Kate Frey’s favorite flower and vegetable varieties this season
Every year the garden yields new vegetable or annual flower varieties that excite and please. When imagination, anticipation and fruition meet at the point of the first brilliant bloom or the first bite of succulent melon after weeks or months of nurturing, it is sublime.
We know that when we give plants the growing conditions they need, they should reach maturity. Yet each year seems to bring minor miracles when that point is met and the tiny seeds or small plants grow into something grand. The fact that many are short-lived or seasonal does nothing to diminish the pleasure of seeing the first translucent poppy petals or radiant sunflower blooms or of tasting the first plate of Romano Italian green beans sautéed with butter and garlic root. Each year these experiences bring happy moments and ignite anticipation of more to come.
This season’s favorites
Each year I like to share the best vegetable or flower varieties I grew that year. My favorite tomato variety from 2020 was Green Berkeley Tie-Dye, a variation of pink Berkeley Tie-Dye. The Green Berkeley Tie-Dye takes 75-80 days to mature and is as colorful on the outside as on the inside. The exterior is a mottled green overlaid with red stripes. The interior is bright green with a brilliant red bloom in the middle. It’s astonishing when cut into slices. Fruits range from 8 to 16 ounces and the flavor is rich and sweet, with good acid.
Hands down my favorite melon varieties were the Crenshaws. Crenshaws are Persian/Casaba melon crosses. Fruits are ready when they become slightly soft. From the open-pollinated varieties to hybrids and the Sonoma County crane melon, all were incredibly succulent, flavorful, fragrant, sweet and refreshing. A neighbor described the flavor of one as “bubblegum.” Another melon tasted of vanilla with a hint of peach.
The texture of the flesh has a silken quality that melts in your mouth. Like a juicy peach that needs to be eaten outside or over a plate, these melons require a napkin under the chin to maintain politeness while consuming them.
Another outstanding melon variety and very early to mature (71 days) was the hybrid Galia variety, Diplomat (F1), from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Many of us think of cantaloupe melons as having thick orange flesh and a sweet flavor. The galia-type melons, very popular in Europe and the Middle East, resemble cantaloupe melons except they have green flesh and are highly aromatic, fragrant and sweet with an almost tropical flavor. The flavors of banana, lime and pineapple come to mind. The perfume is so pronounced you don’t need to cut the melons to smell it.
Thousandhead kale from Baker Creek Rare Seeds was a real winner. Long grown in the United Kingdom as a fodder crop, it recently has been discovered by the culinary world. It is the only kale that survived the heat of the summer without an aphid attack, and the leaves remained tender and edible all season. The leaves are 3 feet long and the plant is multi-branching. It is statuesque in proportion and needs some room. Space the plants 3 feet apart. Also, in the large vegetable department was an Italian spinach, Gigante d’Inverno. This spinach has huge tender leaves with good flavor. The whole plant is vigorous and almost 2 feet tall. If it’s possible to call a spinach plant beautiful, this one qualifies. No more plucking a multitude of small spinach leaves near the ground; these are easy to harvest.
A lettuce I found strangely comforting was the butterhead lettuce called Nancy. It is a vigorous large classic butterhead type that I much prefer to the smaller varieties. Gazing over its soft perfection makes the world with all its present stresses seem more civilized, even gentle. Rather than cutting the whole head, I like to harvest the outer leaves over time, greatly extending the harvest from each plant. Nancy is resistant to bolting and produces well over a long spring season. It does not become bitter.
An outstanding cauliflower was ‘Green Macerata.’ A couple other cauliflower varieties I planted in spring failed to grow mature heads, but each planting of this heirloom Italian variety yielded large, vibrant and delicious green heads. The plants were early, vigorous and grew quickly. The heads are about 2½ pounds.
Among flowers, the ultimate showy summer annual was Celosia ‘Tornado Red.’ With abundant ripples, they look similar to brain coral, but in a rich burgundy red. Velvet textured, deeply hued and weird, these blooms are the perfect distraction from daily utilitarian life. Many common cultivars of this “brain” type of celosia are 3 feet tall and need staking. Tornado is 1½ feet tall. It looks great as a single specimen but is even better as a mini hedge.
In the more subdued and perhaps more tasteful department was the new Shirley poppy ‘Amazing Grey.’ With smaller single to semi-double flowers than usual Shirley poppies, this unusual color selection ranges from deep gray to the deepest lilac with each petal veined with darker lines. The anthers are black. Seed catalogs describe it as elegant, sophisticated and a cult favorite, but I found it rather dour compared with the elegant and bright flowers of white, pink or red Shirley poppies, each an experience with the clear morning light shining through them. Flower color is an individual choice of course, with no right or wrong. Some of my plants seeded, and I’ll see what I think of them next year before I completely make up my mind.
Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: email@example.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool