In the Garden:
Upper South
September, 2008
Regional Report

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A nest of field sparrows enjoyed my tomatoes almost as much as I have this year.

Taste Tests from the Garden

People who garden or shop at farmers' markets eat as much for the flavor of food as for its ability to sustain them. Once you get spoiled by 'Marconi Stazagorski' beans from Italy, a generic grocery-store Romano just doesn't satisfy. And, boy, do those seed catalogs tease and tempt us each year. Trying to read between the lines of the spin and fluff takes a lot of thought. Although I wish that growing them all was possible, instead I make judgment calls on what gets ordered and tested, trying to seek out the best varieties to compare. I take into consideration flavor, nutrition, days to maturation, ease/difficulty of growth, production, and so forth. Following are some of the observations from this year's garden.

Tomatoes
Who doesn't look forward to the first taste of homegrown tomatoes? There's nothing quite like a ripe, juicy tomato, warm from the sun, eaten right in the garden. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a powerful carotenoid that may help prevent heart disease and cancer. Plus they also contain lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that play a role in reducing the risk of macular degeneration, an eye disease.

As a serious food wonk, I assume that everyone is aware of the hundreds of tomato varieties available. Yet, at a recent taste-testing I held with the local botanical society, people were astounded at the 33 different tomatoes I brought, while I was embarrassed that there were so few. If you haven't explored the many shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors of tomatoes, I strongly encourage you to do so next year.

One of the biggest surprises for me several years ago when I first started growing a hundred or so different tomato varieties was the category of cherry tomatoes. For our farmer's market, we made up quarts of mixed cherry tomatoes, with white, black, red, orange, yellow, green, and pink colors. They were a great hit, not only because they were beautiful but due to the range of flavors. My personal favorite is 'Cherry Roma', which has the grape tomato shape and size with an astounding punch of classic tomato flavor. Second in line for that traditional flavor is 'Matt's Wild Cherry', with its marble-sized fruit. Although it's too sweet for me, 'Sungold' maintains huge popularity for its luscious flavor. A new one for me this year was 'Haley's Purple Comet Cherry', which is a dark red-purple color with a remarkably complex flavor. One that I didn't grow this year but will again is 'Green Grape'.

As for paste tomatoes, I still haven't found any that consistently produce well, although 'Amish Paste' and 'Opalka' remain my favorites. This is an area that requires more in-depth exploration.

'Arkansas Traveler' remains my favorite "regular" tomato. It grows well in heat and humidity or drought. The flavor is superb in the perfectly round, 6- to 8-ounce pinkish red fruits. Plus, the production is heavy. 'Wayahed' also has great flavor, and it starts producing 60 to 65 days after transplanting, continuing until frost. Other varieties with similar-sized fruit trialed this year include 'Mikado Ecarlote' , 'Bradley', and 'Khaborovsky 308', with M'ikado' having the best flavor of the three.

Both black and green tomatoes have great flavor, in my opinion. Of the ones I grew this year, 'Cherokee Purple' stood out. This is an heirloom beefsteak tomato. From previous years, I enjoyed 'Paul Robeson', with its very distinctive, smoky-sweet flavor, and it will be on next year's list again. 'Aunt Ruby's German Green' is the standard for tomatoes that have golden-chartreuse skin and bright green flesh when ripe.

Not many yellow tomatoes were trialed this year, but 'Jubilee' is a consistent performer with good-tasting fruit. 'Dagma's Perfection' produces beefsteak tomatoes that are pale yellow with delicate, light red striping. I like it, but I don't know if it will make next year's list.

Green Beans
Although I didn't grow as many different green bean varieties as usual this year, one comparison really stood out and highlighted how what tastes great to one person may not taste good to another. The catalog description said that 'Garrafal Enana' was a Romano bean that was "revered in Europe for its taste." I thought it was pretty ordinary. In fact, it wasn't as good as the widely grown 'Roma II'. But 'Marconi Stazagorski' had incredibly sweet flavor as well as good production. For comparison's sake, I'm growing a second planting of 'Marconi' and another popular Italian variety called 'Baroma'.

For traditional snap beans, my only comparison was 'Empress' versus 'Slenderette', both bush types, with the former being much more productive and with better flavor.

Potatoes
To heck with the glycemic index, I love potatoes. For those of you who prefer not to have such an attitude, there is now a low-carbohydrate option. Tests have shown that a 5.2-ounce 'Adora' potato contained 87 calories while the equivalent 'Russet Burbank' contained 117 calories. 'Adora' has smooth skin, light yellow flesh, high yields, and is supposedly a good keeper with has good disease resistance. The flavor was good, not outstanding, but as good as anything you'd buy at the grocery.

Potato breeders are beginning to realize the heath benefits of the types with red or purple flesh, which indicate the presence of antioxidants. Until recently, the main options were the generic 'All Blue' and 'All Red'. Neither one had ever particularly made me jump for joy. This year I grew two of the new hybrids: 'Purple Majesty' and 'Mountain Rose'. Both have much darker coloration than the generics and both have good flavor, with 'Mountain Rose' being my favorite, mainly because I love seeing a mound of pink mashed potatoes.

Because I've been so busy eating 'Mountain Rose', I haven't taste-tested the others yet, which include 'Charlotte', 'Red Gold', 'Carola', 'Nicola', 'Yellow Finn', and my beloved 'German Butterball'. I'll let you know if it can be beat.

Of the two fingerlings trialed, 'Red Thumb' isn't that impressive, while 'Rose Finn Apple' is on my dinner menu for the first time tonight. I'll report back on that, too, but it was incredibly productive and is said to have a delectable flavor. Here's hoping!

It's easier and simpler to stay in the rut of growing the same tried-and-true varieties every year, but the rewards in trying something different are well worth the effort. I encourage you to do some of your own comparisons next year. Your taste buds will thank you.


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