playing favorites: some ‘must’ vegetable seeds

parsley-harvestIHAVE BEEN AT THIS GARDENING THING LONG ENOUGH to know what I like, I told my indecisive self the other day as I sat, overwhelmed, surrounded by far too many seed catalogs. I don’t have to try everything anymore—I’m allowed to play some favorites, right, and make some snap decisions? With kale and chard and mesclun mix and a few other key greens, at least, I need not browse or comparison-shop, because I like these:

CHARD: ‘Bright Lights’ may be the beauty-contest winner, with runner-up going to ‘Rhubarb’ or ‘Ruby Red,’ as it is variously called. But I’ll forego the flash and just sow ‘Argentata’ from here on out, I think.  A prolific and durable grower, ‘Argentata’ gets to as much as 3 feet tall (2ish in less fertile conditions) and produces lots and lots of giant leaves with gleaming thick white midribs.  Apparently this heirloom goes by another name in Italy, ‘Bionda á Costa,’ where it is also a favorite. Fedco has my favorite chard, and many others.

kales2KALE: Kale is one of my dietary mainstays, an ingredient in many soups here and a frequent side dish (both things are true about the the chard as well). Last year, I grew four kinds, but I won’t again, especially not the frilly  ‘Winterbor’ type or its lookalikes (above left), my un-favorite (though productive and cold-hardy). I simply don’t like its texture, so I am giving my kale real estate to the heirloom I still call ‘Ragged Jack’ (now listed as ‘Red Russian’ in catalogs, young foliage above right), with its purple-tinged oak-shaped leaves. I’m also partial to ‘Lacinato’ (also called ‘Nero di Toscana’ or ‘Dinosaur’ kale or just Tuscan kale, with its narrow, very dark foliage, below).  Hudson Valley Seed Library has both my favorite kales, and more.

dino kale

MESCLUN AND BRAISING MIXES: I think Johnny’s has the world beat on these, and as many times as I stray elsewhere out of curiosity, I keep coming back for two in particular:  Spicy Mesclun for the salad bowl (includes mizuna, arugula, endive, mustard and tatsoi with mild red lettuces) and  their Braising Mix for light cooking. The flavorful blend contains various Asian greens plus kale.

ARUGULA is my idea of a salad essential, and the spicier the better. That’s why I like the “wild” kinds like ‘Sylvetta’ with the yellow flowers (not white), a tipoff that you’re not getting Eruca sativa at all (the species of the common salad kind) but a species of Diplotaxis. I swear this plant rebounds from frost after frost, it’s so tough—its only drawbacks being a much smaller, deeply cut leaf and slower growth. If you really like that intense arugula taste, a little of this goes a long way, though. Territorial Seed has both kinds.

parsley pesto cubes 3PARSLEY: The choice of Parsley is a cinch, too; make mine ‘Giant of Italy’ or ‘Gigante’ parsley and that it is—shrubby plants with oversized leaves of robust flavor (top photo).  Even a few of them in the garden provide more than I can eat in a season, and I make parsley pesto for cooking (above) and also freeze parsley in rolls as I explained in this post.

SORREL: I keep forgetting to grow Sorrel, Rumex acetosa, technically cold-hardy enough to be a perennial–but cut the leaves continually when they are young for best enjoyment of its lemony flavor. You can also grow sorrel as a biennial, sowing a fresh bit every year and digging out the old plants. Why did I ever forget this one, which used to be in every year’s garden here?  The Well-Sweep Herb Farm catalog has an astonishing five sorrels for sale (note: unless you order a paper copy it’s in a PDF, and they are listed botanically under Rumex).

Now that the easy stuff’s decided, it’s back to the pile of catalogs I go. I don’t mind getting lost in pumpkins and tomatoes and beans—and a sexy new thing or two—and maybe I can finally focus now that the field’s a bit narrower.

Do you have some no-brainers, varieties you always order, whose competition you simply don’t care to hear about? Which are your “sure things”?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Juneflames. Normally the pest that attacks kale and such here is the flea beetle, and if you scroll down in this University of Vermont fact sheet on them you will see how row covers (if used correctly) can help. Do you also have cabbage moths and their larval green inch-worm like phase? More about them here. Timing of planting can also help or worsen the situation with pests; sometimes I sow a few smaller blocks or shorter rows in a staggered manner to hope to miss the worst of the beasts here. :)

  1. Michelle says:

    There’s a few that I rarely stray from – I agree with you about Lacinato kale, other favorites include Golden Chard, Galinas cherry tomato, Profumo di Genova basil, Pimento de Padron peppers, and Marina di Chioggia winter squash. Other than that, I’m constantly trying new varieties of veggies.

  2. chigal says:

    My only sure things in the veg category are those that provide seed for me, year after year, like arugula and basil. Also edible weeds that crop up, like purslane and wild mustard.

    I’m wondering about your freezing technique. Do you use a deep freezer? My ordinary, self-defrosting freezer always turns greens black. Doesn’t matter if it’s pesto cubes, kale soup… . Just wondering if it’s a matter of using frozen greens within a month, or if you have a freezer with more oomph than mine. I throw away the stuff that’s gone dark — can’t stand that frozen spinach taste.

