There are many different varieties (cultivars) of vegetables readily available online or through seed catalogs which offer great eye candy material. Perfectly displayed vegetables, amazing colors and new and improved varieties entice even seasoned farmers to try their hand at something new. But it’s more than just eye candy. Nuggets of extremely valuable information often accompany the images and can often be found under the [plant details], or [additional information] sections. Information ranging fromdisease resistances, climate conditions, planting flexibility and ease of growth, give valuable insight and enables season extension, avoidance of potential issues (diseases), and also completely new potential products and markets altogether.
When reading through plant details and additional information sections, it quickly becomes apparent that there is significant variations within related cultivars. For example, there are many sub-varieties of kale that differ with growing preferences. Some cultivars can tolerate much hotter changes than others and vise versa. Some varieties are more resistant to diseases, and grow more quickly than others and some may be slower to bolt. Just as we all are unique in some way, having our predisposed strengths and weaknesses, plants do too. Moreover, through hybridization and cross-breeding, specific desired plant characteristics can be developed. Many of these seed companies (Fedco, Johnny’s, High Mowing, Baker Creek), have breeders doing just this. Not all varieties found in seed catalogs contain detailed additional information, but many do. Next time you find yourself drooling over the newest rainbow lacinato kale, do yourself a favor and click that [read more] arrow! You may just find yourself growing it for more than its wonderful colors..
When going through our crop selection process, these are some of the characteristics we’re looking for and why:
1) Speed/Rate of Growth
Days to harvest. This is a BIG one for us and an important quality for any small-scale operation; the less time the plants are in the ground, the less time for something to go wrong and the quicker the harvest. There is also something very rewarding to see something growing quickly; it gives early feelings of success that can steamroll into bigger successes with other plants. Finding varieties of quick growing crops like salad turnips, radishes and baby greens brings quick value to a farmer and helps build confidence.
Salad Turnips are Quick and Easy to Grow
2) Easy to Grow Crops
“Easy to grow” is a cultivar description we always keep an eye open for. Like with quickly producing plants, cultivars that are easy to grow can be rewarding for a gardener. Even if conditions aren’t ideal, some plants can still do well. For example, this Winner Kohlrabi from Fedco claims to be able to survive droughts and neglect. Straight up!
“ Longtime customer Brian Cramer of Hutchins Farm in Concord, Mass., convinced CR to grow kohlrabi again for the first time in fifteen years. “Winner,” Cramer said, “has been my most successful kohlrabi for many years, always beating out others I have tried in consistency, quality and appearance.” CR grew Winner in 2012 and it proved to be everything Cramer said. Direct-seeded in late June into a severe drought, irrigated sparingly, thinned belatedly, it even survived his two-week midsummer absence and nevertheless produced its lovely green stem bulb three weeks ahead of Early White Vienna. Its tender sweet flavor was a revelation.”
Plants that can tolerate conditions that are not ideal are most certainly appealing to most growers and can be especially advantageous for growers just starting out. They can also provide the ability to grow in areas of the garden that may not be ideal for more picky crops allowing the most and best use of bed space. Being able to plant in new areas gives the farmer another tool to work with.
Tokyo Bekana is an Asian Green that is also Easy to Grow (and delicious!)
3) Cold and Heat Tolerant Varieties
Some varieties tolerate extremely cold temperatures while others tolerate heat. Some tolerate both and that is always an eye catching feature for us! To be able to extend the growing season is something in which many farmers invest heavily (mostly with infrastructure); however, knowledge of cultivars is a valuable component to season extension that is sometimes overlooked in this regards. When searching through seed catalogs online, we’ve found it helpful to search the catalog through keywords like “heat tolerant” or “cold tolerant.”
Kale is a fun (and gorgeous) and popular cold hardy crop to grow!
When looking at disease resistance, once again there is significant variation. Getting to know the characteristics of the various sub-varieties of vegetables available allows for higher yields, healthier crops, happier farmers and more satisfied consumers. We pay special attention to disease resistances when choosing varieties of tomatoes and other solanaceae plants. Resistances to the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV), and Blight are resistances we value. However, disease resistant varieties apply to many different cultivars, so if you have an issue with a disease, it may be worth checking around to see if there is a variety that solves your problem rather than trying to battle it out in the garden.
5) Slow to Bolt
Bolting occurs when a plant begins to go to seed and all of the energy is focused on the growth of flowers, and the plant changes. Varieties that are resistant to bolting allow for the plants to be in the ground longer, essentially extending the growing season. Who wouldn’t want that? There are many examples of varieties that are slow to bolt, but Salanova lettuce is a one such cultivar that has made a big difference for us. Not only is it slow to bolt, but it also is slow to turn bitter, which is really nice for salad greens. There are varieties of arugula which also are slow to bolt and we’ve began using more of these in order to extend the growing season. We have found that when transitioning from spring into the summer and the heat really begins to pick up, this is the time our greens love to bolt.
Salanova lettuce is slow to bolt and absolutely delicious!
6) Spacing and Growing Characteristics
With the rise of small-scale urban farming models that value every bit of extra space, plants in the same variety that require less space than other are highly desirable. The more that is able to be produced in a small amount of space, the better! This year, Johnny’s came out with a variety of kohlrabi called Terek which that say, “allows for tighter spacing and produces more marketable yields.” There are also a number of varieties of greens (like mizuna & other Asian greens, spinach and arugula) that do fine growing quite closely to each other. We seed these crops using the Earthway seeder and it does a very thick seeding, which works great. Being able to seed heavily and get the most out of the garden space is vital to most small scale operations.
French Breakfast radishes can almost be planted on top of each other!
For greens, we also look for growing characteristics that make for an easier time harvesting. Varieties that have anupright growth and are easy to cut are preferable over those that have a tendency to spread. Eventually, we will be using equipment to help speed up greens harvesting and the upright growing feature will be even more important then.
7) Dual purpose (baby and mature)
Two products for the price of one is a good thing, right? That’s what you get with cultivars that can be grown for baby leaves and mature leaves. Varieties of Asian greens are the first thing that comes to mind when looking at this characteristic. And can be grown for delicate salad green or larger braising green. Mizuna is probably the most popular Asian green and we grow it for both the baby and mature leaves in the same crop! Our first two-three cuttings are for the baby leaves and then we let the leaves grow out a little more and sell them in a braising mix with other Asian greens. This allows us to get the most out of a single planting.
Most seed catalogs have a ‘days to maturity’ section where they usually list the number of days for baby greens and also mature greens. This is usually what we are looking for this quality and experimenting with new varieties.
*It’s NOT all in the Catalogs: Connecting in with Local Farmers*
Even though seed catalogs contain valuable insights and information that can provide numerous advantages for the farmer, nothing replaces information gained from other local farmers. One farmer close to us has tried more different cultivar varieties than we ever will, and this knowledge is truly invaluable. Connecting and networking with this farm and others has provided insights into specific varieties that work well in our area. Although the catalogs often provide great information that can be useful in making predictions as to whether or not a cultivar will work for your farm, getting a first hand account from someone local to you is hard to beat!
From left to right: Salad Turnips, Radishes, and Kohlrabi (all are wonderful shoulder season crops to grow)