The Speckled Roman tomato has a pointed end and bright red skin with golden streaks.
By Jim Hankins Fauquier Education Farm
In the 2017 growing season, we will plant more than 60 different varieties of vegetables at the Fauquier Education Farm.
Many of these varieties will be new ones we try for the first time. For several crops — cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplant, sweet potatoes and cantaloupe — we will plant field trials of different types of the same kind of vegetable so we can see how well each will produce in side-by-side comparisons. We informally have been conducting these field trials for several years and have come to see how important the particular variety of any crop can be to putting a meal on the family table.
We would like to introduce you to several of the proven winners found in these informal trials. The criteria for a proven winner is most often abundant production. Often, the abundance of production is a result of improved disease resistance. Sometimes it is as simple as size of the vegetables, and both appearance and flavor can never be overlooked.
The list below will describe details of each variety and why it has become a favorite. Every experienced gardener has a list of their standby, proven winners. They make us look like we really know what we’re doing and fill our families’ bellies without working too hard. In the garden, success very often depends on the company we keep. I want to always devote some space for newcomers to see if I can expand my list of dear friends, but most of the garden space will always be devoted to these proven winners that can be counted on year after year.
Tomatoes are the most frequently grown vegetable in home gardens. You should expect multiple harvests, reasonably free of disease, and pretty fruit that has that genuine homegrown flavor many of us miss all winter long. There are hundreds of varieties and quite a bit of difference in each and every one of them. We will have a new field trial this year with at least 12 varieties. So, be sure to watch for it to see if we find any new winners in the quest for the perfect BLT. Here are four of our favorites.
• Striped German
I said recently in a talk that I will never have a garden again without striped German tomatoes and I meant it. This is a beautiful, big heirloom tomato that has everything you might be looking for. The large fruit are colorful, with yellow, red and orange stripes even on the inside when cut. They hold up well to any hybrid tomato on disease resistance and are excellent late-season producers that just keep going and going. And hands down this is my personal favorite BLT tomato!
• Big Beef
I will admit I do like large vegetables and for most of the season Big Beef will deliver a huge crop of perfect big red slicing tomatoes. These are nice smooth, round fruit without the irregular shape and excessive cracking you see in many heirlooms. It is a disease-resistant hybrid (good plant breeding, not a GMO) and the plants hold up well throughout the season. The only downside to these beauties is the fact that late in the season the fruit tends to get much smaller.
• Chef’s Choice Orange
This is a relatively new hybrid that has been an outstanding producer for us. They are very pretty, medium sized orange-ish yellow tomatoes with a great flavor, no splitting and abundant production. The late-season production is astounding and proves the value of disease resistance. In September when other tomatoes have given up Chef’s Choice Orange is still rocking and rolling.
• Speckled Roman
This is another favorite heirloom tomato that always makes me smile. They are a large, Roma-type tomato with a pointed end and bright red skin with golden streaks. They are meaty and very flavorful but also such a pretty tomato they charm everyone. Heavy producers that hold up well into the season.
Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are all closely related cool season crops that are really important to our donations to local food banks. These are highly nutritious vegetables that store very well and can be eaten in a lot of different ways. Timing is as important as variety with these crops, either planting in early spring or fall, but the various types of each do perform very differently in the field.
• Bravo cabbage
This is a big beautiful blue-green cabbage that is so easy to grow it stands out in the field as vastly superior to the competition. One of the surprising things I noticed about Bravo last year was the fact that planted side by side with other types the insect damage on Bravo was much less. Cabbage loopers are the main pest for cabbage and they get to have their own favorite varieties too, so I am always grateful when I find something I can raise with less pesticide.
• Mammoth Red Rock cabbage
I really like red cabbage and have tried several different varieties but keep coming back to this old standard heirloom cabbage. They never get as large as some of the green cabbages, but they produce good firm heads with a rich purple color and plenty of flavor.
• Rubicon Chinese cabbage
Wow! Just wow. These guys have produced huge crops for us the last two years. When covered with a row cover they have grown huge, tasty, and nearly completely bug free. I am too fond of large vegetables and Rubicon may be too large for some families but we can grow them easily, in abundance and without pesticides. What’s not to like about that?
• Gypsy broccoli
This variety has just stood out for being easy and producing large pretty heads quickly before the cabbage loopers take over and ruin the crop. We’ve had our best success in early spring and have harvested plenty of 8 to 10 inch heads that are tasty and welcome in any meal. We’ll be experimenting with growing them under row covers this year to eliminate the pesticides and Gypsy’s medium size plant ought to do well.
• Snow Crown cauliflower
I have struggled with cauliflower for many years before I found Snow Crown; then suddenly I found a variety that made it look like I knew what I was doing. We have gotten abundant crops of pretty heads that are frequently over 8 inches across. Planted in good soil in the very early spring this crop makes it look easy. This year we will have a field trial of four kinds of cauliflower including orange, green and purple varieties, plus lots of Snow Crown.
