This year, there are more reasons than ever to grow your own tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and broccoli. It's a banner year for the introduction of new varieties -- now is a great time to make room for vegetables in your garden, or in a couple of big pots on a patio or balcony.
Vegetable gardeners at every level of experience are looking for two things, says Rob Johnston, the founder of Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine. "They want a combination of easy-to-grow and real flavorful results," he says. "They are going to the trouble of having a garden, and they want the result to be something special."
Johnston is a judge for All-America Selections (AAS), which conducts trials of new vegetable and flower introductions at public, professional and university gardens across the country to identify breeders' best work every year. Last year, 28 trial gardens across the country participated in tests of new vegetable varieties. Johnston's credentials are solid -- he has been growing and breeding vegetables for 42 years. Johnny's has introduced more than 60 different vegetable varieties, including the colorful and delicious Bright Lights Swiss chard and, this year, a sweet little butternut squash called Butterscotch. They're both AAS winners.
This year is a banner year for AAS: 25 new vegetable, herb and flower varieties are 2015 award winners, more than any year since 1939. Most of the introductions are vegetables and herbs, and some are the very first winners in their class: This is the first time Brussels sprouts, bok choy, garlic chives and oregano have received AAS recognition.
Gardeners flipping through the catalogs and websites of seed specialists aren't just scouting around for another delicious tomato or cucumber, says Diane Blazek, director of All-America Selections. They want compact plants and heat and drought tolerance, and they're looking for vegetables pretty enough to grow in a flower garden. Vegetable gardeners love beautiful blooms, too, she says, and especially flowers that attract pollinators to their vegetable crops.
The gardeners who plant 40-foot rows of beans or pepper plants are still out there, Blazek says, but breeders have developed squash, cucumbers, beans and many other crops that flourish and produce an impressive harvest in small spaces -- such as Mascotte beans, which are just the right size for a window box, or Patio Baby eggplant, perfect for pots.
"More and more people are growing in containers," Blazek says. "They don't have huge gardens, and they're looking for vegetables that don't take up quite as much room."
Gardeners are also looking for novelty, says Jessie Liebenguth, a horticulturist at Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University and an AAS trial-garden judge. "People want vegetables that they may not be super familiar with, but that are new and fun," she says.
Liebenguth, who has been growing vegetables since she was a child, admits she was surprised when she opened her first box of seeds for an AAS trial season, three years ago. "My jaw dropped, there were so many entries," she says. "People are working hard to develop new, exciting things -- it's encouraging."
The new AAS broccoli winner, Artwork, is grown for its prolific production of side shoots, which increases the yield to weeks instead of just a one-chop harvest. Bopak, the new AAS award-winning bok choy, is great for gardeners interested in a quick crop and in cultivating in flowerpots. It grows to about 2 feet tall and would look great as the centerpiece of a big pot, surrounded by trailing flowers or low-growing herbs.
Liebenguth recommends peppers of various kinds for first-time gardeners looking for an easy crop. Cucumbers and cherry tomatoes are also encouraging crops for novices, she says, because the harvest is impressive and the taste can't be beat.
If you haven't grown vegetables before, start small, she suggests. "Wade in, try a couple of herbs, make a bruschetta garden or a salsa garden." Try mixing vegetables into a flower garden, Liebenguth says, "so it's not one huge, overwhelming space. You can walk along and enjoy your flowers, and you get a snack at the end."
It takes about 10 years to bring a new vegetable to market, Johnston says, but waiting for the next big thing isn't really necessary. With so many great new vegetable varieties already out there, you can scarcely go wrong. And, of course, the best vegetables you'll ever eat are the ones you grow yourself.
AAS: Since 1932, All-America Selections has recognized top new flower and vegetable varieties. Many of the 270 AAS vegetable winners over the years have become classics: The Celebrity tomato won in 1984 and remains very popular today. Waltham Butternut squash, a 1970 winner, is still one of the best-performing, most disease-resistant and delicious of the butternut squashes.
This year, there are 25 AAS winners, including 17 vegetables and three herbs. Some choice winners include:
-- Avalanche beets, a sweet, mild white beet with edible tops (like all beets). White beets will not turn your fingers red when you prepare them.
-- Artwork broccoli, grown for its prolific production of side shoots.
-- Bossa Nova zucchini, with a pretty, mottled two-tone fruit. It matures early and produces for weeks.
-- Hestia Brussels sprouts, which are particularly cold-tolerant. They're great for a fall garden because the flavor improves after a light frost.
For a complete list of AAS winners and more information, go to all-americaselections.org.
Johnny's Selected Seeds: Johnny's was founded by Rob Johnston in 1973 and has introduced more than 60 vegetable varieties. Johnny's Seeds is one of the top choices for market gardeners, but the company sells seeds and supplies in small quantities for home gardeners, too. Several of the company's introductions are AAS winners. Johnston particularly recommends:
-- Clementine orange cocktail-sized tomatoes. They're a little bigger than cherry tomatoes, with a great flavor and color.
-- Bright Lights Swiss chard, for its delicious taste and colorful stems. Chard is beautiful and easy to grow. Bright Lights is an AAS winner.
-- Butterscotch butternut squash, a 2015 AAS winner. Compact plants produce small fruits, just right for two servings.
-- Salanova lettuce produces a large head that breaks easily into individual leaves, like baby-leaf salad greens but with more flavor and a better texture, since the lettuce is mature.
For more information, go to johnnyseeds.com.
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