Look beyond the horticultural hype

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A view of the author’s vegetable garden. (Photos by Lee Reich)

When the lists of “New Vegetable Varieties 2022” arrive on my computer screen and in my mailbox every year, I don’t get carried away.

Last year I had the same disease. The introduction of Siam Dwarf, Abigail and a number of other new tomato varieties did not cause lust in me. Is something wrong with me?

Not that I’m immune to the horticultural hype. Just as the car enthusiast is drawn to the sleek styling of new models, I am sometimes drawn to the horticultural promises of productivity, flavor, and pest resistance.

Years ago, the hype seduced me into growing a multitude of broccoli. The tags I carefully dug into the ground next to each seedling became useless as the season progressed. They did not differ radically from each other. Sure, slightly bigger buds unfurled on some of them, more side shoots sprouted on others, and still others ripened a few days earlier than the rest. These nuances are important for a commercial grower, not for a farmer whose “back forty” is forty square meters.

I’m not saying that real change never happens. Years ago, a significantly different type of broccoli descended from pike – purple broccoli. I grew them. They were so tender and flavorful that I never grew green broccoli again.

Even when real change occurs, the improvements that make a new variety stand out in one garden may be superfluous in another. A year saw the introduction of the Salad Bush cucumber, touted as having almost everything you would expect from a cucumber variety: early production, compact growth and tolerance to five important cucumber diseases: powdery mildew, late blight, target leaf spot, cucumber mosaic. virus and scabies. Unfortunately, it is a sixth disease, bacterial wilt, that spells the death knell for my cucumber plants every year.

Sweet peppers from Italy.

So I keep growing Soo Yow (also spelled Suyo) cucumbers because they are less prone to wilting. And Soo Yow is not new to the neighborhood. It is said that he was born in China around 100 BCE. Shintokiwa is another variety that has always grown well, at least in my garden.

The frenzy around new varieties usually peaks with the winter lineup of winners of each year’s All-America selection. These are new varieties that have been found to be superior to the best existing varieties in test gardens at over 40 test gardens across North America. In one form or another, AAS press releases reach millions of gardeners.

The folks at AAS perform a valuable service, encouraging breeders and facilitating media coverage of new releases. At the same time, all this focus on a few varieties tends to overshadow, especially for novice gardeners, the true diversity available.

One year, for example, Savoy red leaves made Red Sails lettuce an AAS winner. But if you wanted to eat red lettuce, you could also grow bronze-tinted Pirat and Antina, red-tipped Lolla Rosa, dark red Ruby, red Romaine and Four Seasons, or reddest red salad bowl – no matter how intense the red. suited you. Because they are not new introductions, these lettuces will never be AAS winners. AAS contenders are limited to varieties that have never been sold before.

Too many remarkable varieties, though not new, will never come to light simply because they are not new. Tomatoes such as Belgian Giant, Carmello, Brandywine, Ponderosa or Cherokee Purple have been nestled in quiet grandeur among other varieties for years on the pages and websites of some seed companies.

New varieties of peppers with attractive names and appealing shades of purple, brown, red and yellow have been in the limelight over the years, but good old Italian Sweet is, in my opinion, a variety of more productive, early maturing and delicious. A new name with more pungency, such as Rubicand Italia, could draw more attention to this variety.

Pea pods on the vine.

You’ve never heard of big polka dots like Lincoln and Green Arrow during the midwinter hype, so I’m taking it upon myself to promote them. In 1979 Sugar Snap, another tall pea and AAS winner, came into the limelight as the first snow pea. This variety was followed by dwarf snow peas, including another AAS winner, Sugar Ann. Stick to the unwieldy Sugar Snap for more flavor.

I’m afraid that the annual mid-winter ballyhoo on what’s new in the vegetable kingdom will not only narrow the list of varieties of tomatoes, lettuce or peas that gardeners might try, but also diminish the little attention given to vegetables less known, most of which are not worth the trouble. breeder’s time, could have. Mache, for example, is a relatively unknown green salad in America despite its many aliases (fetticus, lamb’s lettuce, lamb’s lettuce). You’re not likely to find Dunkelgruner Vollherziger or Ronde Maraichere mache in any 2022 new releases list.” Neither fennel, cardoon, scorzonera, peanuts, or ground cherries.

And what happened to the green thumb? Choosing a good variety is only part of a gardener‘s skill set. I laugh when I read about the flavor of lettuce varieties. Lettuces mainly differ in appearance and texture. Grow any of them well and they are all, to quote one seed supplier, “tender, savory, pungent, delicate, sweet, very sweet, finely fragrant, delicious, appetizing, nutty-tasting”.

Imagine what might happen if the annual national hype of new varieties of flowers and vegetables were too successful. Just as the McDonald’s stand in Alberquerque looks and serves the same Big Macs as the one in Bangor, every backyard garden can have the same varieties of broccoli and tomatoes, but not cardoons or tomatillos.

Gardeners, Colonial Williamsburg.

Remember that these AAS test gardens are scattered across the country to usually find nationally suitable varieties. (A few AAS varieties are listed as suited to one of the six major growing regions.) Yet there are still places where a particular type or variety of vegetable is favored for flavor and productivity.

We need more variety, not just new varieties, in our gardens. What Liberty Hyde Bailey a century ago about apples applies just as well to vegetables today: “Why do we need so many kinds…? Because there are so many people. A person has the right to satisfy his legitimate tastes… [and] should be granted this privilege.

Scrolling through seed catalogs and websites, I try to look and then look beyond the horticultural hype of the year to find what’s worth growing, whether new or old, common or uncommon.

New Paltz writer Lee Reich, PhD, is a gardening consultant who specializes in growing fruits, vegetables, and nuts, including using these plants as ornamentals. He also does consulting and leads workshops at his New Paltz farm and webinars, via Zoom. For more information, visit www.leereich.com.

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