By Patty G. Leander
As a new year approaches, our mailboxes fill with an avalanche of the latest seed catalogs, full of luscious photos, enticing descriptions and new releases. Every year, I review my notes from past seasons, talk with other vegetable gardeners, visit with farmers and scour the internet, ultimately choosing a few new vegetable varieties to try in my own garden and always planting reliable favorites. I also keep up with the All-America Selections (AAS) winners. AAS is a national program that tests new introductions, both edible and ornamental, in trial gardens across the country, with winners chosen based on superior performance. The program has been in existence for more than 85 years, and perhaps you are familiar with past winning edibles, including ‘Straight-8’ cucumber (1935), ‘Clemson Spineless’ okra (1939), ‘Salad Bowl’ lettuce (1952) and ‘Celebrity’ tomato (1984). An announcement of the winning selections for next year is forthcoming; for a complete list of AAS winners, visit www.all-americaselections.org
As we anticipate the 2020 gardening season, I’ve chosen 20 vegetables for your consideration in the upcoming year — some new flavors, some AAS recipients, some old favorites and some just for fun!
Beans and Peas
1 – ‘Big Boy’ Southern pea. Also known as ‘Texas Big Boy’, this heirloom Southern pea produces 8-inch pods filled with light-green, kidney-shaped peas with a dark-green eye. Compact plants produce heavy yields of 8-inch pods that grow above the foliage for easy picking. Each pod is filled with 10–12 peas. It’s a great garden crop no matter where you live in Texas.
2 – ‘Dixie Speckled’ butterpea. If you don’t like lima beans, try butterpeas! To be honest, they are the same thing, but your home-grown lima beans — or in this case butterpeas — are infinitely better than anything you’ve ever tasted from a can. ‘Dixie Speckled’ is an heirloom, pea-sized lima with a subtle flavor and creamy texture. Bushy 2-1/2-foot plants produce ample pods filled with two to four dark-pink, speckled butterpeas that mature to mottled reddish-brown when dry. For easy shelling and fresh eating, harvest pods just as they plump up and start to turn yellow. Pods can also be left on the plant to allow seeds to dry for longer storage. A favorite across the South, ‘Dixie Speckled’ is well adapted to our hot and dry conditions, and deserves a spot in Texas gardens.
3 – ‘Mascotte’ bush bean. An ideal bush bean for containers and small-space gardens, ‘Mascotte’ was chosen as a 2014 AAS winner thanks to its pretty white blooms, slender green pods and tender snap. This easy-to-grow bean starts producing in only 50 days. Beans are one of the easiest vegetables to grow, and ‘Mascotte’ in a container is a good choice for space-challenged or beginning gardeners. Also an ideal way to introduce children to gardening.
4 – ‘Masterpiece’ fava bean. Perfect for the cool season, fava beans are a nitrogen-fixing legume for the garden and a rare treat in the kitchen. ‘Masterpiece’ is an heirloom variety that grows 30–36 inches tall. A mass planting, like one at the Dallas Arboretum, adds an ornamental flair to planting beds, while also serving as a cover crop to enrich soil and deter weeds. Seeds are generally sown in fall or early spring, and the cold-hardy plants can survive temperatures as low as the mid-twenties. Blooms are very showy, and the foliage is edible, too.
5 – ‘Red Noodle’ yard-long bean. If you love Southern peas, why not branch out and grow their cousins? Yard-long beans are closely related to Southern peas and share the same heat tolerance and cultivation requirements. Plant them in late spring after it warms up and start picking about 60 days later. Though the pods will grow up to a yard long, the best quality for eating is to harvest them when only 12–15 inches in length. Excellent in stir-fries. Grow them as you would pole beans, with a sturdy support to climb.
6 – ‘Sugar Magnolia’ sugar snap pea. What’s not to love about this purple-podded sugar snap pea? Lavender and magenta bicolored blooms give way to striking deep-purple pods. The plants have heavy tendrils that help vines cling to a fence, trellis or arbor, climbing 6–8 feet in height. Harvest edible pods before peas plump up for best quality. Credit for the ornamental qualities of this variety goes to public domain plant breeder Dr. Alan Kapuler of Corvallis, Oregon. It took 15 years of crossing, selecting and growing out plants to develop the color, flavor, sweetness and abundant tendrils that make this pea unique.
7 – ‘Velour’ bush bean. It’s hard to find premium French filet beans at the grocery store and even harder to find high-quality purple ones. If you want to enjoy the subtle sweetness and eye-catching color of these specialty beans, known as haricots verts, try this royal-purple variety called ‘Velour’. These fine-flavored, open-pollinated French filet beans produce smooth, slender pods on compact plants. The purple pigment fades when cooked, so enjoy the delicate pods raw, lightly steamed or added at the last minute to a stir-fry.
8 – ‘Purple Haze’ carrot. These days carrots come in a lovely mix of colors, which include the 2006 AAS winner ‘Purple Haze’. Seeing the purple outside and the orange inside, you’ll want to eat these fresh and unpeeled for maximum color, flavor and nutrition. Slice into coins for a crudité platter, toss into salads or shred for coleslaw. If you don’t have loose, deep soil for the 7- to 8-inch tapered roots, try growing them in a large pot. The best color develops when carrots are grown in cool temperatures.
9 – ‘Miniature Colored’ corn. Racoons got you down? Try ornamental corn. Troublesome critters don’t seem attracted to these small, multicolored ears that develop on 5-foot plants. Leave the ears on the plant until the kernels and husks are dry. The multi-colored ears are perfect for fall decorating and can be saved from year to year. The dried kernels can also be popped, on the cob or off. Not quite Orville Redenbacher quality but a fun experiment in the kitchen.
