test garden by popular demand, tangy ‘Green Zebra’ scored high in our taste tests. It takes a bit of practice to determine when the green-streaked fruits are perfectly ripe.

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

‘Indigo Rose’. Far and away the test garden’s most arresting tomato was ‘Indigo Rose’, bred for high anthocyanin pigments, with unripe fruits that look like black-skinned plums. Unlike its appearance, its taste is unremarkable.

Nichols Garden Nursery

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

  Indigo Rose Tomato
Isis Candy Tomato  

‘Isis Candy’. Uneven rainfall made 2012 a bad year for cracked fruits, and ‘Isis Candy’ took it the worst. We ended up discarding too many of these sweet, marbled cherries.

Renee’s Garden

Photo: Patrick Montero


‘Kellogg’s Breakfast Potato Leaf’. An heirloom beefsteak of monstrous size, ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast Potato Leaf’ bears sweet, low-acid fruits in a pale orange color.

Tomato Growers Supply Co.

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

  Kellogg's Breakfast Potato Leaf Tomato
Mandarin Cross Tomato  

‘Mandarin Cross’. Orange-colored ‘Mandarin Cross’ is prolific and healthy, bearing fruit until the first frost.

Renee’s Garden

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

‘Paul Robeson’. ‘Paul Robeson’ shares a deep, smoky flavor with other “black” heirlooms but cracked badly for us; picking in the green-shoulder stage to forestall cracking resulted in blander fruits.

Fedco Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

  Paul Robeson Tomato
Pilcer Vecy Tomato  

‘Pilcer Vesy’. Bright yellow ‘Pilcer Vesy’ is a beefsteak with classic tomato flavor—unusual for such an early bearer.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Photo: Thomas MacDonald


‘Tang’. Orange ‘Tang’ has a well-balanced flavor and meaty fruits on vigorous vines.

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

 

  Tang Tomato
     

Squash


 ‘Golden Egg’ summer squash. ‘Golden Egg’ boasts an unusual shape but the same nutty flavor and prolific nature you’d expect from a summer squash. The bright yellow fruits are easy to spot among the leaves. Flavor and texture are best when the fruits are harvested small—no more than 5 ninches long.

Burpee

Photo: Patrick Montero

Golden Egg Summer Squash
Jester Acorn Squash Summer Squash

‘Jester’ acorn squash. ‘Jester’ has the shape of a small acorn squash with the ivory-streaked skin of a delicata. It’s pretty and prolific, with a mild-sweet flavor.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

     

  Brassicas


Portuguese kale

Portuguese kale. Portuguese kale has broad, flat, leathery leaves that are similar to collard greens, but crisper and sweeter. In fertile soil, the leaves reach monstrous proportions. The harvest continues through summer heat and well past fall frosts.

Renee’s Garden

Photo: Patrick Montero

‘Purple Peacock’ broccoli. With its smallish heads, ‘Purple Peacock’ will never replace traditional green varieties of broccoli in our garden, but it’s worth growing for the harvest of heads, stems, and leaves that are tender and sweet. It’s ornamental, too, looking more like ‘Red Russian’ kale than broccoli.

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

Photo: Patrick Montero

Purple Peacock Broccoli

Little Jade Nappa Cabbbage

‘Little Jade’ Napa cabbage. Don’t be fooled by the “little” in the name—‘Little Jade’ is nearly as large as standard heads of Napa cabbage. In the test garden, spring and fall plantings were both quick to form crisp, mild heads.

Renee’s Garden

Photo: Mitch Mandel

     

Other Vegetables


Capitano Bush Bean

‘Capitano’ bush bean. A yellow bush bean, ‘Capitano’ has the broad, flat pods and firm texture of a Romano-style bean. It produces well over a long harvest season and is good for freezing.

Territorial Seed Co.

Photo: Patrick Montero

Neon Glow Mix Swiss chard. A blend of two colors of Swish chard, one with yellow ribs and the other magenta, Neon Glow Mix is a bright addition to kitchen gardens.

Renee’s Garden

Photo: Patrick Montero

 

Swiss Chard neon Mix

     

Ornamentals


‘Mahogany Splendor’ hibiscus. This ornamental hibiscus was hard to overlook in the 2012 test garden. The dissected burgundy leaves resemble those of a Japanese maple. Starting from seed, the shrubby plants grow rapidly to head height.

Burpee

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

Mahogany Splendor Hibiscus
Black Olive Ornamental Pepper

‘Black Olive’ ornamental pepper. Charcoal-shaded foliage distinguishes this compact bedding plant, which becomes spangled with marble-sized fruits as the season progresses. The fruits mature from glossy black to red. An All-America Selections winner.

Park Seed

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

‘Summer Jewel Pink’ salvia. A domesticated version of the scarlet sage native to the southeastern United States, ‘Summer Jewel Pink’ is attractive to hummingbirds and beneficial insects. The compact plants are perpetual bloomers. An All-America Selections winner.

Harris Seeds

Photo: Thomas MacDonald

Summer Jewel Pink Salvia
Pop Art Red and Yellow Zinnia

‘Pop Art Red & Yellow’ zinnia. These cheerful yellow zinnias are randomly splashed and speckled with red. No two are alike. Plants grow about 3 feet tall.

Burpee

Photo: Patrick Montero