Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Veg Variety Winners for 2017

Every year we attempt to identify the top varieties that were grown on the farm during the year.  Criteria include production, quality of fruit, taste and plant health.  Additional factors that may increase the rating for a variety might be performance as compared other varieties of the same type or one that surprised us by doing far better than anticipated.  You might also note that we will give a tie break to a variety that has not been awarded a top slot over one that has.

The October 28/29 deep freeze insured that there won't be significant changes in crop results for the year.  Yes, there is still lettuce, choi, spinach and other items.  But, we can see where they are going to land.

 For those who want to see what has gone before:
About 2017's Growing Season
This season was an excellent one for growing brassicae family crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale.  We set production records for broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage and a weight record for winter squash.  Therefore, it is no real surprise to us as we reviewed our records that we had to select something from each of those crop types to land on our Vegetable Variety Winner list for 2017.  Several other crops rebounded from a difficult year in 2016 as well, returning to yields that approximate our annual norms.  On the whole, this was a decent growing year at the Genuine Faux Farm. 

Of course, every growing season at the farm has its disappointments to go along with the successes.  Some of our Summer crops, such as cucumbers and peppers, had a tougher time of it this season for several reasons.  But, even with setbacks, we managed to harvest enough to keep our farm share customers happy.  We suspect none of them even realized we had some crop difficulties this year UNLESS they were reading some of our posts that told them about some of our struggles.  We did have some weather events that cut some harvests short and others that prevented planting and/or critical field work.  But, that is just the way things go.  We'll close the books on this year feeling content that we did well enough, but strongly motivated to do ever so much better in the future.

And, the way I see it, that's probably the best balance we should have on any given season.  "We did just fine and we're going to do even better."

15. County Fair Zinnia
We are actually going to break with tradition here and put a flower into the mix.  We apologize to either Tatsoi or Komatsuna, since they were slated to land here.  But, I realized that our top 10 list is actually 15 now and we've never honored a flower in the Veg Variety Winners.

Yes, yes, it's not a vegetable.  We get that.  We also understand that we dedicate a fair number of posts to our flowers on the farm.  We're still putting County Fair at number fifteen. Deal with it!

For years, we have relied on Benary's Giant or State Fair for our zinnias.  We love both of those mixes.  But, State Fair wasn't available and we wanted a certified organic seed mix.  So, we tried High Mowing's County Fair mix this year and were pleasantly surprised.

County Fair is a little bit shorter than the other two mixes, topping out at about 3 to 4 feet in height.  They branch reasonably well and bloom fairly quickly.  They attracted bumblebees early and then the Painted Lady butterflies and the Monarchs later in the season.  What really got us was the way the colors absolutely shone against the backdrop of tomatoes, or the blue sky, or... whatever the backdrop was.  In short: they made the farmers happy.  Happy farmers do a better job with vegetable growing.  Thus, you get another Veg Variety Winner list.  Blame the zinnias.  I suspect they'll be ok with it since we plan on having County Fair zinnias on the farm next year (and the year after and the...)

If we have a chance next season we'll bring back either State Fair or Benary's Giant so we can do a comparison.

14. White Wing Onion
White Wing onions are a shorter season onion that allows us to deal with wet soils in the Spring by waiting to plant until the field is ready.  Ideally, we'd like to get our onions into the ground in late April/early May.  That rarely happens for any number of reasons, so we need an onion that reliably produces even if we can't get the onions in on schedule.  White Wing is that onion.

White Wing also allows us to take a flier on Ailsa Craig Exhibition onions as our yellow sweet variety.  When Ailsa is good, she is VERY good.  When she isn't good.  Well, never mind.  White Wing also allows us to get onions into our farm shares in a higher percentage of weeks during the distribution season.  And, we've learned over time that our members love having an onion or two a week for as long as we can give them.

This year, the White Wings were a little smaller than average.  On the other hand, the size of the onions was a bit more consistent.  We had fewer onions that we felt fell below our size threshold.  Happily, the slight reduction in average size was offset by a sweeter tasting onion.  We can't claim that we did anything differently with the onions this year, so it is not our fault.  However, we also know from experience that each season can lead plants to react differently.  It may have been a timing thing or an overall season thing.  We'll never know.  But, what we do know is that White Wing will continue to show up for us each year.

13. Tolli Sweet Pepper
We finally admitted to ourselves that Tolli Sweet is just NOT a field pepper for us.  Instead, Tolli belongs only in our high tunnel plantings and nowhere else.  Why?  Well, the plants are small and the first production can be quite early as long as you keep them from getting too cold or... too wet.  Since we have heavy soils and a tendency to get very heavy rains semi-regularly every season with our "new normal," it makes perfect sense to keep them out of the field.

