Thanks to Verdura, I have had a thriving garden for two years that produces wonderful fruit and vegetables that taste so much better than I can buy in the store.”– Kerry, Dunthorpe
Based on years of trial and error and following the good advice of a number of local experts, we have developed a list of real superstars in the vegetable world. While we have grown a wide variety of most vegetables, there is a short list of those that have consistently thrived in the multiple gardens we used to manage in the Pacific Northwest. Note all of the varieties listed below have also performed very well in our new home in central Virginia.
In shopping for seeds and vegetables, we believe it's important to consider these factors:
- When possible, organic seeds
- Non-GMO (genetically modified)
- Proven to do well in a variety of climates
- When possible, interesting heirloom varieties (non-hybridized) such as Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste plant list
- Well suited to growing in small raised bed garden spaces or containers
- Last but not least, great tasting!
Here are just some of our very favorite varieties, with a little information on why we like them and our sources, when available. You won’t find these in big box stores!
Costata Romanesca zucchini
This is a wonderful heirloom zucchini. Its chief attraction is its better-than-usual flavor for a normally bland vegetable, as well as its tendency to stay tender even if you neglect to harvest it quite soon enough.
Growing notes: Best harvested when around 12” long or so. Costata Romanesca has a semi-bush habit, so we allow it nine square feet and tend to position it on one side of a raised bed to allow it to spill out. Keep picking the fruit, and the plant will keep on giving.
Culinary tips: The yellow squash blossoms are tender and delicious. We like them sliced and stirred into scrambled eggs along with fresh chives.
Source: Johnny's Selected Seeds
What’s not to love? Homegrown radishes bear little resemblance to the spicy, pithy roots found in the grocery store. And colorful, tasty D’Avignon (also known as French Breakfast) is our favorite.
Growing notes: Rewarding to grow because they mature in about 30 days. Radishes let you know when they’re ready to harvest by popping out of the ground.
Culinary tips: The leaves are also edible and can be combined with other greens in a braising mix. Our favorite way to serve D’Avignon is to slice them very thin, heap them on baguette slices spread with good unsalted butter, then sprinkle them with sea salt. This is a classic French amusement or appetizer.
Source: High Mowing Organic Seeds
Hardneck garlic is the kind you rarely see in the grocery store, distinguished by its hard central stalk (when dried). Stores stock softneck because it keeps longer, but we love hardneck for its larger cloves and bonus crop of tender green scapes, shown here. Purple Stripe is a highly flavorful favorite of ours, but there are many wonderful varieties available.
Growing notes: Garlic over-winters and can survive very cold temperatures. We plant it in October and harvest the scapes in June, or as they grow tall and start curling. The bulbs themselves are dug out in July, once the tops have died back about halfway.
Culinary tips: The scapes are delicious tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and grilled. Or add them to a stir-fry or a spring risotto.
Jericho romaine lettuce
We love this lettuce. It has been a staple in our gardens for years now, and can even handle warm Virginia summers. It grows large, robust, perfect heads of romaine lettuce. The leaves are crunchy and sturdy enough to stand up to a Caesar dressing, with none of the tough, leathery qualities of store-bought romaine.
Growing notes: Jericho is one of the most heat-tolerant lettuces we know of, so we plant our starts in the garden well into August, spaced one plant per square foot. To harvest, we remove about a third of the outer leaves at a time, allowing Jericho to continue producing for several more weeks.
Culinary tips: Two words – Caesar salad.
Source: Johnny's Selected Seeds
Jimmy Nardello peppers
Most Americans are only familiar with red bell peppers, but there are so many other more interesting options available. Jimmy Nardellos are among the best. About the size and shape of Anaheim chiles, they are sweet, not at all spicy, and thin-skinned.
Growing notes: Peppers are one of those vegetables that have superior flavor when home-grown. We plant Jimmy Nardellos one per square foot and wait patiently for the green fruit to turn a vibrant red before harvesting. In shorter-season climates, pinch off any additional flowers once your main fruit has set, as they’re unlikely to form full-sized fruit before frost.
Culinary tips: These are superior grilling peppers, halved and seeded. Delicious fresh, sliced into salads, or cut into rounds and pickled.
