Variety Selection for the Home Garden
Selecting proper varieties for your garden is a crucial part of preparing for the growing season. Every winter, once seed catalogs arrive in the mail, many gardeners spend hours poring over available variety options. It may be difficult to decide which vegetables and varieties to select for the garden. Reliable industry standards, family favorites, locally recommended varieties and newly released cultivars are all available. However, in 2020, many seed companies sold out of popular varieties, so don’t wait too long to make selections.
Every home gardener wants to grow vegetable plants that are disease-resistant and yield an abundance of high quality, nutritious, good tasting produce. There are many characteristics to consider when selecting varieties for certain crops. For example, if you want to grow rows of bell peppers, you would select varieties based on days to maturity, plant traits, taste, yield, disease resistance, local adaptability and personal favorites.
Each crop has an abundance of variety choices. If you love growing tomatoes, there may be hundreds of varieties to choose from. Do your homework and plan accordingly. Transplanted crops, like tomatoes and peppers, need to be started by seed six to eight weeks early. Local plant nurseries may not have the varieties you are looking for, so if you want to grow something unique or specific, it’s best to order seed from a catalog.
Adaptability to Local Adverse Environmental Conditions
Choose varieties that are adapted to local climate conditions. This includes heat or cold tolerance, amount of rainfall, shorter growing seasons, as well as soil types and fertility levels. Drought tolerance, resistance to cracking, resistance to wet weather or nutrient disorders may factor into the decision making. Some cultivars have been bred in specific regions of the United States and may be better adapted to local climate conditions. This information is often listed in seed catalogs. Many varieties offered by local seed companies have roots in the Appalachian Mountains.
Match plant characteristics to your available garden space and your harvest goals. Traits that may be considered in variety selection include growth habit (such as bush, upright or vining), plant height, plant size, heat and cold tolerance, and ease of harvest.
If you only have a small plot or containers, consider planting compact, dwarf or bush varieties. Thanks to modern breeding, many types of vegetables come in smaller versions. You can even find varieties of winter squash that have a bush habit. Combine smaller plants with vertical or upright gardening, such as trellising, to make the most out of a small garden.
Certain varieties may be selected for a specific purpose. Seed catalogs often list which varieties are best for preserving, fresh use, storage, winter sowing, etc. For example, paste tomato types are best for canning and preserving, while beefsteak tomatoes are best for eating fresh. Paste tomatoes, like Roma or San Marzano, have meatier flesh and fewer seeds, making the canning process easier.
Varieties can also be specific to a growing season. Carrots are typically listed as early carrots or mid-season carrots. Gardeners who plan on sowing carrots earlier in the season will have more success with a variety labeled as early season. Other carrot varieties are better for storage or overwintering in the ground.
When growing leafy greens, it is especially important to pay attention to variety and season. Lettuce varieties have different levels of heat or cold tolerance. Once the lettuce has bolted, or flowered, the leaves are usually bitter and inedible. Selecting cold tolerant lettuces for spring and fall and heat tolerant lettuce for the warm summer months can expand the growing season.
Consider All-American Selection Varieties
Every year seed companies complete research and develop new varieties. These new varieties are submitted by seed companies to the All-American Selection committee and planted in testing gardens across the United States and Canada. The AAS was founded in 1932 and is the oldest independent seed testing organization in North America.
The plants in trial gardens are evaluated on vigor and uniformity in addition to susceptibility to insects, diseases and climatic conditions. Vegetables are also judged on taste. Those with superior taste and garden performance are given the AAS stamp of approval. Outstanding performing varieties have been endorsed by AAS as national winners, such as Buttercrunch bibb lettuce in 1963, Black Beauty squash in 1957 and Sugar Snap peas in 1979.
Days to Harvest or Maturity
Gardeners can use days to harvest listed in catalogs and on seed packets to help determine which varieties to grow. First, it is important to recognize how many growing days you have in your area – from the time of the last frost in spring to the first one in the fall. Typically, this is from approximately May 12 to October 15 in West Virginia.
It important to recognize in certain crops – like squash, for example – there can be a wide range of days to maturity. Within crops, there will be early, mid- and late season varieties. Some varieties may be ready for harvest in 55 days and others, 85 days or longer. Earliness is a major selection factor for spring plantings to enjoy produce from the garden as soon as possible. Using this data, gardeners can select multiple varieties to ensure fresh squash is available all season.
Although days to harvest is an average and can be variable depending on climate conditions, soil conditions, amount of rainfall or irrigation, and planting date, the number can still be useful for succession planning and comparing varieties to one another. Days to harvest in seed catalogs and on the seed packets are based on the most common planting date (typically late spring or early summer), so if you are planting varieties during the summer for a fall harvest, expect to add days to this number to account for the decreased amount of daylight.
Disease and Insect Resistance
Dealing with pests has always been a part of gardening. All gardeners will face problems with insect damage and plant diseases caused by fungi, bacteria, viruses or nematodes. It is important to know what problems you have dealt with in the past and select varieties that are resistant or tolerant to pest issues you may encounter in your area.
Selecting disease resistant varieties is a crucial part of integrated pest management for the garden. Pest damage will decrease vegetable yield and sometimes destroy entire crops. Late blight in tomatoes is a good example of a devastating disease.
When all other factors are equal, select a variety with needed disease resistance or tolerance. Paying attention to pest issues you have faced before in addition to insects and diseases that are common in your area will help you make educated and effective decisions when selecting varieties.
