Finding joy in discovering new seed varieties
Few things can fuel a gardener’s excitement like a seed catalog in the early spring. The glossy pages filled with pictures of perfect produce can induce a type of hypnosis. Speaking from personal experience, it’s easy to shop for seeds like a kid in a candy shop. The danger in this comes later. July hits and you’re trying to manage 30 different crops simultaneously. That being said, seed catalogs are a great way to discover new varieties and crops to grow. They just require a degree of self-restraint.
Now, more so than ever, there are many great places to buy seeds. All across America, we are experiencing a small-farm renaissance. Small market farms are popping up in every region of the country, and as a result, more small seed companies are becoming successful supplying them. This is great news for the home gardener. We now have an incredible variety of heirloom and artisanal varieties at our fingertips, bred specifically for certain regions of the country.
As a grower, I take a conservative stance when it comes to trying new things. I try to limit myself to no more than 20 percent new varieties in any given year. This helps to keep my farm producing predictably and reliably, while also giving me a nudge to try new things and keeps evolving my practices. After studying all of my seed catalogs, here is a list of new vegetable varieties for 2020 that have caught my eye and have my consideration for this season.
• Cherokee Carbon F1 Tomato: I always like to grow at least one variety of purple heirloom tomato. I grow them for their complex, peppery taste and also their beautiful looks. Despite this, I have never been satisfied with any one variety. In my experience, purple heirlooms are fast to set fruit and ripen, but they lack vigor and their fruits are prone to splitting. Enter Cherokee Carbon. Hopefully this new cross of Cherokee Purple and Carbon will solve these problems. High Mowing Organic Seeds of Vermont claims that this hybrid maintains the flavor and look of its heirloom parents, but with more vigorous plants, increased production and more crack-resistance. I am definitely going to trial this tomato.
• Citrine F1 Tomato: As far as cherry tomatoes are concerned, Sungold is the undisputed king of the summer garden. I have never had so many customers seek out and ask for a specific variety as with Sungold. These little orange cherry tomatoes are incredibly sweet and fruity, and they always leave people begging for more. That said, they are very prone to splitting, and their peak season only lasts two weeks or so. To improve upon this, Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Maine has developed Citrine F1. Citrine is a similar variety to Sungold, with exceptional flavor and the same golden-orange color. Johnny’s claims this new hybrid is resistant to cracking and splitting, however, and that it can tolerate disease and low-management systems. If it comes even close to Sungold’s flavor, it is definitely worth a try for home gardeners and farmers alike.
• Aji Pineapple Hot Pepper: This variety is an old Peruvian heirloom, being offered by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds for the first time this year. The pepper is oblong and bright yellow, about three inches long. The flavor is described as a perfect blend between tropical sweetness and fiery heat. It is a little spicier than a jalapeno pepper. This variety caught my eye for making homemade hot sauces and salsas, where I intend to use it as a replacement for habanero in a few recipes.
• Prospera Basil: Growing basil, particularly on Nantucket, can be a real challenge. Because of our foggy mornings, cooler nights and high humidity, downy mildew can be a real problem for island growers. For that reason, the new basil variety Prospera might be worth a try. It is part of a new generation of basil varieties, bred specifically for downy-mildew resistance. It has a classic Italian Genovese appearance, and it should be able to better resist mildew than a traditional variety. Prospera is available from many seed companies, including Johnny’s Selected Seeds and High Mowing Organic Seeds.
• Starry Night Acorn Squash: Winter squash is another crop prone to foliar diseases in Nantucket’s humid climate. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has bred a new variety of acorn squash with a high resistance to powdery mildew, a scourge for squash and pumpkin growers. This acorn squash has a variegated pattern of green and yellow on its skin and it reportedly tastes and stores much better than standard acorn squash. For those of you who enjoy growing storage crops, I think Starry Night is worth a try.
• BC1611 Broccolini: For those interested in growing their own broccoli, I recommend a broccolini variety. Compared to traditional heading broccoli, broccolini is much more productive over a longer period of time, in my opinion tastes much better than normal broccoli, and is more forgiving for beginning growers who might not have their soils properly balanced. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is offering a new broccolini this year, a hybrid called BC1611. Judging from its description, this seems like a productive and easy-to-grow crop for the home gardener.
Growing from Seeds
For those who are new to growing plants from seed, I recommend transplanting all of these crops from a controlled environment to the garden. The only possible exceptions to this could be the squash and basil. In general, transplanting your crops to the garden gives you an element of control that you don’t have when seeding directly into the soil.
For seeding transplants, I recommend using an organic, compost-based potting mix. Popular options include Coast of Maine, Fafard, Sungro and Vermont Compost. Once you have your potting mix, you’ll need a tray to plant into. These trays have cells, kind of like honeycomb, that you fill with the potting mix. For large seeded plants such as squash, cucumber and watermelon, it’s better to use large cells.
For small seeded crops, such as lettuce and kale, you can use small cells which allow for more plants per flat. Fill your cell tray with potting mix, to the point that it is packed firm in each cell. Plant one or two seeds in every cell and lightly cover with more potting mix.
You can grow your plants in a greenhouse, on a sunny window sill or underneath grow lights in your basement or garage. If the weather is warm enough, you can even grow them outdoors on your back porch or wherever you’d like. Wherever you decide to grow your transplants, make sure you can easily water them and that they have full sunshine and are out of the wind.
All of the varieties listed in this article, in addition to countless other varieties, can be found online.
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds (http://www.johnnyseeds.com/) has an excellent and easy to navigate website, offering technical advice, tools and materials in addition to seeds.
• High Mowing Organic Seeds (http://www.highmowingseeds.com/) is an excellent company, located in Northeast Vermont. It breeds and grows a large percentage of the seeds its sells, and all are 100 percent organic.
• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www. rareseeds.com/) offers an incredible variety of open-pollinated, heirloom seeds. It definitely caters more toward home growers than production farmers, which allows it to offer a very wide variety of old-timey varieties. I don’t think that they have quite the same germination reliability as Johnny’s or High Mowing. This, however, should not discourage you from trying their seeds. ///
Aidan Feeney is the owner of Fog Town Farm on Nantucket and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.