Our Best (and Tastiest) Pick of Garden Vegetables for the Northeast U.S.
Why I Choose Open-Pollinated Over Hybrids.
In this article I will review our top picks for vegetables and small fruits. We live in upstate New York, about an hour north of Albany. What does well for us here should, with minor variations, do well for anyone in temperate zones.
There will be few hybrid varieties listed for two good reasons. Open-Pollinated, (often now called "Heirloom") varieties are better suited for the home gardener.They usually have a more extended, staggered harvest which means one doesn't get inundated all at once with too much produce followed by none.
And Open-Pollinated plants are almost without exception tastier. Hybrid plants are bred primarily for the commercial grower who needs all-at-once- harvests, durability in shipping (read "tough"), and high yields.
Hybrids, if grown under 'industrial' conditions will usually out-produce Open-Pollinated plants if they are given the precise watering and fertilizing required, something home gardeners are rarely able to provide enough to make a difference. And if they are not babied like that, the "Hybrid vigor" doesn't manifest itself.
As an added bonus if you wish to save seeds you can with Open-Pollinated plants. That option isn't there with Hybrids. Saving seed is economical considering the ever-rising cost of seeds, and over time will provide you with plants that are eminently adapted to your local growing conditions.
If you have extra Hybrid variety seeds left be aware that their lifespan is very limited; 2 years at best. With sweet corn I have found that the seed is only really worth planting the first year.
However, with Heirloom, Open-Pollinated varieties the seeds retain a high rate of germination for several years. For instance: French Breakfast Radishes (my favorite) seeds will remain good for over 5 years, as will Chinese Cabbage seeds. Peas, beans, lettuces, sweet corn; all remain viable for several years. And Tomato seeds have probably the longest viability of all garden crops.
Precoce D'Argenteuil: This is an older purple variety, though "purple" is a bit misleading. More accurately it is less green than more purple than the others. An excellent, early maturing variety.
That being said, I have not personally seen any variety that will not do well if properly grown. Asparagus, more than any other plant, rewards the grower who treats it well over the years. A well-tended Asparagus patch or plantation will reward your grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The cheapest way to begin your patch is by seed. It is often the only way to get many varieties. Or you can buy one or two year old roots.
Either way, begin in early spring. The seeds sprout readily. Start them in a cold-frame or in flats or pots. Once the small pine tree looking plant is up, transplant it to its permanent location. If you buy roots; put them in their permanent spot immediately.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
Lettuce is the staple of the home garden. Nowhere else will you be able to buy lettuce so tender, crisp, and succulent as in your own garden. Its very easy to grow well and very easy to grow badly.
The secret to growing lettuce is the same key as for anything: Know the plant. Lettuce thrives in cool weather. Its enemy is heat. The root system is dense but shallow so it needs daily watering. Better a light watering daily than a drowning once a week. Stagger your plantings or you will be giving away baskets of lettuce and then be out completely. From the day you plant your seeds it will be about a month before baby greens and 2 months until full heads.
Sucrine (Sugary One): A Semi-Cos type, this is the star. Small, tight green heads of crisp leaves with an exceptionally thick mid-rib, blanched creamy-white interior leaves. It excels in spring and even summer if kept watered. It is not very cold tolerant. Once the temperatures dip into the 20’s overnight it shows damage. Excessive heat and humidity can also cause the interior leaves to rot. Unlike many lettuces this one is never bitter, even when bolted. My wife Pam’s favorite.
Merveille de Quatre Saisons (Marvel of the Four Seasons): This along with Sucrine are our mainstays. A Butterhead type, it forms large heads of tender leaves of the most exquisite rose, cream, and greens. It too does not get bitter. It excels in all seasons as its name suggests. For such a widely adapted variety it is of exceptional eating quality.
Spring Red Grenoble: large Crisp-Head type, it is the big dog on the block among spring lettuces. Huge heads of vibrant reds and greens, with a creamy interior. Excellent for spring as the name suggests, but also good for the fall. Very crisp and tasty. Does not do heat well or freezing temperatures. This one will get bitter once it begins to bolt.
Green Beans are a warm-weather crop and should not be planted when the soil is cold or there is a chance of frost. Up here we plant mid-May now instead of Memorial Day thanks to a warming climate. There are Pole beans, which require something to grow up on, and Bush Beans, which grow only about 2 feet tall.
