Old favorites still perform

By Tom Seymour | Aug 16, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Provider bush beans are heavy producers.

Garden outlets and catalogs offer many new and exciting types of vegetables and flowers. Always curious, I enjoy trying one or two new species each year. But being caught up in the quest for something new and different, it’s easy to forget the value of some of our older, established plant varieties.

Winter, or “keeper," squash serve as a good example. One garden catalog contains two and a half pages devoted to winter squash. Of these, only three could be regarded as standard varieties. These are Waltham Butternut, Burgess Buttercup and Blue Hubbard. The rest represent newer types, many of which I had never heard of, and some with unpronounceable names.

Of course, some of the newer varieties are only new to us here in the U.S. Many come from places such as Asia, Britain and Australia, to name a few. There, these varieties are beloved and have remained in circulation for hundreds of years. Other lesser-known winter squash are truly new, in that they are new hybrids.

I’ve grown some of the “new” winter squash varieties, and while all had their strong points, none was, in my opinion, superior to any of the old-favorite varieties mentioned above. Also, a farm near me sells a variety of winter squash each fall, allowing me to try new varieties without having to grow them myself.

So why is it that my garden today has only one kind of squash, Burgess Buttercup? Well, if, according to my taste, the others were in any way superior, I would grow them. But to my mind, the taste, texture and keeping qualities of buttercup squash simply cannot be excelled.

Bush beans

Bush beans rank among my favorite vegetables. It’s a joyful day when the first harvest of beans comes to hand. Last fall saw me recovering from an operation and unable to process all of my garden produce. This left me buying canned and sometimes frozen beans from the store. And come spring, when fresh beans became available, I turned to these. But none compared to homegrown beans.

In fact the “fresh” beans from the store were of a coarse variety, with only a fair taste. None of these were truly fresh, with signs of aging present. Besides that, they were stringy, bringing to mind the old term for such beans, “string beans.”

But even the beans we grow at home differ wildly from one to another. And as with winter squash, I strive to try a new variety each year.

My 2019 vegetable garden contains three old favorites plus one newer variety. These are Provider, Masai, Romano and Pencil Pod yellow beans. Masai was my trial variety and while they were thin, straight and quite flavorful, I planted them for a different reason. The time from germination to harvest is represented as 47 days, as compared to Provider’s 50 days, Pencil Pod’s 52 days and Romano’s 54 days.

But a funny thing happened. Provider and Pencil Pod ripened well ahead of Masai, with Romano not far behind. So instead of being a 47-day bean, they are more of a 60-day variety. Or at least that’s how they grew in my garden.

Excepting for Pencil Pod and Romano, two specialty-type beans, I rank Provider as the best overall bush bean. Beans are straight, without a hint of stringiness and have an excellent flavor. Besides that, Provider puts out high-quality beans over a long period of time. For these reasons, Provider will be my only green, non-specialty bush bean in next year’s garden.

Lettuce

For me, nothing beats a fresh salad, the ingredients picked only minutes before serving. And as with winter squash and bush beans, lettuce comes in a staggering number of varieties and types.

As someone who never met a lettuce he disliked, all varieties, both new and old, have their place. And again, each year I try out at least one new lettuce variety and some years, I’ll experiment with two or three different new-to-me types.

Two types that I had high hopes for, Speckled Amish and Freckles, had poor germination rates and even those that did germinate had trouble surviving. Was the cold, wet spring responsible? Hard to say, but by comparison, one old-time variety that I grew had a near-perfect germination rate, with no problems associated with damping off.

That old variety, Oakleaf, dates back to the 1700s. Oakleaf is aptly named, since its leaves closely resemble oak leaves. This lettuce grows leaves in loose bunches, thus the term, “loose leaf lettuce.”

For some gardeners, historic varieties such as Oakleaf and Black-Seeded Simpson, seem passé. And with all the different and exciting varieties available today, who can blame them? But to eschew older types of lettuce just because they are old is to lose out on a good thing.

These venerable, loose-leaf types share some desirable traits. They can be direct-seeded in early spring and when harvesting, picking the outer leaves will encourage more growth on the inner leaves. These are “cut-and-come-again,” long-season lettuces.

Tomatoes too

Look in any garden catalog and you’ll find pages upon pages of tomato offerings. Some of these can only be described as “designer varieties.”

Here again, there is no such thing as a bad tomato. But some are better than others. One old favorite, a hybrid, stands head and shoulders above the crowd. Early Girl is a favorite of home gardeners as well as commercial growers. Early maturing, juicy and with a fine flavor, these seem hard to improve upon.

Then we have the innumerable heirloom types. Each of us develops an affinity for one or two of these, and among my favorites stands Cherokee Purple, a beefsteak-type with a great sweet flavor.

So in the end, my advice is if you have strayed too far from the old varieties, it’s time to give them a second look. You might rekindle an old love.

Tom’s tips

For a natural way to discourage insect pests in a greenhouse, try burning oak leaves in a perforated metal container. The smoke acts as a deterrent.

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