My Turn: Variety matters

Published: 12/18/2020 12:08:10 PM
Modified: 12/18/2020 12:07:56 PM

The solstice is the time for gardeners to compile their seed orders and give thanks to the plant breeders who give us the wealth of varieties that thrive in our climate and provide an abundance of delicious produce — and some that isn’t.

Despite contrary advertisements, no plant “thrives everywhere,” but horticulturists constantly labor to improve the germ-plasm of our crops, so it’s dismaying when I ask someone what variety they are growing and they answer “I don’t know.” Variety matters and can make the difference between an abundant crop and a lost year. It’s the difference between a vegetable that will delight you and something that looks good on a shelf but is merely edible rather than delicious. From my many failures and occasional successes, I can make some unequivocable regional recommendations.

Onions love New England conditions and are easy to start from seed started in February. “Sets” are available, but those varieties don’t store well. “Oloroso” has the size and sweetness of a Spanish, but stores well. “Millennium,” and “Copra” produce hard, dark-skinned bulbs that store six to eight months. Grow “long-day” onions here.

“Lancelot” leek is maintenance-free once you get your blanching mulch down, and will produce huge, white stems well into Fall.

“Hestia” and “Gustia” Brussels sprouts produce huge quantities of tight, hard sprouts over months until the ground freezes.

“Lutz” beet is an enormous beet that stays sweet and doesn’t get woody. “Merlin” is a smaller, but dependable variety.

It’s impossible to say anything bad about “Honeynut” squash, a sweet, productive butternut of a reasonable size.

Green pepper is always a problem because of virus diseases, which twist the leaves and turn the fruits woody. “Karisma” and “Currier” are the only dependably resistant varieties I’m aware of.

Limas are a challenge in this area. The highest quality ones are vines that take a long season to mature. “King of the Garden” is a superb bean and some years you can even get a crop before the frost kills it. Somewhat lower quality, but dependable, earlier, and hugely productive, is “Christmas.”

There is a lot of really poor broccoli out there, but “Belstar” both tastes good and produces abundantly, first as a large central curd, and then as side-sprouts throughout summer.

Cauliflower is always a problem because of its sensitivity to environmental stressors. One strategy is to go with an early-producer like “Snow Crown,” that will give you a crop before the summer heat and pests plague it. “Amazing” tastes great, but you’ll have to fuss over it. Yellow varieties aren’t worth growing.

Green beans have improved tremendously from their “string bean” origins. “Derby” is a highly-productive bean that tastes great and freezes well. Among the Romano types, “Valero” is notable. It produces over months, and the giant pods don’t get woody. “Jade” produces large, shiny, dark-green pods that taste great, but total productivity is variable.

“Chieftain” is possibly the most productive and vigorous potato available. Huge crops of variously-sized tubers are produced at the base of the plant. That makes for easy harvest, but they can be prone to sun-scald and rodent damage. “Eva” produces huge tubers on deeper, more widely-spreading roots, so it’s harder to dig, but the rodents don’t find them, and it’s a great “baker.” Both are highly-disease-resistant, unlike the older varieties.

Vegetables are easy to grow from seed as long as you remember a few things: use fresh seed, use clean soil (a “germination” or “seed starter” mix works well, do not use “potting mix”), keep light high, and temperatures low. Light banks are easily and cheaply assembled from components. Set them up in a cool cellar or unheated room, water your flats lightly but regularly with diluted fertilizer and you’ll be producing better “starts” than any you could buy, even from a dedicated grower. The greatest mistake homeowners make is growing their seedlings too warm under insufficient light. That just makes weak, leggy plants. Transplants should be short and stout when set in the garden.

Starting your plants from seed allows you to grow a greater variety than are provided by container-growers, and you also avoid introducing pests, diseases and pesticides that are conveyed by commercial “starts.” Despite the challenges, it really is possible to grow all of your own produce without any pesticides whatsoever. Just remember that birds, spiders and wasps are your allies, so encourage them. And stop over-working your garden soil! Roto-tillers are anathema to soil structure!

John Blasiak is a resident of Greenfield. Questions and comments are welcome at

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