Fore-warned is Fore-armed.
Around the 4th of July up here around latitude 44 degrees any rabbits and Groundhogs in the area will find and devour unprotected bush green beans. By then their normal wild plants will no longer be tender, and these beasts do love tender plants. Pole beans are virtually immune to them. Once the vines get over 3 feet high the stems are too tough I believe. Even Deer don’t seem interested in them once they are that high.
Emerite: A French Filet-type, a Haricot verte, this pole bean is the top pick for taste and yield. Planted in mid-May the harvest will begin in early to mid-July. Make 3 plantings a month apart and have a steady supply for freezing and fresh-eating till frost. Don’t over plant unless you intend to freeze them or give away a lot of beans. These plants need picking a least every other day, and watering at least once a week. They definitely respond overnight to waterings. Pick them up to pencil-thickness. No matter how you cook these beans they are great.
Plant 4 seeds to a hill, a foot and a half apart and 1 inch deep. Provide them with something at least 7 feet tall to clamber up.
Cucumber (Cucumis sativa)
The Cucumber is another warm-weather crop that will tolerate no frost and will be stunted by temperatures even in the 50’s. To be happy, it likes the ground around its roots shaded, but with high air temperatures and plenty of sun on its foilage.
The fruit is primarily water so it should not be a surprise that it wants daily waterings. If your cukes are bitter it is because of not enough water. It also needs rich (i.e.: very fertile) soil to do well.
Remember: This plant was originally sub-tropical. The finest varieties come from the Mid-East, Near-East, and Far-East.
Plant the seeds about an inch deep in rich soil either outside or in a peat pot. Cukes do not want their roots disturbed, and so are not the easiest plant to transplant. Put 5 seeds per ‘hill’ (i.e.: in a cluster) and thin out to 3 plants when first true leaves appear.
Hint: Use Cutworm Collars to keep the little blighters from shearing off your plants like a lumberjack.
Poona Kheera: The QUEEN of Cucumbers, but sadly one rarely offered and even more rarely explained properly. The flavor is light, crisp, and refreshing, par excellence.
This Indian Cuke is a pale yellow-green and meant to be eaten when it is 6 to 8 inches long at most. When it turns netted-brown it is too old. It is prolific; throwing dozens of small, exquisite fruits over a two week period. Note the “two week period”. To keep getting these lovelies you should plant a fresh hill or two every two weeks. From a Mid-May planting fruits will start being harvested in early July.
This is not a good choice for pickling; too delicate.
(For some reason, every catalog that offered this variety says they can be eaten even when brown, or only when brown. Must be they never actually grew them themselves.)
Suyo: This Chinese variety is the workhorse of gourmet cucumbers. Like other Asian Cukes, it is ‘burp-less’. The flavor is surpassed only by the Poona Kheera in my wife Pam’s estimation. I like it equally to the Poona Kheera. It has a more robust, yet still refined flavor.
The fruit grows large and curled with deep corrugations making slices look like asterisks. Once the ‘belly’ of the fruit begins to bulge and yellow a bit it is past its prime. (But great for pickles.)
One hill of 5 seeds, thinned to 3, planted in May will keep producing all season if given lots of water daily (at least 2 gallons per hill) and grown in rich soil.
I always start mine first by digging a hole a foot deep and filling it with rich compost, then a little top soil. Then I plant the seeds on top of that.
The first one I plant is Mid-April in a cold frame that I keep buttoned up until the daytime temperatures are in the 60’s, at which time I give it a crack to let air in. Once there is no more chance of frost, I uncover it. We are eating the first ones by the end of June. Field-grown plants will be ready by mid-July.
Winter Squash (Curcubita)
Winter Squashes, so named because they were mainly eaten in winter (naturally), are easy to grow. They just need room. Plant them in hills, 5 seeds thinned to 3 after the first true leaves emerge. Once established they are pretty much trouble free. Keep them weeded until they shade the weeds out, and water only during prolonged dry periods. Fertilized soils provide the largest squashes and the most, but these are forgiving plants and even if ignored entirely will rarely fail to reward you with all you can eat.
All develop their sweetness after “curing”, which means leaving them sit after cutting from the vines for a few weeks to a month.
They vary somewhat in how long they can be stored in cool, dry conditions.
“Honeynut”: Is one of those rare new Varieties that are a distinct improvement. It is far and away the sweetest winter squash; no extra sweetener needed.