I have a terrible sweet tooth, but fortunately anyone with enough space to grow a plant that takes up a lot of room can grow an extremely healthy way to satisfy that craving for yum. Melons of many types have become a big part of our production at the Education Farm and are a very welcome donation to the local food banks. During the season, we make a habit of cutting up a watermelon or cantaloupe as a snack for our volunteers and I know lots of kids who think it is the highlight of the volunteer experience. We’ve had some variety trials on watermelons and cantaloupe in the past and this will be having one on cantaloupe and honeydew.
• Amish muskmelon
This is a beautiful heirloom variety that is a standout among melons. These are large plants that bare abundant fruit. The flavor is pure summer time delight in your mouth. Additional these melons seem a bit more resistant to splitting in the field before you get a chance to harvest.
• Crimson Sweet watermelon
Personally, I prefer the flavor of the seeded varieties of watermelon and Crimson Sweet has plenty of it. These are medium sized melons that are super easy to grow if you have enough space. All watermelons like the heat of summer so wait until late May or early June to plant them.
• Black Diamond watermelon
This is an extremely tasty, very dark green watermelon with small seeds and bright red flesh. Easy to grow and often pretty large, they have become an Education Farm favorite.
• Kolb’s Gem
I’ve said it before, but I am overly fond of big vegetables and this is a huge heirloom variety that still is packed with flavor. There is another variety called Carolina Cross which will easily grow larger, but Carolina Cross has a very thick rine and a so-so flavor. Kolb’s Gem delivers bragging rights and is tasty, too. You may have to organize a family reunion or party of hungry friends to help you eat one. But, then that’s what summer is all about.
• Yellow Buttercup seedless watermelon We grew a field trial of seedless watermelons last year with Va. State University and Yellow Buttercup was a standout variety. These are fairly good sized 15 to 18 lb. melons that produced a lot of fruit on each vine. Seedless melons are much harder to get started than seeded types, but if it is what you want to grow give these a try. Brilliant colored flesh that was pretty tasty too.
While we’re talking about large plants that like to spread out we ought to talk about winter squash. There are lots of different varieties and most are easy to grow, if you have lots of room.
• Tip Top acorn squash
These guys are so easy it isn’t fair. Big flavorful squash that grow on a fairly compact plant. Older varieties of acorn squash can easily grow 20 foot vines so Tip Top’s 8 to 10 foot vines look small in comparison, but still you can expect heavy yields of this wonderful crop.
• Waltham Butternut
Sometimes you just can’t improve on the original. Waltham are an old variety that do grow on very large plants but produce an abundance of squash with a rich orange interior and lots of flavor.
• Spaghetti Squash
Again, the original is best. This is a fun crop that will deliver a great yield of fruit that store for a long time and can be cooked in so many ways.
Peppers are a very important crop at the Education Farm, mainly because they are so easy to grow in abundance. We grow quite a few varieties each year but there are several that we count on as main producers, and others that are favorites for flavor and eye appeal. Your food should be beautiful and it is so easy to grow a rainbow with peppers.
• Intruder bell pepper
Another variety that will always have a place in my garden. Intruder is a good-sized bell that starts green and will turn to red at full maturity. Most of the time we pick them while still green. This is an excellent earlier season producer that just keeps on pumping out fruit until a frost kills them. Intruder delivers quality and quantity.
• Flavorburst bell pepper
Flavorburst is a pepper that starts out with a light lime green color that will change to golden yellow at maturity. These are very heavy producers and definitely has lots of eye appeal. It’s an excellent tasting pepper, too.
• Aura sweet pepper
This is a small bright yellow specialty sweet pepper that is a delight in any garden. I simply cannot be trusted to harvest these because I tend to eat them almost as quickly as I pick them. They produce very heavy yields and if you give them just a little time to turn yellow you will be rewarded by a sweet flavor that is hard to beat. Any time I can satisfy my sweet tooth with something this healthy I know I’ve found a winner.
All of these plants were started from seed and we rely on four main seed catalogs to source them. Johnny’s Selected Seed, Harris Seeds, Baker Creek Seed Co. and Shumway Seed. This year the Kolb’s Gem watermelon was a little difficult to find, but we did find them from a small specialty company called Seedman.
This list of 20 proven winners represents just a small part of the 60 different varieties we will plant this year at the Fauquier Education Farm. We’ll have summer squash and cucumbers, beans and peas and onions and on and on that didn’t make this year’s list.
However, you are very welcome to come to any of our workshops, or even better come out and volunteer to get an upfront and personal look at what we are growing, how we are doing it. We frequently say that the very best way to learn is to come get your hands dirty.
For more information about the Education Farm, click here.