10 – ‘Fairy Tale’ eggplant. Eggplant typically grows into a large plant, but this dwarf All-America Selections winner from 2005 reaches only 2-1/2 feet in height and can easily be grown in a large container on a deck or patio. Ornamental lavender flowers are followed by purple-and-white striped fruit, only 3–4 inches long. For a trio of miniature eggplants, combine with fellow AAS winners ‘Hansel’ (purple) and ‘Gretel’ (white).
11 – ‘Prizm’ kale. There’s a new kale in town, and this one is compact, well-behaved and perfect for containers. The only kale to be awarded the AAS distinction (2016), the ruffled, tender leaves of ‘Prizm’ develop on short stalks for an overall height of 15 inches. The leaves can be enjoyed raw or cooked, and like other kales, the best flavor develops after exposure to frost.
12 – ‘Burgundy’ okra. Whether ribbed or smooth, green or red, okra is the quintessential summer crop for Southern gardens. It can handle heat and humidity, and pests are generally more of a nuisance to the gardener than damaging to the plants. ‘Burgundy’ won the AAS designation in 1988 for its deep-red pods, crimson stems and bright-yellow flowers. Mature plants are attractive as a landscape accent.
13 – ‘Violetta’ pac choi. Fast-growing and nutritious, this beautiful violet pac choi can be harvested as baby greens about 30 days after planting seed. Full-size heads are ready for harvest in about 50 days. Add fresh leaves to salads, wraps or stir-fry. Makes a beautiful ornamental plant in a container or grouped together in the garden or landscape.
14 – ‘Shishito’ pepper. This mild, thin-walled Japanese pepper, which has become a popular appetizer at high-end restaurants and sushi bars, can now be grown in your own garden. Harvest the glossy, green peppers when they are about three inches long (I leave a little stem on each one for easy eating) and blister them in a bit of oil in a hot cast-iron skillet for a delectable treat. Seeds of open-pollinated varieties can easily be saved for future plantings and for sharing.
15 – ‘Bossa Nova’ zucchini. Light- and dark-green mottled fruit on bushy, productive plants put ‘Bossa Nova’ zucchini in the AAS winner circle in 2015. This zucchini also got high marks for taste and texture, plus these plants are quick growing, producing about 40 days after sowing seed. The light-green fruit is easy to spot among the foliage. This variety is a good option for school gardens, as the large seeds are easy to handle, the plants grow fast and children can easily spot the unique zucchini among dark-green foliage.
16 – ‘Honeybaby’ butternut. A butternut squash bred for small-space gardens and containers, ‘Honeybaby’ is compact but productive. An AAS winner in 2017, these plants produce personal-size squash on semi-bush plants with short vines. Its diminutive fruit weighs only 4–8 ounces, with flesh that is bright orange and sweet. Plants are resistant to powdery mildew, a big plus in Texas.
17 – ‘Sunshine’ kabocha. An AAS winner from 2004, this vibrant squash has orange, creamy flesh that cooks up smooth and sweet. This is a kabocha-type squash, popular in Japan and sometimes known as Japanese pumpkin. Similar to buttercup squash, kabocha is good for roasting, baking and mashing. Mature fruit weighs 3–4 pounds and should be harvested when the rind is hard. Most kabocha-squash varieties require curing to develop their sugars, but ‘Sunshine’ is good to eat as soon as it is harvested.
18 – ‘Big Mama’ paste tomato. A great paste tomato for sauce, soups, salsas and anyone who prefers firm, less juicy tomatoes. An exclusive from Burpee, these are by far the heftiest paste tomatoes I’ve grown — twice the size of other Roma-type tomatoes. Last year, I grew a 2017 introduction from Burpee called ‘Gladiator’; similar in size, but plants start producing about a week earlier than ‘Big Mama’. The folks at Burpee declare that these big Romas will save time on peeling and coring.
19 – ‘Chef’s Choice Orange’ beefsteak tomato. The Chef’s Choice tomatoes — a series that includes orange, pink, green, yellow, red and black fruit — have all earned the AAS designation, starting with ‘Chef’s Choice Orange’ in 2014. These colorful beefsteaks were developed to have an heirloom appearance combined with hybrid vigor, as well as a pleasing balance of acid and sweet. ‘Chef’s Choice Orange’ grows on vigorous, indeterminate, 5-foot plants. It starts producing 8-ounce tomatoes that are bright orange, inside and out, about 75 days from transplanting.
20 – ‘Midnight Snack’ cherry tomato. The ‘Indigo’ line of tomatoes was first introduced by breeders at Oregon State University in 2012 with a tomato called ‘Indigo Rose’. The tomatoes were developed through conventional breeding techniques, using wild tomatoes from South America that contain high levels of health-promoting plant pigments called anthocyanins. Several other varieties with a dark purple skin have since been introduced for home gardens, including ‘Indigo Apple’, ‘Indigo Blue Berries’ and (the latest, a 2017 AAS winner) ‘Midnight Snack’. The immature fruit starts out uniformly dark, ripening to a deep crimson, but maintaining the indigo color wherever the sun hits the fruit. ‘Midnight Snack’ is promoted as a guilt-free snack, any time of the day or night.
2 Herbs for 2020
Versatile herbs liven up both garden and kitchen with fragrant foliage, zesty seeds and edible flowers. Here are two to try in 2020; both can be planted in spring after the last frost.
1 – Borage. The ornamental blooms of borage lure pollinators and other beneficial insects to the garden. As an added bonus, the iridescent, cucumber-flavored flowers are edible.
2 – Stevia. Relatively new to the Texas garden scene, this South American native is grown for its intensely sweet leaves that are more than 30 times sweeter than granulated sugar. Stevia leaves can be nibbled in the garden for a bright pick-me-up or harvested and used to sweeten food and beverages.