It is very prolific, just 2 or 3 hills provides a winter’s worth of eating.
It doesn’t store as long as others so around January we bake, scoop them out and freeze them in one-pound containers which are just right for two people.
Weighing about a pound or so and about 8 inches long, one squash is a great serving size. Wait till all the green is gone from the fruit for it to be cured.
The plant is huge and sprawling, and by mid-summer shades out most weeds.
Waltham Butternut: A fairly recent variety introduced in 1944, and one of the very best. Sweeter than most Winter Squashes. Large fruits of up to 18 inches long and weighing up to 6 pounds or so.
It is cured and sweet when the green longitudinal lines have become a darker brown. This one stores very well in a cool, dry room; often lasting into late spring.
Cut in half length-wise and wit the seeds scooped out (tasty by the way, dried, toasted with a little salt) and with a dollop of butter and maple syrup in the seed cavity. Bake uncovered in a 425-degree oven till fork-tender (approximately an hour).
Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum)
Potatoes come in several classes. There are white-fleshed, cream or yellow-fleshed. (The blue and purple-fleshed ones taste like the white-fleshed ones and except for the faddish colors can be considered white-fleshed.) They can also be classed as mealy, dry, waxy, bakers, and fingerlings.
Planted the first of May, new potatoes will be ready for the 4th of July up here. Watch out for cutworms in May and Colorado Potato Beetles beginning in early June. For small patches hand-picking is the simplest and best solution.
A good watering once a week is sufficient. Don’t use fresh manure or fertilizer on them, and no wood ash. These plants thrive best in an acidic soil. But the healthiest and best plants come from those that were planted in ground that was in sod the year before.
Don’t grow potatoes in the same place every year. It is best to use a new patch each year; at most every other year.
There are many, many varieties but the good news is there is little difference between most. The biggest differences are those between the white and cream/yellow-fleshed. And the finest flavor is found among the fingerlings. Any fingerling variety is nuttier, butterier than any other varieties. And the crème de la crème of Fingerlings is La Rote (often sold as La Ratte as well), a fingerling from the Alsace Lorraine region.
La Rote: This is the finest flavored potato out there and brought premium prices at Markets. As with other fingerlings, it will not yield as high a weight of tubers as the larger spuds. The tubers are elongated, banana-shaped.
(If you buy seed tubers you will harvest many smaller ones. However, if you save seed tubers from your best yielding plants, after a short while your plants will produce much larger and better spuds.)
The plants are purple-flowered and smaller than other potato plants. Like all potatoes they will give the best yields if given room. Crowding the plants results in smaller tubers and less of them. Give these plants a foot and a half worth of room at least between plants in all directions.
La Rote begins to sprout by the New Year in storage, but still is excellent right up to the next year’s planting time if kept cool (40 degrees) and moist.
It does not disintegrate even after long cooking times, and tastes already lightly buttered.
Carola: This is a potato with smooth skin and creamy-colored, excellent-flavored flesh. Well-grown tubers are large, over a pound each at times, making them excellent baking potatoes.
Their flavor rivals La Rote and it stores well far longer.
It does not hold up to long cooking, tending to get mushy like the white-fleshed potatoes do, so if boiling them remember they to take them off the heat as soon as fork tender (about a half an hour).
Teamed with La Rote, Carola covers all your cooking needs with the best tasting potatoes you will ever eat.
Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum)
Tomatoes like sun, heat, water. Too much fertilizing will result in a lot of foilage but little or no fruit. Stake, or trellis the plants to keep them off the ground. Slugs will ruin any resting on the ground that don’t rot. Use cutworm collars when transplanting them out.
A word of caution: Do not be fooled by early warm spells in spring. Wait till the end of May or early June to put them out. Just one night of cold will stunt them irrevocably. Nor would I recommend starting them too early indoors. The plants rarely do as well as those started in mid-April. Actually, we’ve often seen volunteer tomato plants (meaning ones that sprouted from seeds of dropped tomatoes from the previous year), ripen as early and bear better than ones started early indoors.
Tomatoes can be gathered green before a frost and will ripen indoors if laid out one deep on paper or in cardboard trays. (there are a number of methods devised to try and ripen them indoors. I’ve not found a single one that is any better than another.)
Stupice: A Czech semi-determinate (meaning it has a life-span shorter than the growing season) variety renowned for its combination of earliness and superb flavor.