  3. Meredith Hanna says:

    One of my favorite new seeds that I planted was Bull’s Blood Beets. They were delicious and with their red red leaves they looked gorgeous in the garden which is important for me.

  4. Z says:

    Thanks for the variety recommendations. I’ve always wanted to grow kale and friends have told me it’s easy to grow with a high germination rate. But what do I do with it when it has grown? Do I need to harvest it a certain stage? How do you cook it? What’s the best way to save it through the winter? Thank you.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Meredith. Those are great beets, ‘Bull’s Blood.’ Many gardeners I know have used them as ornamentals, they are so beautiful. Thanks for the reminder, and see you soon.

      Welcome, Z. You can grow kale for use at baby-size in salads, or eat it stir fried (or braised/sauteed) at any larger stage, right through to at least early winter, when I normally make the last leaves into soups (especially recipes that call for blending, such as the many good ones in the cookbook “Love Soup”).

      They are best, I think, in salad mixtures when small, or sauteed when medium or otherwise I wait until a frost hits them (or at least some cold) and eat them in fall. It seems to sweeten the larger leaves to get that chill. Here we can even plant them in fall for a very early cutting for salads or sautes the next spring, then again in spring or summer for fall crop.

  5. robert anderson says:

    There are two seed-grown items I can’t garden without, one a vegetable and the other a flower. I’ve never found a better string bean than the purple Italian variety ‘Trionfo Violetto’. Beautiful in the garden, always prolific, and I stopped growing any of the green varieties after a couple of years of side by side taste tests. And I don’t think you can beat Tithonia ‘Goldfinger’… although Christopher Lloyd described it as “a hideous dwarf” or something to that effect, it’s always been great for this climate, 6 ft. tall in good soil, compact, covered in flowers. Much superior to the more commonly grown ‘Torch’.

  6. chigal says:

    Feelin’ the freeze.

    :) But I see you’ve addressed the blackened frozen greens issue in another thread. Not sure I’m up for blanching, either. Lemons are superfruits … maybe a little citric acid can defeat my wonky freezer.

  7. Rosella says:

    Robert! My soulmate (at least in choice of beans)! I LOVE trionfo Violetta — there is no other bean I have ever planted that can compare to it in production of beans, taste of those beans, attractiveness of vines, and length of time in which it produces those lovely and delicious beans!

    I’m sticking with Bright Lights chard, at least for this year, because it outperformed two others last year. Tomatoes — I have ordered only two varieties from seed, because I have a wonderful nursery here that grows dozens of kinds from seed, and I can then buy the plants individually in May. The seeds I have chosen come from Baker Creek, and one is Monomakh’s Hat, the other is Striped Roman.

    Come on, spring!

  8. Nora says:

    My husband and I always order Snackjack Pumpkins which have hull-less seeds and are great for roasting (both the seeds and flesh). We always grow the heirloom Tomato Brandywine which is great all round for using fresh and in preserves.
    I have a sorrel patch that is perennial and I live about 200 miles north of you!

  9. Mary says:

    My order to Johnnie’s always includes Bolero carrots (pelleted); wonderful flavor, great keeper in the root cellar – and Fortex pole beans, the best flavor I’ve found in beans. I also order Tyee spinach from Fedco every year, and have had to order a new packet of Sungold Cherry tomatoes this year, to have one or two plants in the garden. Soraya and Sonja sunflowers are mainstays too.

  10. Lake says:

    My favorites include Johnny’s miniature white cucumbers, delicious, early and prolific; Seeds of Change “rare Italian” pole beans (harvested from late June to October!) and sooo good; and always Sungold tomatoes.
    Also, I can’t resist any new color of nasturtium.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Nora. I am fascinated about your sorrel — mine lasted for years and years, then I forget what happened. So you get tender leaves even though you let it stick around; good to know. (I assume you cut regularly, and don’t let them really get giant?) Thanks for your variety suggestions, and see you soon.

      Welcome, Lake. Yes, ‘Sungold’ is my standby cherry; good one! I am now going to look up that bean, which sounds great, thank you. Don’t be a stranger.

  11. Nancy says:

    Russian Red kale self-seeds in my garden. It seems very resistant to the white cabbage moth and its larvae. I u grow 3 or 4 varieties of kale each year but Russian Red is the one I most often choose for a meal of greens and it freezes beautifully. (Note to Chigal: blanching vegetables keeps enzymes present from affecting color and flavor. It’s hardly rocket science…three or so minutes of steaming sets the quality for a long time. Worth doing!)

    Another favorite – Romano pole beans – they keep on giving and giving and giving. And while I’m on the bean theme – could not face the summer without scarlet or other colored Runner Beans. They’re beautiful, attractive to hummingbirds, and the mature beans at the dried stage make WONDERFUL soups.