With per plant production numbers between 10 and 20 marketable fruit, Tolli Sweet may not be the highest producing sweet pepper you will find on the market.  However, if you consider how close you can plant them in the "high rent district" that is a high tunnel, you might find the per square foot numbers make them worth it.  This is especially true if you are committed to trying to grow heirloom/heritage varieties as we are.

Fruit size can be variable, but the taste is consistently very good.  We have found that people who have a little problem with peppers talking back to them can eat these with fewer problems.  The pepper walls are fairly thin, so if you're looking for a 'crunchier' pepper, you need to look elsewhere.  Otherwise, these are pleasant for sandwiches, nachos and any other use that calls for a sweet pepper.

Peppers on these plants do not hold terribly well, so it is best to keep them picked and we have found that aphids do like them.  One of next year's projects is to identify a proper set of flower companions to help with that issue.

12. Scarlet Ohno Turnip
We had a good germination of our Spring turnip planting this year, but we had a shortage of rain during a critical development period.  We were watching the turnips with trepidation as they didn't seem to want to bulb out.  Then, we got a nice rain.  Soon after that, we got a "too much" rain.  Except the turnips felt it was a "just right" rain so everything turned out to be as "right as rain" as far as Scarlet Ohno was concerned.

To show you how surprised Rob was when the turnip crop turned out to be pretty darned good, he failed to get any pictures of them.  Instead, you get treated to this picture where you see the small turnips and greens that were left in the row after harvest (at middle left).

Scarlet Ohno landed at #5 in 2014 and has been a consistent producer for most seasons (except 2016 - this is apparently a theme).  Possibly the best thing one can do is to be sure you do not overseed your rows if you want consistent bulbing.  Even if crowded a bit, they seem to do reasonably well.  As noted above, no amount of irrigation seems to replace a good soaking rain.  But, they'll do ok if you don't get that rain in rows that are not crowded.  Roots tend to be a nice, consistent texture with a taste that is not overbearing.  They have a better flavor than many turnips in a Spring planting.  We tend to favor Purple Top White Globe for Fall since they get a nice sweet flavor after a couple of frosts.  Scarlet Ohno does not change flavor much after frost, making it a good early turnip.

11. Paul Robeson Tomato
We favor the trio of Black Krim, Italian Heirloom and Paul Robeson for heirloom slicer-sized tomatoes in our high tunnels.  In fact, we were considering each and every one of those varieties for this slot in our Veg Variety list for 2017.  Robeson wins largely because we felt there were fewer culls due to sunscald (fruit we had to throw to birds) than the other two produced this season.

Paul Robeson is another of the "black" tomatoes in the vein of Black Krim, Cherokee Purple and Black from Tula.  While Black Krim (our perennial favorite at GFF) tends toward rose with greening/blackish shoulders, Paul Robeson tends towards more of a scarlet red color to go with the greenish/blackish shoulders.  The darkness of the tomato tends to vary depending on heat during the ripening period.  As you can see in the photo, the shoulders are NOT always prominent in their color difference.

For five years running, Paul Robeson has produced fruit that average a little over a half pound in weight with sizes that range from about 1/3 pound to 2/3 pound.  The taste holds a hint of a 'smokey' flavor to it that makes us think a little bit about how it might work well in a barbecue setting.  (Please note the word "hint" here)  The taste is not overpowering and it is very pleasant.  We like them ALMOST as much as Black Krim and that is saying a good deal from our perspective.

10. Scarlet Kale
Scarlet kale surprised us this year.  You can take that several ways, of course.  Suffice it to say, we have grown Scarlet since 2014 and we considered it just a nice addition to a bundle of Dwarf Blue Scotch or Vates to add some different color.
This year, the Scarlet kale did us proud and grew to sizes we had not experienced for this variety in the past.  An average bundle of 10 Scarlet kale stems actually landed right with the average for our green curly varieties (about a half pound) instead of the quarter to a third pound we've seen in the past.

So, what happened that this variety suddenly became a star at the Genuine Faux Farm?  It's not an uncommon story for us.  Each season seems to favor certain types of crops and this year it was the brassicae family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc).  And, each season finds us deciding to give a variety a little more attention than it has received in an attempt to determine if it is just us or if the variety just needs to be removed from the grow lists.  Let's just say Scarlet responded and told us it wanted to stay.

