SIXTEEN tomato varieties. Nine lettuces and nine other salad greens. Eight peppers, five winter squashes, and handfuls of corn, melons, eggplants, and other vegetables. A dedicated crew of 13 experienced organic gardeners from the East, West, North, and South grew these new (or overlooked) varieties side-by-side with old standbys during the 2008 season and assessed their performance under a range of conditions. We learned much about the challenges gardeners face as we read their contributions to our Test Gardener Blog, and gained new respect for those of you tending your plots in the most extreme conditions. Of the dozens of varieties we tested, the favorites you are about to meet handled all the adversity Mother Nature threw at them and still produced a robust and delicious harvest. Add one or a few to your plan this year, and you are certain to get more food and satisfaction from your garden than ever.
the winners

'Smarty' Tomato Source:

In late summer, most of the tomato varieties we tested began to succumb to disease, one by one. But not 'Smarty'. It remained healthy, and its fruit, just average in taste early on, got increasingly sweet as the season progressed. This is a truly gorgeous, disease-resistant plant. The grape tomato clusters ripen from branch to tip, so the appearance is something like the flowers of Spanish flag vine. And it's short, but not too short--about 4 feet. Last but not least, "absolutely no cracking," reports Jackie Smith of Minnesota. Next year, we'll try it in a pot. In the middle of a flowerbed.

'Ramapo' Tomato Source:

Hats off to the breeders at Rutgers University for putting their energy and resources into a tomato just because it tastes good. Jack Rabin, associate director of farm programs at Rutgers, admits that 'Ramapo' matures too late and is too soft for commercial use. But, he says, "people are passionate about the way 'Ramapo' tastes." In our Pennsylvania garden, the manageable-sized, healthy plants yielded medium-large, flawless red fruits. And yes, the taste was superb. "Only thing--the tomatoes spoil fast," reports Don Boekelheide of North Carolina. "Quick pleasure." Seeds are available only from Rutgers.

'Yaya' Carrot Source:

Carrot lovers with less-than-perfect-soil, listen up. We've got the carrot for you. 'Yaya' grows 4 to 6 inches long and is just right in every way. Michelle Zettel of Idaho reported in mid-August, "The 'Yaya' carrots are great. Good taste, uniform size, and still going strong." Yaya, in case you were wondering, means "grandmother" in Greece. A short, sweet grandmother, no doubt.

'Honey Nut' Winter Squash Source:

Cornell University's vegetable breeding program focuses on developing disease-resistant varieties for organic growers, so we're always eager to get its seeds into our test gardens. 'Honey Nut', a single-serving-sized butternut, impressed us with its sweetness and yield, and was the favorite of the winter squash varieties we grew. Give this squash plenty of space (we let ours ramble under and around the corn); the vines are in no way compact. Sliced and baked, 'Honey Nut' is a real taste treat. If you often cook for a crowd, you might prefer 'Canesi' (, a new high-yielding, trouble-free, and tasty family-sized butternut.

'Dancer' Eggplant Source:

Compact eggplant varieties have became popular with breeders and seed catalogs, but in our experience, eggplants need some size and vigor to withstand flea beetle pressure and still produce well. 'Dancer' does this, and with style. Boekelheide dubbed it "the neon wonder," and noted that the plants were not just robust and healthy all summer in the humid South, but even got a second wind in October. 'Dancer' proved to be an easy grower in Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. In California, 'Dancer' waltzed right into late fall, prompting Bill Nunes to proclaim it the "winner on late production in cool weather." To be fair, 'Gretel' (, a productive variety with slender white fruits, got the prize for "best baba ghanoush" and "prettiest at night." Habitwise, the two are similar--midheight, with smallish fruits.

'Mustard Lime Streaked' Mizuna Source:

If your mustards typically become dotted with tiny holes, this spicy green--our favorite of the nine miscellaneous greens we tried--is a winner. "We had flea beetle troubles, but not with the mizuna," noted Caleb Melchoir from Missouri. It isn't exactly "streaked," but it is attractive, fast-growing, and a pleasing lime color. Just a small row provides plenty to spice salads; it regrows rapidly after each shearing. Almost as flea beetle-proof is 'Chidori Red', an ornamental and highly edible kale ( "The season's best surprise," raved Ann Caffey from Colorado. The small inner leaves are a beautiful purple, a stunning addition to summer salads.

