Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024

 

Preparing to sow Rainbow Chard in 2018.
Photo Pam Dawling

Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024

Have you ordered your seeds for next year yet? The earlier you order, the best chance you have of getting the varieties you want. Later, some will sell out. It’s true that when you order very early, some seeds won’t be available yet. The seed growers are still drying and cleaning them, weighing them and running them through germination testing. Your patience will be rewarded with high quality seeds.

I love looking through catalogs to find new exciting-sounding varieties! After so many years of gardening, I’ve tried lots of different kinds, and have definitely grown attached to some reliable favorites. I recommend planting a small amount of a variety new to you that sounds good, alongside your usual well-loved variety. And what do I mean by “sounds good”?

In 2014 I wrote Reading Between the Lines in the Seed Catalogs to share what I’d learned about decoding catalog-speak, and not getting distracted by wondrous claims, failing to notice the catalog never even claimed it had good flavor. Or high yields. Or good disease-resistance. That post lists 15 features to look for.

We look for flavor, productivity, disease-resistance, an appropriate fit with our climate or latitude, general adaptability, varieties that don’t require erecting elaborate trellises, ones that don’t sprawl too widely, ones that don’t take a really long time to reach maturity.

If we’ve had a few years of poor performance from a crop, we’ll try several new varieties. We have done trials of heat-tolerant eggplants, winter spinach for the hoophouse and outdoors, storage cabbage, and now we need to start over with broccoli.

Green Magic broccoli Credit Johnnys Seeds

For many years we grew three varieties of hybrid broccoli with different number of days to maturity. That enabled us to sow them all on the same day, transplant them all on the same day (or in the same week), and get an extended harvest period. Some of our favorites dropped out of the market, we floundered with various kinds, including some Open Pollinated varieties that sounded good. This year I am advocating for Green Magic (57d F1, 6-8″ main head and sideshoots too); Belstar (65d F1, also 6-8″ main head, plus sideshoots); and Marathon (68d F1) or Fiesta (70d F1, 6-7″ head, few sideshoots, short harvest window). Marathon has done well for us in the past. In my experience, broccoli is a crop where hybrids are much more productive than OP types.

Green Machine zucchini. Photo Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Our much-loved Tendergrey zucchini, one of the flecked pale green types, isn’t easily available this year. But Green Machine (45d F1) sounds very good! Open plant habit is a phrase I like. Moderate spines is one I don’t like, but we have some pull-on plastic sleeves to deal with irritating plants. Widely adapted, excellent disease package, and high yields all appeal to me.

We rely on Provider (50d OP) and Bush Blue Lake snap beans every year, with a short row of Strike in the hoophouse a month earlier than outdoors. We found we need an upright variety to get nice beans undercover, as the bean plants grow sprawlier than they do outside, and we don’t want to be treading on them.

Washing Cylindra beets for storage.
Photo Wren Vile

We rely on Cylindra or Formanova (54d OP) beets, long-shaped tender ones that grow up out of the ground, are tender and easy to peel after cooking. Seems like the yield must be high when half the root is above ground, and half below!

Premium Late Dutch cabbage (100d OP) has done well for us. Johnny’s has a lovely-sounding storage cabbage, Promise (96d F1). 6 ½ lbs at 18″ spacing, 9-10 lbs at 24″ spacing. And two attractive purplish Chinese cabbages Red Trumpet (60d F1), a tall Michihili type, and Merlot (60d F1), said to be an improved Red Dragon Napa type. I hadn’t got round to trying Red Dragon yet, so I can’t speak to its shortcomings. Merlot admits to being more prone to tipburn than green varieties and to be somewhat susceptible to bolting. Some trials on a small-scale are called for!

Merlot purple Chinese cabbage.
Photo Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Carrots – oh why so many yellow, purple, red and black ones? None in my experience match the succulence and growth rate of orange Danvers 126.

Collards – for years I have loved Morris Heading, but the recent explosion of options brought us by the Heirloom Collard Project is leading us to try others. Some have remarkable colors, combined with high yields.

The delicious early Bodacious sweet corn is harder to find. Thanks Southern Exposure for carrying it. Our reliable favorite Kandy Korn has become hard to find.

Our favorite slicing cucumber has been renamed by Fedco as Generally, a name we’ve been using for years. This year we also tried South Wind from Common Wealth Seed Growers and were quite taken with its sweetness.