Surely, there must be more to it than that, you say?  Well, of course there is!  Scarlet actually landed in our best field this year, leading us to believe that it needs a bit more attention with soil amendment or fertility additions.  Sadly, Scarlet doesn't get to stay in that field next year, so we'll see if we can't give it what is needed next year.

9. Touchstone Gold Beet
You may have noticed that we try to populate our Veg Variety Winner list with different types of veggies.  After all, you might grow tired of the list if I showed variety after variety of kale, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower that did well this year.  But, don't think that Touchstone Golden Beets didn't earn their place on this list.  The only reason there was some doubt in the farmer's mind was the fact that we never got the second succession seeded when we planned to.  We can't blame the beets for the farmer's lack of rhythm.  (you may now groan)

We planted Touchstone in Eden again this year with a sparser seeding.  The result was a larger average size of beet with (of course) fewer roots.  These beets stay tender even when they get very large.  We can attest to this after taking a 2 1/2 pound beet and cubing it for roasting.  Both Tammy and I highly recommend roasting these beets and putting just a bit of real butter on them.  Tasty.

Any small beets left after the first harvest do a fine job of growing out over a period of three or so weeks after the first harvest.  Our strategy in 2016 was to seed relatively heavily and get two harvests out of one seeding.  It worked well.  This year, we expected to harvest all of the beets in the first harvest and do a second planting elsewhere.  Either can be made to work, but if you like a larger size, seed them lighter.

8. Dunja Zucchini
Once again, an F1-Hybrid sneaks into our list.  But, it is so hard to keep Dunja out of the list because it produces so well for us!  We would love it if one of our open-pollinated varieties such as Midnight Lightning or Cocazelle or Black Beauty would consistently 'wow' us.  They just don't seem to be able to give us the numbers we need.  I know that sounds odd to gardeners who have more zucchini than they can deal with.  You'll just have to believe us that growing zucchini for commercial purposes is a different ballgame.

Dunja plants tend to stay smaller and have an open growth habit that helps us to see fruit before they get too large.  As a result, we can typically keep from growing an absurd number of "Louisville Sluggers."  They are also consistent with fruit set and tend to produce nice, straight fruit without bulbed ends.  It doesn't hurt that the seed cavity is often smaller and the texture is consistent throughout.

We ran three successions again this season and pushed the Fall edge hard with our last planting.  We lucked out with a first frost in mid-October which resulted in some nice zucchini from Dunja right up until that point.  The plants seemed to hold off the powdery mildew just fine - which is the biggest issue we have with late season plantings of summer squashes.  We have also demonstrated that Dunja will allow us to push the front edge of harvest if we plant under cover and then remove the cover as things warm up.  They seem to grow equally well if mulched or left on bare soil.

Raven was our old hybrid stand-by, but Dunja has even outperformed Raven by a significant margin.  So, once again, while we would like to find open-pollinated zucchini to fill our production needs, we have a fine F1-hybrid to hold the line for us while we explore options.

7. Copenhagen Market Cabbage
Cabbage is not our favorite vegetable for eating.   But, that doesn't mean we don't take pride in growing them well on our farm.  Nor does it mean others can't thoroughly enjoy cabbage!  And, it certainly doesn't mean cabbage can't land on our Veg Variety Winner list for the year.  Because here is Copenhagen Market in our Veg Variety list yet again (#13 in 2015)!

Copenhagen Market has been on and off of our grow list for many years, alternating with Early Jersey Wakefield.  Most years, we plan on both varieties, adjusting based on seedling health.  When the Early Jersey seedlings looked weak and the Copenhagen Market seedlings looked strong, it set the stage for a record year with incredibly robust plants. 

Some years we harvest secondary heads, but this year we have not done so.  Primary heads averaged about three pounds in size with some landing over five pounds and very few under two.  Granted, if you want more consistency in head size and days to maturity, you may not enjoy this open-pollinated variety - though it is quite consistent for a non-hybrid.  We would guess that a little over half landed at the average size while the rest scattered over the full range of sizes.  We happen to like the variety because our customers like the choice of larger or smaller heads.  Quality is consistent regardless of size.

We'll continue to start Early Jersey Wakefield and Copenhagen Market each year and go with the stronger plants.  It seems to be a winning strategy for us.

6. Jaune Flamme Snack Tomato
We call the salad sized tomatoes "snack tomatoes" on our farm because our customers admit that many of them rarely make it home to be put in a salad.  It is a common occurrence for one of the four varieties we grow in our high tunnels to make our Veg Variety Winner list each year.  However, Jaune Flamme and Wapsipinicon Peach tend to take the honors over Red Zebra and Green Zebra with their higher yield potentials.