  12. Tee Riddle says:

    That’s a very nice list of favorites. I am intrigued by sorrel, since I have never attempted to grow it. I absolutely love kale and arugula. I agree that arugula is a salad essential. A few “must-haves” in my garden is baby bok choy ( I love the terrific cabbage flavor that comes in a smaller package), okra, and as Mary mentioned, Tyee spinach.

    Is it Spring yet?

  13. Jayne says:

    WHen Margaret starts talking seeds, can Spring be far behind? Thank you for waking us from our Winter stupor! I do everything and anything I can to get sweet peas, so I order too many and hope that if those started inside fail, I still have plenty of the coveted seeds to start in the ground. Select Seeds’ Cupani Originals and their Old Fashioned climbing petunia (shoud reseed but not dependable for me) Seymour’s cobaea scandens a must! If it is vegetables we should be talking about, then I need guidance, because I always relied on Smith & Hawken for seeds. Like a candy store, I picked happily from the whirling seed displays!

  14. Jan says:

    My sure things? Pistou basil, parsley for the black swallowtails, who did not visit last year (too much rain), nasturtium, zinnia, cleome (generally reseeds), lettuce. I buy pumpkin seeds and don’t plant them (there’s never enough room) and a friend gave me moon and stars watermelon seeds, but, again, no room. I am rethinking my garden this year, but definitely the basil and parsley.

  15. MichelleB says:

    I always grow buldog paprika pepper. I dry it and it makes the most wonderful powder. Opalka tomato is a huge paste type heirloom. I’m a pushover for nasturiums too.

  16. Amy says:

    Sweet peas from Renee’s Garden seeds are a must! If I stick with the heat tolerant varieties I get flowers most of the summer. Arugula and basil always. This year I’m trying an Italian sage. We just ate our last winter squash last night and I’d like to grow much more this year — Sunshine Kabocha from Johnny’s was delicious and absolutely beautiful. And, and, and……..

  17. Nora says:

    Re: Sorrel “Cut and come again”;
    Last summer was the first time I used the “cut and come again” technique in an established patch of 5 plants.
    Once the leaves got big after harvesting in the spring, I cut all the big leaves off (in late June) and used the “cut and come again” method until October. I found that slugs and other pests were less of a problem in the sorrel patch (either because I tended the patch more carefully or the slugs like to get established on the big leaves).
    As for favourites my husband Stephen informs me that we will be trying “Snackface” Pumpkins this year rather than Snack Jack from veseys.com,a Canadian supplier since yes, we live north of you.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Nora: Thanks for the first-hand experience report on the sorrel. I thought that was the ticket to success and lots of tender leaves…but it had been a long time since I grew it. See you soon again, I hope.

  18. bavaria says:

    Do you have a list of ‘must have’ herbs? After reading Jekka McVicar’s beautiful books , I find more and more herbs are sneaking into my garden.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Bavaria: I am pretty boring, I fear. I grow the ones I use in cooking (sage, parsley, basil, dill, chives) and then some like thyme and marjoram/oregano as ornamental varieties, not really caring about eating them, but loving their golden leaves, maybe, or a creeping habit between paving stones and so on. I have a 25-year-old horseradish plant that I’m not sure I could get rid off I tried, and keep giving away chunks. I also have lovage, I think, still in the mix. This year I will grow cilantro, because I am hooked on making curry (other than that I don’t like it).

      Did you mean particular varieties?

      Welcome, Annabelle. I use kale in fritattas and also in many soups and just sauteed with lots of garlic and oil. A great vegetable; prolific and long-standing. Nice to see you, and do come visit again soon.

  19. Annabelle says:

    Kale on homemade pizza is our standby use for Kale, and a great way to use it if frozen… pizza crust+sauce+onion+mushrooms+it sausage if you’re a carnivore, of course)+kale topped with cheese is the best. The kale is a little crispy-dry and soaks up all the cheesy goodness.

  20. Sarah says:

    Sorrel is one of my favorites, which not many people grow. Last summer, it became a favorite of our chickens. Sadly, they didn’t leave leftovers for us.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sarah. Chickens are more like pigs, if you ask me. They can really hoover through a garden, can’t they? I must get back to my catalogs today and finally place my orders…including that sorrel. Sounds like you will need to grow some under lock and key! See you soon.

  21. Definitely Lacinato kale, for sauteeing with butter and lemon, for adding to white bean soups, chicken soups, and for height and texture in the border. And you can pick it through the snow. Is that a great veggie or what?

  22. Willi says:

    I always, always grow Forellenschluss lettuce. It’s a German romaine-ish heirloom with a very sweet taste. The leaves have nice crisp bottoms and tender tops. Tastes good picked young but even better when allowed to form a head. It’s also unfortunately known as ‘Flashy Trout Back’ (an ugly name for a lovely lettuce).

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Katie. Lovage leaves taste like celery to me, and they’re good in salads, soups (I’d add them late in the cooking rather than waste the flavor by boiling them too long), and potato dishes and such. As for your summer squash…maybe try diagnosing what you see starting at this Cornell squash diagnostic site.

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