One of the best things about working with seeds is the time we spend in seed trials, trying new varieties and comparing traits. We are completely spoiled by the multitude of fruits and vegetables that we grow, as well as the produce from local farms. Over the years I have adopted a list of what I consider to be the must-have, cannot-do-without seeds that have earned a place in my annual garden rotation. I’m always keen to try new varieties, and some of these are very recent additions.
Tastes vary, of course, but I am often asked to make recommendations. I find the seeds that follow to be easy, reliable, consistent, and among the best in their categories. For my needs, these are the twelve must-have seeds for 2017.
At the time of writing, there is quite a lot of snow on the ground, and we’re just emerging from what has been a pretty rough winter on the typically mild west coast. But I’m looking forward to March when I’ll be planting Astro Organic arugula seeds. Arugula is a fantastic cool season crop in the Brassica family. By their nature, the seeds have a very high germination rate, and they germinate perfectly well in cool soil. I love the nutty flavour of Astro. It is very fast growing and quite versatile. The beds in my garden are the standard 4 x 8 feet in size, so I plant a four foot row about once every three weeks starting the first week in March. If you live somewhere colder, try some in containers in a bright window, or beneath grow lights. The immature leaves are especially mild and tender, and they make a great addition to salads. I also enjoy them added to pizza as soon as it comes out of the oven.
The same week my arugula goes in, I’ll be planting similar short rows of Monstrueux de Viroflay spinach. We picked this old French heirloom up a few years ago, but it never ceases to amaze me. The flavour is wonderful, and the young leaves are quite sweet — they lack that astringent quality of some other spinach varieties. And unlike other spinach, the leaves become enormous as they mature, but retain their tenderness and succulence. Again, it’s a good candidate for baby leaf growing indoors if your local weather is not cooperating. It could even be started earlier with some frost protection beneath a cloche or low polytunnel.
Since I will be in the garden in early March, I will probably plant my main crop of Little Marvel pea seeds along with my spinach and arugula. Instead of doing short rows several times, I’ll plant a couple of long rows of peas. In my opinion, peas freeze better than any other vegetable, so I take advantage by aiming for one or two big harvests in the early summer, and then processing them all at once. I still have some small packages of frozen peas from last summer kicking around, and they are perfect for samosas or chicken pot pies. I like Little Marvel because of its relatively minute size. It really does produce a low, bushy row. By the time the peas are ready to harvest, the plants have fixed a good dose of nitrogen in the soil. So after harvesting the pods, I cut the plants at the soil level, leaving the roots intact, and plant some nitrogen-hungry leafy greens in the same spot. There are many other good shelling peas, of course, but Little Marvel suits my growing space and my schedule.
One more cool season crop that will be direct sown around this time is Radicchio di Lusia. I like all the radicchio varieties I’ve tried, but I received one of these in my CSA farm box last summer and kind of fell under its spell. I’ve never seen a more beautiful vegetable. Its delicate leaves grow more pale towards the centre of the head, but even the outer leaves are gorgeous. Radicchio falls into a category of vegetables with a flavour that is described (unfairly!) as “bitter.” This is such an unjust way to describe the complex flavour, but we don’t seem to have a more suitable word. We associate bitterness with things that are unpalatable, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not a vegetable that I want to eat every night in the summer, but it will certainly be the highlight of several meals. I like to brush quartered pieces with olive oil and toss them on the grill. Then a quick drizzle of balsamic vinegar… I’m making my mouth water.
Starting in early spring, but continuing right through to the end of summer, I will plant quite short rows of Kincho scallion seeds. Every two to three weeks, I’ll plant about a foot of row. I have found that this provides a very constant supply of scallions from April to October — again, this could even be extended with some frost protection. I like all the scallions we offer, but Kincho has a very even thickness along its length, and the flavour suits my palate particularly well. Even if they grow right at the edge of a raised bed, there is always room to plant more scallion seeds.
As April approaches, I will gear up my lettuce production. I like to start them in flats so they can be transplanted with perfect spacing. The other benefit is that the plants put on a little growth so the newly emerged seedlings won’t get eaten by woodlice. There are so many good lettuces in the pages of our catalogue, but my hands-down favourite is Alkindus Organic butterhead lettuce. The leaves are so tender and flavourful, and the full-sized heads always turn out surprisingly perfect in size and shape. It’s like those very expensive butterhead lettuces sold in clamshell plastic packaging, except with flavour and richly coloured leaves.
When the heat of summer approaches, I plant Lovelock Organic lettuce, which has truly superior flavour, and incredible resistance to bolting. Alkindus is good against bolting as well, but nothing beats Lovelock. For my garden, I plant three big batches of lettuce about a month apart.
April is also when I plant my first row of carrot seeds, and this year I’ll be planting Yaya Organic carrots again. How does one pick from so many excellent choices? Well, I may plant several carrots, but not without a row of Yaya. Many of my gardening friends prefer to only plant open pollinated seeds on principle, but there is something to be said for the uniformity and precision that can be had from hybrid seeds. Yaya are great for market growers because they just look so good. All the same size and shape, with smooth skins and superb flavour. I’ll aim to plant three big rows of carrots because they do not all need to be harvested at once. April, June, and early August make sense for my purposes.
By May the ground should be warming up agreeably. This is when I plant my first row of Red Ace Organic beet seeds. I love the festive stripes of Chioggia, and the brilliant yellow flesh of Touchstone Gold, but as far as red beets go, you can’t ask for more than Red Ace delivers. We’ve had this product for years, and I hope it stays forever. The roots are smooth, uniform, sweet, firm (without being woody), and consistent. The tops are tall and upright. I’ll start one row of beets in early May, and follow it up with another in early June. That’s about all the beets my household can eat, and they will last into the fall.
If the weather is cooperating in May, I will plant a single long row of Fortex pole bean seeds. In a cold, wet spring, I may hold off a couple of weeks, but usually May works. Fortex is often listed as a filet bean, which describes its very long and slender pods. These lack the strings found in other beans, and they are amazingly tender and tasty. I usually construct a simple (read, “rudimentary”) trellis from lengths of bamboo tied with my trusty roll of Knotty Garden Twine. The bean vines find their ways onto such a structure without too much convincing. Keep the vines picked, and the pods will keep coming for several weeks in mid summer. This is another vegetable that freezes very well after a 30 second blanch in boiling water.
Once the soil is good and warm in the opening days of June, I’m definitely going to plant Tyria Organic cucumber seeds. Actually, I’ll start these indoors six weeks earlier and transplant them out in June. These hybrid seeds are eye-wateringly pricey, but worth every last cent. The return on investment is phenomenal. Each plant produces loads of fruits, and when they hang from their trellises, the fruits grow straight and enormous, well over a foot long. And they are simply the best cucumbers I have ever tried. This is a new one for the 2017 catalogue, but if you have some space (particularly in a greenhouse), I think you will agree about the quality. The plants are so productive, you’ll be sharing armloads of them with friends and coworkers.
The final vegetable no sensible gardener should do without (in my humble opinion) is one that did not make it into the pages of our print catalogue. Futtsu Black Early squash was a revelation to me last year. I had never seen or heard of this old Japanese heirloom before. It does not fit tidily into any of the squash categories, although it is similar to a small pumpkin. The fruits are only about one and a half pounds each, but the flavour is mind-blowing! Cutting into one releases the scent of cantaloupe. The flesh has practically no fibre to it, so it’s a joy to cook with. We roasted one whole and scraped out the buttery flesh and followed a fairly standard squash soup recipe — it was the best squash soup I’ve ever had. The skin is extremely thin, so I think it would make fantastic tempura.