This year, Jaune Flamme out-performed all of the other snack tomatoes by a wide margin.  Even at the late date of October 22, there were a very large number of decent sized fruit on the vines causing us to pull a bunch of green to yellow fruit just prior to the freeze in hopes that they would finish ripening.

Five plants in Eden have produced over 150 marketable fruit per plant, which lands at over 100 total pounds of production.  The eighteen pound per plant watermark is actually our goal for all of our snack tomato varieties.  We have only reached that on all four varieties in one season (2015). In fact, Jaune Flamme actually exceeded the high water mark set by Wapsipinicon Peach in 2015 when we picked 154.6 of them per plant.

Jaune Flamme is easy to harvest, tends not to split if you don't wait too long to pick the fruit and has a pleasant taste that lands slightly on the sweeter side of tomatoes.  They tend to grow in clusters, which aids in harvest and the vines take well to a Florida stake and weave trellising method in our high tunnel.  Vines have yet to exceed ten feet in height for a normal Iowa season.

5. Gypsy Broccoli
We have been trotting Gypsy and Belstar out there for broccoli since 2012 and we have had pretty good broccoli every season... except last year.  So, suffice it to say that we were relieved to get back on track in 2017 with our broccoli.  Once again, both Belstar and Gypsy did well with Gypsy outstripping Belstar once again with a higher side shoot production rate.

Gypsy has landed at number three a couple of times in years past (typically with Belstar), so a number five appearance is not a surprise.  Main heads averaged around one pound but the side shoots were a bit smaller than we have seen in other years.  One of the features we like about Gypsy is how the stems don't seem to get woody like some broccoli stems do.  They may be susceptible to hollow stems at times, but not frequently.

As most of those who read our blog know, we prefer to work with open-pollinated seed and use heirloom or heritage seed types when we are able.  Sadly, we just can't get reliable production from open-pollinated broccoli, so we find ourselves using F1 hybrids.  In this case, Gypsy is created using cell fusion, which makes us just a little bit ill at ease.  On the plus side, the cell fusion process should prevent migration of the traits of this variety.  But, we would prefer to see traditional breeding programs to bring types like Early Dividend to fruition for growers like ourselves.  We like what Gypsy has done for us, but we continue to investigate other options.  We continue to grow Belstar (a traditional F1 Hybrid) and we liked Imperial in last year's trials, but could not find seed in 2017. 

4. Magenta Lettuce
Some of our traditional favorites, such as Bronze Arrowhead, Bunte Forellenschus and Grandpa Admires have done just fine this season.  The hard part with putting lettuce into our Veg Variety Winner list each year is that we grow so many varieties that it gets pretty hard to select just one.  The other issue with growing so many varieties is that none of them (except Bronze Arrowhead) gets enough opportunity.  We were tempted to put Bronze Arrowhead out there yet again, but we wanted to share a new (to us) cultivar that was a pleasant surprise in our top list for 2017.

We agreed to participate in a Summer lettuce trial with Practical Farmers of Iowa Cooperators this season and we planted Coastal Star, Muir and Magenta as a part of the trial.  By the end of the trial we found that we were not impressed with Coastal Star and Muir was only reasonably good.  But Magenta won us over - which is a huge feat considering how many varieties we are already committed to.  It will return to our farm next year.

Magenta has a pleasant flavor, but doesn't really stand out in the mix of varieties we prefer.  That's actually a good thing because we love the flavors of the heirloom varieties we grow.  If it doesn't stand out, that means it fits in with this group - which is an accomplishment.  Heads are compact and dense loose-leaf style.  In fact, these were much denser than most of our other lettuces, so they were surprisingly heavy for the size.  Average weight was a half pound.

Magenta held well in the field and did not bolt until some of the trial plants we selected to stay in the field finally gave up and bolted after 9 to 10 weeks.  They also held with good texture and taste longer than many varieties.  It won't replace our heirlooms, but it will be a good addition to help us through the warmer months with our lettuce production.

3. Waltham Butternut Squash
We have grown Waltham Butternut squash from the beginning.  We see no reason to stop growing Waltham Butternut.  That might be all we need to say for this variety.  Since those who read our Veg Variety Winner posts tend to prefer to read more than that - we'll say more.

