Rapa di Milano Colletto Viola
When it comes to vegetable varieties, I'm pretty sure that insane experimentation is the only rational course. Seeds cost two or three dollars per adventure. Trying something new is the only way to expand your horizons, or to arrive at those the particular varieties of familiar vegetables that do really well in your yard. Or even to find what will survive a ridiculous year weather-wise, which is certainly what 2009 was in the Northeast.
The Fedco Seeds catalog's welcome letter from founder CR Lawn is always worth reading–Lawn says that they are all would-be New Yorker writers at Fedco–but this year's rated a really big guffaw from me:
I think of our thousands of new customers who, in the face of the Great Recession, and the revealed inadequacies of our food system, decided for the first time in many years, or ever, to plant a garden. Only to be rewarded, at least in New England, with the worst growing season in forty years: cold, wet, and climaxed by blight.
I've only been gardening for 18 years, not 40. But, yes, it was the worst growing season in modern history. It was the first time my tomatoes and potatoes ever failed, thanks to late blight that blew into garden, even though I started my own seedlings and my garden is about a mile down the road from the nearest neighbor's garden, and, I like to think, free of all pernicious influences from the big, bad world.
But it wasn't just the blight. It was the cold, beating rain, so extreme that even cold-loving crops like Brussels sprouts didn't grow properly. As for melons…forget it. Melons belong to the cucurbit family that includes squashes, gourds, and cucumbers, and all of them would rather grow closer to the equator than to the North Pole. Ironically enough, 2009 was also the year that I decided to experiment with Indian gourd seeds from Seeds of India. Most of them didn't even germinate. The ones that germinated stuck their heads above the ground, realized they were not in India, and refused to sprawl or flower, let alone produce a fruit.
But some things did do well. Oddly enough, some of the best things in my garden in 2009 grew from imported seed I ordered from Seeds from Italy, the U.S. distributor for "Franchi Sementi spa of Bergamo, Italy, Italian seedsmen since 1783."
These are some tough-assed vegetable varieties, if, having seen Bergamo, they were willing to grow in the frigid bog I was offering them.
Here are the All-Stars of the Most Horrible Year in Gardening Memory:
1. Turnip 'Rapa di Milano Colletto Viola': Even in my own household, there is some debate about whether turnips are nasty/sublime or just plain nasty. This Italian variety, which yields super-beautiful white ping-pong balls with vibrant purple shoulders, has not settled the argument, except in my mind. Gorgeous, tender, delicious sliced in quarters, boiled in salt water, and topped with butter and chopped parsley.
2. Summer squash 'Zuchetta Serpente di Sicilia.' My beloved 'Benning's Green Tint' patty pans did not even germinate last summer. Yet this weird Sicilian gourd, with its flat little white flowers, produced at least 30 snakelike fruits before frost. Sliced into chunks and cooked in a curry, for example, they were oddly toothsome, but tasty! Just like I fantasize an Indian gourd might have been, if any of them had possessed the same ruthless will to live as this Sicilian.
3. Summer squash 'Zucchini Tondo Nizza.' Another unself-pitying Italian cucurbit, it made big round fruits with thin skins, and lots and lots and lots of them. It didn't collapse when cooked the way many other summer squashes do, but stood its ground nicely in a stew or chutney.
4. Pole bean, 'Blue Coco.' Not as extraordinarily productive last year as in a normal year, but as always, the best tasting string bean in my garden.
5. Shelling bean 'True Red Cranberry.' It's crazy to grow beans for drying. You can buy organic dried beans online for just $2 or $3 a pound, and that way, you don't have to deal with any ugly realities, such as the fact that your kids now refuse to be bribed into the job of shelling them. But 'True Red Cranberry' repays such craziness by yielding the most flavorful and creamy-textured possible ingredient in a chili or other bean stew. My favorite such stew involves a ham bone and bits of ham, onions, peppers, as well as the key ingredients: at least half a dozen leaves ripped off the bay tree in my front window and lots and lots of little green olives and capers. Serve me this over rice, and I am ready to face the firing squad as soon as I put down my fork.
6. Unnamed broccoli seedlings bought at the wonderful Clear Brook Farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont. What do women want? They want to know what their broccoli wants. This year, I understood. Broccoli wants cold and rainy all summer long. Absolutely delicious this year! And I don't even really like broccoli.
7. Radish 'Chinese Red Heart.' The same color scheme as a watermelon, green outside, pink and white inside. Crisp, cool, spicy, delicious.
8. Escarole 'Cardoncella Barese.' I love escarole in general. It makes a great, if rather stiff, salad. And it's wonderful sauteed the way they used to do it in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, with loads of garlic, raisins and pine nuts. This version is unusual looking, in that it forms a bunch of long, thin leaves, rather than a sprawling head. But tastes just great nonetheless.
It's also another Seeds from Italy offering. Are we sensing a pattern here? On top of everything else, I love the generous-sized, beautifully wrapped packages Franchi Sementi puts together. They make American seed companies seem a bit stingy.