Source: Seed Savers Exchange
Lacinato rainbow kale
Kale is popular these days, and we love Lacinato rainbow for its tender leaves and showy purple stems. It’s gorgeous mixed in with other plants in a raised bed garden.
Growing notes: As with all members of the brassica family, keep an eye out for cabbage moths. They lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves. If practical, young kale plants can be protected with a row cover. Otherwise, inspecting leaves every few days and removing the eggs is the easiest way to prevent them from hatching into hungry worms that devour leaves. Then, of course, they have to be squished.
Culinary tips: Unlike lettuce, which turns quite bitter when it bolts (goes to seed), the stems and flowers of bolting kale are tender and delicious. Young kale is a great substitute for spinach in dishes like spanakopita, which we prepare with a mixture of baby kale, chard and spinach leaves.
Source: Developed exclusively by Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seeds
Winter gardening guru Eliot Coleman turned us on to these super sweet cold-tolerant carrots in his book, Four-Season Harvest. We plant these in succession August through October, resulting in several early spring harvests.
Growing notes: If you’ve never grown carrots in raised beds before, try it. The loose, friable soil results in perfect long, tapered roots. They’re easy to grow once germinated, with virtually no pests. Napoli seeds are available pelleted; coated with an organic clay that makes them much easier to handle.
Culinary tips: One of the most versatile vegetables you can grow. Napolis are wonderful mixed with new potatoes and roasted, or try dicing them, sautéing them in butter until they are caramelized, and adding them to a risotto with fresh shrimp and sautéed leeks.
Source: Johnny's Selected Seeds
Purple sprouting broccoli
We love this over-wintering variety of broccoli. In the somewhat milder Pacific Northwest climate, we planted it in August or September and it rewarded us in early April with an entire month of succulent purple florets. Here in central Virginia, the plants require a cold frame or hoop house.
Growing notes: We stake the young plants in the late fall to help them withstand windy winter conditions. Keep harvesting the florets continuously once they start forming, and they will continue to form for the entire month of April.
Culinary tips: The purple florets turn dark green when cooked. We love them in stir-fries with other early spring vegetables like spinach and over-wintered carrots.
Source: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Sun Gold tomato
The sweetest cherry tomato we know; hands-down our favorite for flavor, versatility and ease of growing.
Growing notes: Sun Golds are reliable and productive, even in cool summer weather. They are are indeterminate (vining), so they need to be grown on a trellis or in a tall, sturdy cage.
Culinary tips: The glowing orange color is very pretty, especially when combined with red cherry tomatoes They are our favorite tomato to eat standing out in the garden. We love to halve and dry them in a dehydrator for a winter treat. Sungolds are also delicious sautéed in a little butter and garnished with fresh basil.
Source: Territorial Seed Company
Trofeo bush beans
We stumbled upon these wonderful haricots vert seeds (slender French filet beans) one year at a local nursery, and now grow them nearly every year. They have a nutty flavor and a tender, buttery texture.
Growing notes: Former Garden Grow Manager Sarah loved these bush beans for their high yield and for how long they stay on the vine without becoming tough and forming seeds. However, as with all green beans, be sure to pick them when still pencil-thin for best flavor and most tender texture.
Culinary tips: Wonderful blanched, shocked in ice water and then added to a summer salad. We also love them simply steamed and topped with butter or a dollop of pesto.
Source: Nichols Garden Seeds
We love rainbow carrots for their spectacular color and nutritional value. Kids and adults alike love harvesting them: surprise, a purple carrot! You can buy seed mixes, or make your own by combining packets of different seeds.
Growing notes: Carrots thrive in the uncompacted soil of raised bed gardens. Plant them just 1/8" deep and be patient: germination takes up to three weeks. Water the soil surface daily to ensure good germination.
Culinary tips: Don't peel these beauties, for best nutrition and appearance. Just give them a good scrubbing. We love them cut into chunks, tossed with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and roasted in a 400 degree oven for 20-30 minutes, or until just tender. Toss with a little aged Balsamic vinegar while still hot.
Sources: Kitazawa Seed Company