Waltham is a c. moschata, which means it has solid stems unlike c. maxima or c.pepo, which have hollow stems.  Vine borers tend to take out young hollow stem plants, but the solid stem plants are largely unaffected.  This may be the biggest single reason why you see more butternut winter squash than any other winter squash other than the shorter season acorn, spaghetti or delicata types.  But, in those cases, the fruit are not typically intended for long storage.

If we had been able to put the Walthams in at the time we desired, they may very well have blown us away with ridiculous production numbers.  As it is, they did well enough to keep the farmers happy but showed us that there is potential for an even better crop with some modifications in our system.  We getting those alterations in place for next year - so here's hoping.

Fruit size does vary, with some potentially getting quite large (some reaching 6-7 pounds this year) and a few ripening while just between one to two pounds in size.  Overall, this year's harvest averaged in the 3-4 pound range.  Once again, we like having some variability as it responds to our customers differing needs.  The family of six that likes squash can take the monsters and the family of two that finds squash passable, but not critical to their meals can take the smaller ones.  It works out rather nicely. 

2. Black Cherry Tomato
Black Cherry has been sneaking up this list from season to season.  We introduced them to our grow list in 2014 and got very positive reviews for taste.  We dedicated ourselves to growing them in the high tunnel in 2016 and Black Cherry made it to #7 on the list during a year where even high tunnel tomatoes were not at their best.  With high tunnel tomatoes back to where they should be, Black Cherry made it clear why it will stay on our grow list for as long as we can keep up with the harvest.

Plants tend to be smaller than our other cherry tomatoes (Tommy Toe and /Hartmann's Yellow Gooseberry on our farm) as are the fruit.  In fact, if you plant them too close to these other varieties, Black Cherry may be overwhelmed and have its production reduced.  On the other hand, if you give them their space and keep them picked, you can easily get 400 marketable fruit per plant.  This year's GFF harvest in Eden was 456.7 per plant - and we don't always keep up with the cherry tomatoes!

The taste of a Black Cherry is simply outstanding.  But, you can't often truly appreciate them unless you have a few Tommy Toe or Hartmann fruit for comparison.  Hint: you should eat a Tommy Toe or two first before you try the Black Cherry.  Take the time to savor - it's worth it.

Like most thinner skinned heirloom/heritage cherry tomatoes, they will readily split as they reach maturity.  We tend to harvest them just a bit earlier so we have unsplit fruit to offer our customers.  Unlike some tomatoes, these do not sacrifice much (if anything) on taste if you nab them at that stage.  Please note that we aren't talking about picking green tomatoes here.  We've just learned where the line is for ripeness prior to splitting and we harvest at that line.  If we happen to miss with some of the fruit, we have found those working on the farm are ready and willing to "find a home for them."

1. Goodman Cauliflower
We hesitated putting Goodman at the top of our list because the last thing we want to do is to "jinx" this variety on our farm.  You see, our tendency has been to put a cultivar that was an extremely pleasant surprise at the top spot each year rather than one that has many years of solid performance.  I suppose that's a normal reaction.  But, perhaps we'd be better off if we awarded a perennial winner such as Waltham, Jaune Flamme or White Wing the top spot?  No, never mind.  Goodman won this year fair and square.
We ran a trial with Amazing and Goodman in 2014 in the hopes that we could find an open-pollinated cauliflower to supplement the Snow Crown F1-hybrid we relied on for consistent production.  Both showed promise, so we have continued the experiment each year since with larger numbers of both varieties each season.  The biggest downside with Goodman has been dealing with lower germination numbers and weaker seedlings.

On the other hand, we were sold on Goodman's taste as soon as we treated ourselves to one of these rounded heads of cauliflower goodness in 2014.  If you are lukewarm about cauliflower, you'll be red hot for them after you taste this one.

Most years, head size runs from about 1 to 1 and a half pounds.  The inner leaves stay in close to the head, which removes the need to blanch them.  If they have a weakness, it's the relatively short holding time they have in the field.  When they are ready, you go and get them!  But, that's ok, because we're usually pretty anxious to have them around the time they get ready.

We had a good year for cauliflower this year with Amazing and Snow Crown doing very well.  But, the combination of production numbers, head size, taste and the sheer beauty of some of the heads that came from these plants - Goodman wins the day.

Thank you!
We appreciate all who read and enjoy what we write here on the Genuinely Faux blog for the Genuine Faux Farm.  The yearly Veg Variety Winners post is one that we are particularly fond of doing and it does encourage us when people take the time to tell us that they enjoyed reading it.  We are pleased to answer questions and/or have discussions about growing and cultivar selections.

We're looking forward to an off-season where we can renew our energy and purpose for another year of growing good food.

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