South Wind slicing cucumber.
Photo Common Wealth Seed Growers

As always, there are new frilly mustards for baby greens and salad mixes. We like Mizuna, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills and especially Ruby Streaks. I feel drawn towards purple stemmed Ember and dark red Miz America.

For leeks, we grow King Richard and Lincoln for fall and Tadorna for overwintering in our Zone 7a climate. No complaints there. all are very good for their purpose.

I’m always on the lookout for new lettuces. This summer we tried Albachiara from High Mowing, and it did very well. We’ll get more for this coming year. It’s a Batavian heat-tolerant type. Now our climate is changing, we need to grow Batavians for more weeks of heat. Finding a new one is great! Dark red Cherokee has been my favorite.

I shouldn’t even look at the spring lettuce selection, or I’ll order more than we can use in the short spring season we have. Most spring varieties can be grown in the fall here too, but we like to switch to cold-tolerant ones.

Ezrilla, a favourite cold-hardy lettuce.
Photo Wren Vile

This winter we are growing the beautiful Rhone in our hoophouse bed of cut-and-come again leaf varieties, along with Ezrilla, Hampton, Brentwood, Tango, Revolution, Oscarde and Panisse.

For scallions we like Evergreen Hardy White (65d OP) every time, and feel no need to try another.

We have been growing Sugar Ann early dwarf snap peas in our hoophouse (sown Feb 1), but next year we are trying Oregon Giant snow peas instead. We think snap peas are best raw, and used to cut them into our salad mixes. But over the past few years, by the time the snap peas are ready to harvest, our winter salad mix days are coming to a close, and our outdoor lettuce head harvest is starting. We don’t grow enough snap peas to serve them on their own in big bowlfuls. We think we’ll be able to pick enough snow peas for stirfry mixes instead! In March we sow Sugar Ann outdoors and get plenty.

For sweet peppers our keywords are prolific, thick-walled, tasty, and 90 days or less from transplant to ripe harvest (76d to green). We like fairly large peppers too, and avoid small pointy ones that could get confused with hot peppers in the fridge.

Tomatoes are a whole topic on their own. We love Sun Gold and Black Cherry, Mountain Magic and Garden Peach. Others come and go. Next year we are trying Damsel  (73d F1). Damsel is in the new tomato category called “Hylooms” – hybrids resembling heirlooms in color and flavor, with added disease resistance.

Damsel (71d F1) Hyloom tomato.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Collard Greens are having their Own Week!

Collards are a southern food icon and an underappreciated nutrition powerhouse that has sustained generations of southerners, both Black and white. At last this vegetable is getting the recognition it deserves! The first ever Collards Week is happening December 14-17 2020. I found out about this while researching for an article on collards for Growing for Market magazine. Yes, perhaps the title “Week” is aspirational, and four days is a jumping-off point for the post-Covid future.

There will be online presentations celebrating collards led by Michael Twitty, Ira Wallace, Jon Jackson, Amirah Mitchell and Ashleigh Shanti. This event includes food history, seed stewardship, gardening, farming, cooking and conversation and is part of the Heirloom Collard Project. Collards Week is a collaboration between the Culinary Breeding Network and The Heirloom Collard Project. You can register for free at www.heirloomcollards.org/collard-week-2020/. All events will be broadcast live through YouTube Live via the Culinary Breeding Network starting at 1:00pm Eastern time.

Chef Ashleigh Shanti preparing collards.
Photo Chris Smith

Michael Twitty’s kick-off presentation, The History and Significance of Collards in the South, will be a fascinating exploration of complex issues. Twitty states this himself on his blog, Afroculinaria, “The collard’s complicated story with African Americans really speaks to the way food can unravel the mysteries of complex identities.”

The Collards Tour and the Book

From 2003 to 2007, a team of four crisscrossed the South, mostly in North and South Carolina, searching for heirloom col­lards by word-of-mouth, by spotting them as they drove past, and by reading newspapers, attending small-town collard festivals, and visiting restaurants where collards were the only greens served. After the trip, USDA Plant Geneticist Mark Farnham grew out more than sixty of the heirloom collard cultivars in a trial garden at a USDA Agricultural Research Station. He published several papers, including the 2007 article “Neglected Landraces of Collard from the Carolinas.”