Comparing Hybrid and Open-pollinated Varieties
Hybrid and open-pollinated vegetable varieties both deserve a place in the home garden. Open-pollinated, or OP, varieties breed “true to type.” Meaning, OP seeds will result in plants that are genetically the same as the parent. To ensure “true to type” seeds, OP plants must self-pollinate. Gardeners who seed save typically isolate varieties away from others or cover blossoms with a mesh bag to ensure self-pollination. For example, a seed saver would not plant Brandywine and Mortgage Lifter tomato varieties side-by-side because they are likely to cross pollinate. Heirloom varieties are OP plants with a history of being passed on through generations by seed savers.
Many open-pollinated varieties are adapted to specific regions or climates. This occurs when seed savers continually select seed from the most disease resistant, vigorous or best tasting plants. The Appalachian Mountains have traditionally been a hot spot for crop diversity due to the unique landscape and abundant home gardeners. Many variety selections offered by local seed companies have roots right in Appalachia.
Hybrid varieties have been developed by vegetable breeders or scientists who cross two different varieties with specific desired characteristics. Hybrids, often designated in seed catalogs with an F1, produce vegetables with certain desirable characteristics, including increased disease resistance, fruit size and uniformity, faster maturity, better storage qualities or better taste. These traits come from a phenomenon called hybrid vigor. Hybrids, especially with disease resistance, can be a great place to start for new gardeners. Keep in mind, hybrid varieties are often more expensive and do not breed “true to type.” Plants grown from saved hybrid seeds may not display the desirable characteristics of the parent plants.
Public University Research
Land-grant university Extension programs conduct annual experiments on field vegetable production, including variety trials. Seed companies submit their recently developed hybrids for further testing against current, standard varieties. Research conducted by publicly-funded universities offers unbiased and independent comparisons for vegetable varieties. Results from this research are available online from multiple years. Results from variety trial research at WVU Extension are available in multiple vegetable fact sheets online and from the Midwestern Vegetable Variety Trial Report.
Vegetable Varieties Recommended for West Virginia
Giant, Jersey Supreme, Purple Passion, Millennium
(bush), Caprice (bush), Jade II (bush), Crockett (bush), Prevail (bush), Boone
(bush), Maxibel (filet bean), Strike (bush), Fortex (pole), Roma II (romano),
Mountaineer (half-runner), Volunteer (half-runner), Josephine Jackson
(half-runner), Non-Tough (half-runner), Fat Man (pole)
Ace, Pacemaker III, Touchstone Gold (yellow), Kestrel, Chioggia (multi-colored),
Bull’s Blood (beet tops), Babybeat (baby-sized)
Arcadia, Emerald Crown, Lieutenant, Imperial, Major, Captain, Del Rico (side
shoots), Everest, Green Magic (side shoots), Apollo (winter sprouting broccoli)
Cross E, Prince Marvel
Bravo, Charmant, Cheers, Savoy Ace, Caraflex (mini-head), Red Dynasty
Cube (mini), Athena (large), Ambrosia (large)
Express, Blues, Mirako, Nikko
cabbage (bok choy)
Choi, Win Choi, Mei Qing Choi
Mokum, Sugarsnax 54, Nectar, Napoli, Bolero, Laguna, Romance
Crown, Cheddar (orange), Graffiti (purple)
Bunch, Georgia Green, Vates, Champion
II, Marketmore 76, Diva (burpless), Sweet Slice, Cool Breeze (pickles),
Excelsior, Little Leaf (pickles), Lisboa (high tunnel), Picolino (high tunnel)
Hansel, Orient Charm, Ghostbuster (white), Fairy Tale, Aretusa (white)
(porcelain), Ichelleum Red, German X-tra Hardy White
Salem, Chieftain (red-skin), Lehigh (yellow), Russian Banana, Purple Majesty
(purple), Sierra (russet)
Russian, Winterbor, Redbor, Tuscan, Scotch Siberian
(bibb), Sierra (bibb), Red Sails (leaf), Monte Carlo (romaine), Green Towers
(romaine), Winter Density (green romaine), Jericho (romaine), Cherokee (bibb)
Oakley II, Clemson Spineless
(yellow), Candy Apple (red), Red Bull (red), Copra (yellow), Red Wing (red),
Beltsville Bunching, Nabechan (bunching), Guardsman (bunching)
(shell), Frosty (shell), Cascadia (sugar snap), Sugar Anne (sugar snap)
Knight, Revolution, Archimedes, Paladin, Blushing Beauty, Carmen
Lantern, Aladdin, Hulk, Gladiator, Super Herc, Field Trip
Avon, Regiment, Melody, Space, Bloomsdale, Abundant Bloomsdale
Ace, Taybelle, Autumn Delight
Butternut 242, Metro, Bugle, Avalon
Cutie, Sunshine, Bon Bon
Patriot II (summer yellow), Sultan (zucchini), Independence II, Tigress
(zucchini), Cashflow (zucchini), Magda
Bodacious, Delectable, Montauk (all sugar enhanced), Serendipity
Jewel, Evangeline, Burgundy
Bright Lights, Argentata
687, Crista, Mt. Fresh Plus, Florida 91, Floralina, Big Beef, Celebrity, Primo
Red, Brandy Boy, Scarlet Red, Rocky Top, Sun Gold (grape), Sweet Million
(grape), Sunshine (early), BHN 589, BHN 876 (yellow), Mortgage Lifter,
SS5244 (seedless), Crimson Sweet, Crunchy Red (seedless), Petite Treat (mini),
Serval (mini seedless)
(butternut), Tavoli (spaghetti), Table Ace (acorn), Delica (kabocha), Delicata
For a more comprehensive list of suggested varieties, consult the 2020 Vegetable Production Guide by Lewis W. Jett, WVU Extension Commercial Horticulture Specialist.
Authors: J.J. Barrett, WVU Extension Agent – Wood County, and Candace DeLong, WVU Extension Agent – Hampshire County