'Lambkin' Melon Source:

What was the best melon we grew in 2008? Depends who you ask. In central California, 'Ein Dor' ( got top marks for taste and production. 'Hannah's Choice' ( created a tasty edible groundcover in Las Vegas. In Pennsylvania, we fell for the slightly fuzzy, mottled green All-America Selections winner 'Lambkin', a "Christmas" type melon. 'Lambkin' ripened fast and delivered a winning, melt-in-your-mouth, honeydew flavor.

'Trombetta' Climbing Italian Summer Squash Source:

This stretchy-necked heirloom fruit is our "Wow, what is that?!" pick of the year. But it turns out that it's not just a curiosity. If you have a big appetite for mild squash, set up a sturdy (and I mean extra-fortified) trellis, and sow a limited number of seeds. Harvest the pendulous fruits at 1 to 2 feet, and the vines will continue to bear. Visitors marveled at their "color, subtle striping, and shape," says Debbie Leung, our Olympia, Washington, tester. Unfortunately, squash bugs found them enticing, too. Cook the squash slightly longer than you would zucchini, and you'll be rewarded with sweetly mild go-with-anything flavor--and plenty of it.

'Oasis' Turnip Source:

If you'd like to convince a skeptical eater that turnips are tasty, grow 'Oasis'. This pure white baby turnip was so sweet and juicy (yes, juicy) that we planted it twice, in spring and fall. The seed germinates reliably and the roots fatten up almost as quickly as radishes. We pulled them when they reached Ping-Pong ball size, but our Washington tester found even tennis-ball-sized roots flavorful.

'Flexum' Hybrid Sweet Pepper Source:

Two traits made this pale yellow pepper rise above the half-dozen other peppers we grew: thicker-than-expected flesh and nonstop production. It didn't hurt that the plant was as pretty as it was prolific. The yellow peppers stand upright at first. As the season progresses, some, but not all, turn downward. They reportedly turn red, but as of late September in Pennsylvania, none had. No matter, says Las Vegas tester Leslie Doyle. "I am eating these only as a TV snack. They look great in the bowl."

'Multy' Lettuce Source:

Fun, frilly, and tasty describes this new, crisp lettuce. Of all the lettuces we tried, 'Multy' topped the list for a simple reason: For a green lettuce, it is surprisingly ornamental. Plus, it's tasty. From Pennsylvania south to Missouri and west to Washington, this looseleaf lettuce received raves for being ultra salad-worthy. "It adds frills and a little crunch to salad mixes," remarked Debbie Leung in Washington. Plant a spring border of this consistently perky green and replace it with heat-loving annual flowers when the lettuce heads reach salad size.

* Find tester tips and garden stories at the Test Gardener Biog, updated weekly at
Regional Favorites

Texans and Minnesotans, take note: Here are recommendations for your regions.

Belle Plaine, Minnesota: 'Maple Sugar' Sweet Corn Source:

Jackie Smith made an immediate impression when she told us that she was OG's 1987 Gardener of the Year. Two decades later, she tends 15,000 square feet of vegetables and flowers, plus beds of perennials, plots of fruit trees, and acres of prairie plants, in Zone 4. So when Jackie praises a variety, we listen up!

"My entire family is convinced that 'Maple Sugar' is the best new sweet corn on the market in a long time. Believe it or not, it became even sweeter as it abed (on the plant, that is. We never let sweet corn age after picking--straight from the stalk to the pot for us). It was so good that it even won over our prejudice against yellow sweet corn."

Dallas, Texas: 'Golden Mama' Tomato Source:

Leslie Halleck is the general manager for North Haven Gardens in Zone 8. She tests our varieties in her urban garden in Dallas with her husband, Sean, whom she describes as "obsessed by broccoli." "'Golden Mama' was not just the only tomato test variety to bear fruit for me, given a late start, but it was also the most pest/disease-free of all of them. When you slice them, the skin is a darker orange and it contrasts to the flesh, which is a lemony yellow. Really beautiful and flavorful. It was 104°F here yesterday (July 22), and hot at night, so the fact that I have any tomatoes at all right now is a bib surprise."

Las Vegas, Nevada: 'Grater Eggplant Source:

Leslie Doyle puts us all to shame by growing vegetables up trellises, in raised beds, and under shade structures, whatever it takes to coax a yield from the rock-hard soil, desiccating winds, and sizzling air in her Zone 8 Mojave Desert garden. She had extra floodlights installed this summer so she could garden in the cool of night. Husband Bill lamented that they could play night tennis--if only there were a place without a plant growing in it, "I like the look of these white eggplants, because I can see them on the plants at night," says Leslie, "The number of fruits was worth the space."

