Selecting Vegetable Varieties

Appeal and timing are the first considerations in choosing seeds—but give thought to the advantages of disease-resistant plants as you peruse the catalog offerings.

Catalogs offer an astounding number of varieties of each vegetable. Every one of them has characteristics someone considered especially desirable. Flavor, appearance, use, ease of cooking, and resistance to disease are some of the attributes described. The catalogs point out their strengths. Some are noted as exceptional for making pies or jams, or for freezing, preserving, or canning; others are said to be ideal for grilling or stir-frying, or for use in Asian, Italian, or other ethnic recipes. Think about how you plan to use your harvest and make choices accordingly.

Pest and Disease Resistance

Each plant has natural defenses that protect it from disease. Some may react to attack by sealing off infected areas to prevent the problem from spreading. They also have some fascinating chemical defenses that may be called into play when an attack occurs. There is even evidence that when one plant in a group suffers attack, or becomes weakened and susceptible to attack, others will rev up their defense systems to prepare for the onslaught.

Breeders are always trying to make varieties with resistance to the common problems of that plant. Today, varieties are available with resistance to many garden problems—including environmental problems like blistering heat or San Francisco’s cold summer fogs.

Because gardeners grow tomatoes more than any other food plant, a lot of work has gone into producing disease-resistant tomato plants. In the catalogs you will encounter tomato varieties accompanied by strings of initials representing resistance to specific diseases. Big Beef VFFNTA, for example, indicates resistance to verticillium, fusarium wilt 1 and 2, nematodes, tobacco mosaic, and anthracnose.

More often, disease resistance is noted in catalog text. For instance, descriptions of peas might include comments such as “very resistant to pea enation mosaic and powdery mildew” (pea enation mosaic is a virus that spoils the pods).

Days to Maturity

As a generalization, you can expect cultivars of the same vegetable to be ready for harvesting in somewhat the same time frame. You can begin picking ‘Italian Summer’ spinach in 40 days and the Dutch spinach called ‘Wolter’ in 37 days—not much difference.

When the difference between days to maturity is surprisingly large, there is probably a good reason. For instance, the Dutch radish cultivar called ‘Redball’ matures in 24 days, whereas the hybrid Japanese radish called ‘Daikon Omny’ requires 55 days. The difference is that ‘Redball’ is a little spring radish, and ‘Daikon Omny’ is a long, large, late-winter radish that matures from seeds planted in late summer or early autumn.

You can extend the harvest by selecting varieties that mature at different times. For example, select early, mid-season, and late corn varieties, then plant them all at the same time. They will ripen over a period of months rather than a couple of weeks.

In general, select varieties that mature quickly if you don’t have much time—if you are trying to squeeze two crops out of the garden bed or if you live in Alaska with a very short growing season. Slower-maturing vegetables are often larger than their quicker cousins and often have some outstanding trait other than earliness. See Early, Midseason, and Late Vegetables for more information.