When the lists of “New Vegetable Varieties for 2022” arrive each year on my computer screen and in my mailbox, I don’t get excited.
Last year I had the same affliction. The introduction of Siam Dwarf, Abigail, and a number of other new tomato varieties didn’t provoke a lust in me. Is something wrong with me?
Not that I’m immune to horticultural hype. Like the car enthusiast is lured by the sleek styling of new models, I am sometimes lured by horticultural promises of productivity, flavor, and pest resistance.
Years ago, the hype seduced me into growing a bevy of broccolis. The labels that I carefully poked into the ground next to each seedling became irrelevant as the season progressed. They didn’t differ dramatically from one another. Sure, slightly bigger heads unfolded atop some of them, more side shoots sprouted from others, and still others matured a few days earlier than the others. These nuances are important to a commercial grower, not to a farmer whose “back forty” is forty square yards.
I’m not saying that real change never occurs. Years ago, a substantially different type of broccoli did come down the pike — purple broccolis. I grew them. They were so tender and tasty that I never grew green broccoli again.
Even when real change occurs, improvements that make a new variety noteworthy in one garden may be superfluous in another. One year saw the introduction of Salad Bush cucumber, billed as having almost everything you’d want from a cucumber variety: early bearing, compact growth, and tolerance to five important cucumber diseases: powdery mildew, downy mildew, target leaf spot, cucumber mosaic virus, and scab. Unfortunately, it’s a sixth disease, bacterial wilt, that spells the death knell to my cucumber plants each year.
So I continue to grow Soo Yow (also written Suyo) cucumbers because they’re less prone to wilt. And Soo Yow is no new kid on the block. It’s said to have originated in China around 100 BCE. Shintokiwa is another variety that’s always done well, at least in my garden.
The frenzy over new varieties typically reaches its peak with the midwinter lineup of each year’s All-America Selection winners. These are new varieties that have been judged superior to the best existing varieties in test gardens at more than 40 trial gardens across North America. In one form or another, AAS press releases reach millions of gardeners.
The folks of AAS are performing a valuable service, encouraging breeders and facilitating press coverage of what’s new. At the same time, all this focus on a few varieties tends to overshadow, especially for beginning gardeners, the true diversity available.
One year, for instance, red, savoyed leaves made Red Sails lettuce an AAS winner. But if you wanted to eat red lettuce, you also could grow bronze-tinged Pirat and Antina, red-tipped Lolla Rosa, deep-red Ruby, Red Romaine, and Four Seasons, or deepest-red Red Salad Bowl — whatever intensity of red suited you. Because they’re not new introductions, these lettuces will never be AAS winners. AAS contenders are limited to varieties that never have been sold previously.
Too many of noteworthy, albeit non-new varieties, will never be spotlighted solely because they are not new. Tomatoes like Belgian Giant, Carmello, Brandywine, Ponderosa or Cherokee Purple have been nestled for years in quiet greatness amongst other varieties in the pages and websites of some seed companies.
New pepper varieties with attractive names and attractive shades of purple, brown, red, and yellow have been in the spotlight over the years, yet plain old Italian Sweet is, to my mind, a most productive, early ripening, and delicious variety. A new name with more pizzazz, such as Rubicand Italia, might bring more attention to this variety.
You never read about great peas like Lincoln and Green Arrow during the midwinter hype, so I take it upon myself to promote them. Back in 1979, Sugar Snap, another great pea and an AAS winner, entered the limelight as the first snap-type pea. This variety was followed by dwarf snap peas, including another AAS winner, Sugar Ann. Stick with the unwieldy Sugar Snap for flavor.
I fear that the annual midwinter ballyhoo of what’s new in the plant kingdom not only will narrow the list of tomato, lettuce, or pea varieties gardeners might try, but also diminish what little focus lesser-known vegetables, most of which are not worth a breeder’s time, might have. Mache, for instance, is a relatively unknown salad green in America in spite of its many aliases (fetticus, lamb’s lettuce, corn salad). You’re not apt to find Dunkelgruner Vollherziger or Ronde Maraichere mache in any list of What’s New for 2022.” Nor any fennels, cardoons, scorzoneras, groundnuts, or ground cherries.
And what happened to the green thumb? Choosing a good variety is only part of a gardener’s skill. I chuckle when I read about the flavor of lettuce varieties. Lettuces differ mostly in appearance and texture. Grow any of them well and they’re all, to quote one seed purveyor, “tender, tasty, tangy, delicate, sweet, very sweet, fine-flavored, delicious, mouth-watering, nutty-flavoured.”
Imagine what might happen if the annual national hype of new flower and vegetable varieties were too successful. Just as the McDonald’s stand in Alberquerque looks like and serves the same Big Macs as the one in Bangor, every backyard garden might have the same broccoli and tomato varieties, yet no cardoons or tomatillos.
Remember, those AAS test gardens are scattered throughout the country to generally find varieties adapted nationwide. (A few AAS varieties are listed as adapted to one of the six major growing regions.) Yet there still are places where a particular type or variety of vegetable is favored for flavor and productivity.
We need more variety, and not just new varieties, in our gardens. What Liberty Hyde Bailey a century ago about apples applies equally well today to vegetables: “Why do we need so many kinds …? Because there are so many folks. A person has the right to gratify his legitimate tastes … [and] should be accorded that privilege.”
As I peruse seed catalogs and websites, I try to look at, then beyond, the year’s horticultural hype to find what is worth growing –irrespective of whether it is new or old, common or uncommon.
New Paltz writer Lee Reich, PhD is a garden consultant specializing in fruit, vegetable, and nut growing, including using these plants as ornamentals. He also does consulting and hosts workshops at his New Paltz farmden and webinars, via Zoom. For more information, go to www.leereich.com.