The fruits are roughly egg-sized and spherical. Plants started from seed in mid-April bear prolifically starting in late July and then peter out by the end of August.
The fruit has a tendency toward green shoulders and the skin will split in the rain.
This is our most anticipated tomato because it is the first to ripen and has mouth-watering flavor.
45 days from the first flower you see you will have your first ripe fruit. Try it. Mark your calendar when you see the first open flower. Count off 45 days and make a note. See if I'm joking.
Thessaloniki: A Greek tomato with a very good, spicy flavor. Produces baseball sized fruits perfect for slicing. An indeterminate plant (meaning it keeps growing till killed), it will produce incredible amounts of beautiful, delicious tomatoes. It is excellent for canning as well. Start harvesting in Mid- to late August here. Our mainstay that delightfully bridges the gap between Stupice and Brandywine.
Brandywine: A late ripening Amish variety, this is what a tomato is all about. There is no rival for its rich, luscious flavor. It will make old-timers weep by bringing back memories of what tomatoes used to taste like.
Another indeterminate variety, it can grow to immense sizes. This bad boy definitely needs a strong trellis support.
The fruit is sort of kidney-shaped and large, some over a pound and more. It ripens here in late August through frost.
You are gonna love this one.
Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas)
Don't be miss-led by confusing names. We are talking about Sweet Potatoes here, not Yams, which are dry and not at all sweet.
Sweet potatoes have sweet, moist flesh, which needs no syrup or marshmallows to render edible.
Primarily a warmer climate crop, one of the side benefits of climate change is that anyone can grow these delicate beauties at least as far north as we are in the lower Adirondacks.
Georgia Jet is our pick for the best variety of Sweet Potatoes.
Vardaman, Beauregard, Centennial are also very tasty.
However the shape and size of Georgia Jet makes it tops. Unlike the others mentioned which grow roots that are snake-shaped, long and relatively thin, Georgia Jet has foot-ball shaped roots clustered like fingers primarily right below the crown of the plant. The others are hard to dig without slicing off many a root as they wander through the soil, sometimes quite a ways from the crown.
With all Sweet Potatoes the key is the soil: It must be poor. That's right. This is the one crop that will never give you anything if you plant it in normally fertile soil. But plant it in waste ground that will barely support some weeds and you'll have more sweet potatoes from 12 plants than you can eat all year. The best yield we ever had was from a patch about 20' x 30': 18 bushels!!
Plant the shoots a foot and a half to two feet apart in rows two feet apart or more. Keep the plants watered daily until you see new growth. After that they are quite drought-resistant.
Once the vines begin to sprawl they pretty much take care of any weeds by smothering them.
Harvest after the first frost but before the second frost. Nothing mysterious about that: The first frost kills the foliage that had been protecting the tender roots just below the surface. A second frost would damage them, so dig them up before that happens.
Let them air dry spread out for about a day before gently brushing off the dirt and storing them in paper bags or boxes indoors at room temperature. Unlike Irish potatoes exposure to the sun or light does not result in ruining them at all. Stored dry and cool they will last till your next harvest.
Important: After harvest the roots need to 'cure' for two weeks minimum to convert their starch to sugar.
Sweet Green Peas (pisum sativum)
Nothing says summer better than new potatoes and fresh picked green peas.
Personally, I can understand why so many people say they hate peas. If all they've had was frozen peas, or (horror of horrors) canned peas, it's no wonder.
Fresh baby peas have absolutely none of that legume-y taste. They are like sweet candy!
Green Arrow is our pick among an admittedly tight field. Excellent flavor, great yield, and somewhat floppy plants that will get 6 feet tall (never mind that the catalogs say 3 feet tall). An English variety.
Telegraph is our second pick. Taller than Green Arrow, this heirloom is as sweet, with thicker pods.
Traditionally peas have been "mudded in", meaning they are planted so early in the spring that the soil is still mud. It's a good idea. Peas are cool-season vegetables, they hate hot, dry weather. Keep them watered.
Plant them in April and you will have fresh peas for the fourth of July to enjoy with your new potatoes. Once the peas have swelled up to fill the pod they are too old. Trial and error will teach you when to pluck them.
These peas need to be shelled. Grab a bowl of them, and a bucket for the hulls, put your feet up in the shade and enjoy the quiet as you hull them.
Steam them very quickly, just till heated through, and enjoy!