Charlotte, North Carolina: 'Kossak' Kohlrabi Source: territorial,

Don Boekelheide, garden leader for the homeless population that tends a community garden at the Urban Ministries Center, has abundant enthusiasm for music, life, and just about everything he grows in his Zone 7 garden. In Pennsylvania, 'Kossak' kohlrabi grew fast and split hard, but in Charlotte it earned special praise (even for Don) for both form and taste. "Absolutely a winner, excellent, fast growing, consistent, big tender rabis, and good leaves for greens, I'll certainly grow this one again. It works in the spring, a bonus here (usually kohlrabi is better in the fall since it can get woody in the spring),"

Olympia, Washington: 'Honey Bear' Acorn Squash Source:

Debbie Leung was in past years a market gardener, and remains an avowed foodie. We try not to give her seeds with long maturity dates, such as beefsteak tomatoes or winter squash, which often never make it to full maturity in her Zone 8 Pacific Northwest location. But this year, the 2009 All-America Selections winner 'Honey Bear' performed well and tasted even better. "I like its smooth fine texture and mildly sweet flavor. In soup it felt like potato in our mouths."
The OG Test Garden Team

Michelle Zettel Zone 3 Challis, ID

Ann V. Caffey Zone 4 Walsenburg, CO

Jackie Smith Zone 4 Belle Plaine, MN

Andrea Ray Chandler Zone 5 Olathe, KS

Caleb Melchior Zone 6 Perryville, MO

Pare Ruch Zone 6 Emmaus, PA

Linda Crago Zone 6a Wellandport, ON, Canada

Stephanie Van Parys Zone 7 Decatur, GA

Don Boekelheide Zone 7b Charlotte, NC

Leslie Doyle Zone 8 Las Vegas, NV

Leslie Halleck Zone 8 Dallas, TX

Debbie Leung Zone 8 Olympia, WA

Bill Nunes Zone 9 Gustine, CA

Nan Sterman Zone 10 Encinitas, CA
Veggie Tales from Our Testers

Ann Caffey (Walsenburg, Colorado)

"We had a storm with marble-sized hail. Everything is shredded. The tomato I did not stake fared best. The ripening tomatoes were protected under the leaves and stems."

Bill Nunes (Gustine, California)

"I relay-planted zucchini into a bed of growing cabbage. Some zucchini plants were weak until the cabbage came out and gave them room to grow. Next time I'll space the cabbage every 3 to 4 feet--my usual spacing for summer squash."

"I've used diatomaceous earth (DE) in a band right on the ground at the edges of the garden when armyworms were migrating from alfalfa or bean fields next door. I could sit and watch them touch the powder and turn back."

Leslie Doyle (Las Vegas, Nevada)

"I used melons as a groundcover plant to keep the sun off of the soil. They are a natural for drip irrigation, which I bury 2 inches deep. I interplanted them with alyssum, lantana, and verbena, and the display was very lovely… sumptuous looking."

"Vibrating tomato and pepper blossoms with an electric toothbrush goes well with my morning coffee. I also take tweezers with me to pluck stamens and move other veggies' pollen from the boy blossoms to the girl blossoms. I help the bees. It's a pleasant time in the garden."

Caleb Melchior (Perryville, Missouri)

"A number of my tomato plants came crashing down today. They were so heavy with rain that their stakes couldn't hold them. Now they have tripods."

Don Boekelheide (Charlotte, North Carolina)

"An easy way to stretch the budget is to simply root tomato suckers in summer, which then grow into mature plants."

"With the price of gas, can't people just walk away from their SUVs? Turn them into planters or something. I've got it--paint them green, fill them with peat moss, and sell them as: formerly mobile instant organic gardens!"

Jackie Smith (Belle Plaine, Minnesota)

"We've found that bird damage only comes when we're in a drought. So we set up a fountain and replenish the water in it daily to attract the birds away from the fruit. Works for us."

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Smarty'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Ramapo'


PHOTO (COLOR): 'Honey Nut'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Dancer'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Mustard Lime Streaked'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Lambkin'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Trombetta'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Oasis'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Flexum'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Multy'


By Pam Ruch

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