With garden catalogs arriving in our mailboxes, it’s time to consider what best to plant next spring.

Like most of us, I have my perennial favorites and these remain the same year in and year out. Besides these, though, other varieties come and go. And every once in a while some new vegetable or annual flower does so well that it quickly falls into the “favorite” group.

As longtime readers know, I enjoy doing in-ground trials on new species, and last season was no exception. Usually, one or two of these new-to-me types reveal themselves as duds, something I would neither plant again nor recommend to others. But every once in a while something exceptional comes along, and when that happens, it’s time to celebrate.

And last season I was a happy gardener indeed. Let’s begin with lettuce. Past attempts at raising butterhead (a loosely packed head of lettuce) lettuce were never too successful. The heads never became packed at all and the lettuce wasn’t worth growing. But this year Tennis Ball lettuce changed all that. Maturing in only 50 days was a big plus, since this allowed for follow-up plantings.

The heads, sweet and tender, were more tightly packed than other butterhead types I’ve tried and this, too, was a plus for Tennis Ball. This lettuce is an heirloom variety and was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson's at Monticello. It’s now my favorite, too, and hopefully it will become yours as well.

The other new (for me) lettuce in my 2017 garden was a loose-leaf variety called “Green Ice.” For those who buy loose-head lettuce from the supermarket, this closely mimics the green loose-head varieties carried there.

Green Ice matured in 45 days and again, I was able to get two plantings in. Flavor was excellent and texture was crispy, all in all, a fine lettuce for anyone to grow. I anticipate growing both Tennis Ball and Green Ice lettuce again in 2018.

Bush beans

Green beans rank among my favorite vegetables. Possessing many of the same health benefits associated with leafy greens, green beans taste great and a steady diet of them can lead to improved health. I usually either can or freeze enough home-grown beans to last through the winter, and this year I chose to freeze. It was a good choice, since green beans hold their flavor remarkably well when frozen.

Green beans vary from one brand to another. Some become quite thick though, something that leaves me cold. Others acquire a significant curve, another deficit in my book. But a few remain thin and straight, a prerequisite for growing in my garden.

Flavor can never take a back seat, and while most green beans taste pretty good, some are stronger or milder than others. I like a delicate, sweetish flavor, and last year my choice of a new variety gave me just that.

Also, given our short growing season here in Maine, it pays to plant a fast-maturing variety. All the same, even fast-growing types should produce over a long period of time. That’s a lot to ask from any green bean, but Strike, a new variety for me, met all these qualifications.

Maturing in only 45 days, Strike continues to produce new beans over an extended period. My beans only quit producing when drought conditions in late August prompted me to cease watering for the sake of conserving well water. But Strike beans are rated as a long-season variety and, given a normal summer in terms of water, should put out beans all season.

Finally, at 5 inches long, strike maintains its straight, slender shape all season. And Strike tastes great. Strike will reign as my green bean of choice next season.

Heirloom beets

Most people like beets, but don’t like preparing and cooking them because of the blood-like juice. One of my friends will never peel beets again because the first time she tried, the juice stained her hands. But not all beets produce the same amount of juice. I tried one last season that was a joy to prepare, since they didn’t bleed freely, as other beets do. And what little red got on my hands was easily rinsed off.

The person whose beets primarily come from the supermarket probably is unaware of the great number of beet varieties out there. But a quick look through any garden catalog will reveal a surprising number of beet varieties, all with different traits.

With beets, as with so many other vegetables, I like to try new types. Two years ago I grew Cylindra, a long beet that allows for easy peeling and slicing. But Cylindra had a big drawback – they tasted like cardboard. With hardly any flavor, Cylindra proved a dud.

But last year’s beet, Early Wonder, made up for my disappointment over Cylindra. Early Wonder does not stain fingers or cutting boards as do other beets. Maturing in 50 days, Early Wonder remains good even after maturing and staying in the ground for extended periods.

Also, the tops, or greens, made excellent, sweet boiling greens. The roots themselves were not excessively sweet, but still contained an ample degree of sweetness. I froze many packages of this fine beet. And as you might expect, Early Wonder beet will go into my 2018 garden.


Into every garden come a few duds, and for me, Stupice tomato was a huge dud. Advertised as having a sweet, tangy flavor normally associated with beefsteak types, Stupice fell far short of the mark. Most any tomato would taste as good or better than this dud.

Also, the ad called for 3- to 4-ounce fruits, but here again, Stupice fruits weighed considerably less. Stupice isn’t advertised as a cherry tomato, but resembles cherry tomatoes in many respects, save that it wasn’t nearly as prolific as a cherry tomato.

I would say that if anyone wants lots of small, sweet tomatoes, then plant cherry tomatoes and avoid Stupice, since Stupice is neither a cherry tomato nor a slicing tomato.

My experience with Stupice wasn’t all bad, since it taught me a valuable lesson and that is, no printed words can fully describe the taste and habit of any tomato and the only way to know is to grow it yourself.

In other words, hands-on experience in growing not only tomatoes but any vegetable still ranks as the best way to learn about all the different varieties.

Tom’s tips

Want a sprawling, fast-growing vining plant for a hanging basket? Look no further than licorice plant, Helichrysum petiolare. Technically a perennial shrub in its native Africa, we treat licorice plant as a vining annual here in Maine.

Drought-resistant, hardy beyond belief and fast-growing, licorice plant makes a wonderful specimen plant, and it can even stand alone in a hanging basket. What more could we ask of any annual?