Two of the other road trip members, Edward H Davis and John T Morgan of Emory & Henry College, wrote a beautiful book: Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table to tell the stories of these varieties and the gardeners who steward them. Davis and Morgan noted that despite other wide diversity among the collard seed savers, most of them were older, with an average age of 70, and most of them had no family, friends, or neighbors will­ing or able to keep growing their special family collard variety into the future.

The Heirloom Collards Project

In 2016, Seed Savers Exchange in collaboration with Ira Wallace at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange requested over 60 collard varieties from the USDA ARS National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) to trial at Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa. These were rare heirloom varieties collected by Davis and Morgan from seed savers across the Southeast. The goal of the Heirloom Collards Project is to support the tradition of heirloom collards, by finding growers and sharing the seeds nationally and also to celebrate the special stories associated with these heirloom collards.

The Heirloom Collard project is a national program led by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Seed Savers Exchange, Working Food and The Utopian Seed Project. The Project is building a coalition of seed stewards, gardeners, farmers, chefs and seed companies to preserve heirloom collard varieties and their culinary heritage.

Ira Wallace has an article “A Southern Food Tradition: Saving Heirloom Collards” coming out in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Grit magazine. There she points out that giant seed companies have been buying out the smaller ones, and have reduced the number of open-pollinated collard varieties readily available to only five.  Saving heirloom collards is an act in food heritage. Ira’s article also includes some collard stories and directions for growing seed. You can also find good directions for growing seed in Jeff McCormack’s Organic Brassica Seed Production Manual.

Mosaic photo by Chris Smith

The Heirloom Variety Trial

The National Heirloom Collard Variety Trial was launched in 2020, with over 230 participants across the US. They are currently growing twenty different varieties from the large collection at Seed Savers Exchange and the USDA. This collection includes varieties from the Davis and Morgan collecting trips. There are eight trial sites growing all 20 varieties and also hundreds of citizen scientists growing and comparing randomly selected sets of three varieties. The growers are recording data for each collard variety on appearance, uniformity, vigor, disease resistance, flavor, germination, earliness, yield and winter hardiness. Their data will be recorded and analyzed via SeedLinked, a web platform connecting people with information on varieties written by people growing them.

The Heirloom Collard Project has a place for everyone interested in growing or eating this delicious vegetable, including home gardeners, experienced seed savers, commercial growers and chefs. Click the link to see photos of the 2020 varieties and the farms doing the full trial. Get ready to sign up for 2021. Novice seed growers may want to consider practicing with more common varieties first, and then, as they gain experience, they can sign up to become seed-saving stewards.

Morris Heading collards.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Growing collards

Collards are very easy to grow and harvest, providing months of harvests from a single sowing. They are cold-hardy and heat-tolerant, giving the possibility of harvests ten months of the year in the Southeast. Colder areas may need to provide some protection if wanting mid-winter harvests. Hotter areas may need a longer summer break. Growers can make sauerkraut to extend the season. There is a wide range of leaf shapes and colors including variegated types. For details of how to grow collards, see my article coming soon in Growing for Market.

Collard stecklings overwintering in a pot for seed saving.
Photo Seed Savers Exchange

There is a fascinating  blog post  published on the Heirloom Collard website written by Norah Hummel, who is a Seed Savers Exchange partner in the Heirloom Collards Project. It’s a really fantastic blog post with some really good photographs, talking you through the whole process of growing collard seed.

Growing Collard Seed

Like other brassicas, collards are a biennial seed crop. To save seed, keep your collard plants alive over winter. If you can’t do this outdoors or in a hoophouse, dig up the plants in late fall and trim off the leaves, preserving the growing point. Replant these plant stubs (stecklings) close together in a tub of soil or even damp sawdust, to replant in early spring. Make sure you have no other brassicas from the oleracea group (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, some kales, kohlrabi) in flower at the same time. Some kales (Russian, Siberian types) are Brassica rapa and do not cross-pollinate.

Winnowing collard seed with a box fan.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Read Margaret Roach’s interview on A Way to Garden, with Chris Smith of Utopian Seed Project, a crop-trialing nonprofit working to celebrate food and farming, and Sow True Seeds, talking about heirloom collards.