Give me your favorite vegetable seeds!
March 1, 2012 12:34 PM   Subscribe

What varieties of vegetables should I plant in my tiny front yard garden in DC? I have a bunch of seed catalogues, but the 10+ pages of tomato varieties are overwhelming! What are your favorite varieties of tomato, cucumber, beans, etc. to grow?

My garden is a U-shape, about 15 feet across. The legs of the U are about 20 feet on one side, and 25 feet on the other side. The U is about 2 feet thick - overall the space is very limited. The yard gets mostly full sun. The soil is dense and clay-ey, but I double dug it in the summer, put in a bunch of compost in, and it's loose and full of worms now. No idea about chemical balance/nutrient levels.

To maximize favorite vegetables, right now I'm planning on tomatos, beans, cucumber, peas, arugula, and spinach, with herbs in pots, but am open to being sold on your favorites. I may also have a 10x12 foot community garden plot, but I won't know until after seed ordering time. If I do have a plot, I'd like to grow red peppers, melons, squashes, and maybe corn, and am open to more types of vegetables. I prefer seeds from non-Monsanto/big ag sources.

What are your favorite varieties? What varieties grow well in containers? Thanks!
posted by foodmapper to Home & Garden (34 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I used to have a tiny front garden in DC! Park View, to be exact. It was high enough off the sidewalk that drunk folks couldn't pee on it (is yours? Depending on your neighborhood, you may want to take that into consideration). Anyway, we had excellent luck with squash and herbs and pitiful luck with everything else (mostly due to squirrels) until we put the tomatoes in containers on the porch next to the herbs (the herbs were already in containers [sorry about all the parentheses]).
posted by troika at 12:40 PM on March 1, 2012

Sungold tomatoes are delicious, like berries.
posted by chaiminda at 12:41 PM on March 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Garlic! German Red hardneck from Miller Nurseries. Plant cloves in the ground this fall.

Candy onions
from Johnny's. Low maintenance and great keepers.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:42 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: sweet million is a very popular hybrid variety of cherry tomato, for good reason. I grew 4 plants in a 2x2 square last summer and almost got sick of eating them (daily salads for months once they started producing). Very tasty, small fruits.

Sugar snap peas are also a classic that tend to grow well. Never tried them in containers but I don't think it would be a problem.

(I've ordered 12 awesome heirloom varieties of cherry tomatoes to try out for this year, but I'll have to wait to find out which ones are the best!)
posted by randomnity at 12:45 PM on March 1, 2012

Are you sure that spinach and argula will work in DC? I always failed miserably at growing lettuce there; it would bolt almost immediately and turn quite bitter. Basil, on the other hand, positively thrived in the muggy heat and it was awesome to be able to add basil or pesto to my tomatoes or other farmer's market finds without having to spend $2-3 to buy a few leaves. Now I live in a place where I can't grow basil to save my life and it totally bums me out!

For the community garden--and possibly for your front yard, depending on whether you're home during the day--you may want to think about buying tomatoes and other vegetables that are unusual color, to hide when they're ripe. A friend of mine that had a vegetable plot in a community garden in downtown DC reported that tourists and passerbys would quite often pick her vegetables; the community garden near my place in Arlington was locked and people who didn't have a plot were not allowed in, even if they asked very sweetly. You could always grow varieties like Green Zebra that hide when they are ripe to less-knowledgeable folks with sticky fingers.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:59 PM on March 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Enthusiastic, experienced DC gardener here.

Your arugula and spinach will need to be fall/spring crops, since they won't survive DC's summer heat. You'll get a TON of those if you plant them now, though. Our spinach, lettuce, turnips, and bok choi are doing very well right now, and should continue to produce until it's time to put in the tomatoes. Peas, too, will wither by July, but are still worth growing.

We've never had much luck with melons and corn, but the rest of your list looks good. We have varying luck with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and cucumbers--one year will be fantastic for one, but terrible for the other, then the next will be the opposite; chalk that up to the weather, I guess. Our gardening friends down the street experience the same phenomenon, but what grows for us isn't usually what grows for them.

We have about 200 square feet of garden space (not counting the grape vines), and typically plant about 8 plants of each vegetable, though we mix the varieties. Have fun and eat some good food this summer!
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:06 PM on March 1, 2012

I should add that we've pretty much given up on growing tomatoes from seed. We've started them indoors in January, tended to them religiously, and they still don't get as big or do as well as the plants we can buy at the garden centers in May.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:08 PM on March 1, 2012

We used to live in a brownstone in an urban environment and we gave up trying to grow anything we would want to eat in the front garden. Trash, pee, cigarette butts, beer cups, vomit (!!) all ended up there at some point. If you are in a busy urban setting, I would keep any edibles very close to the house, or better yet, in the community garden plot.
posted by apparently at 1:18 PM on March 1, 2012

My victory garden, which sounds similar to yours, can do anything except tomatoes. They just require too much sun I suppose.

Peppers are great, but it's really up to you with regards to what you like. Experiment but don't be scared to have a bad season and/or start over.

Double digging is a good start but I'd still do a soil test.. it's a few dollars to the local extension office, why wouldn't you? It's really simple. Anyway, you *may* want to look into a large, commercial sack of vermiculite or adding some sand if the soil is really clay-y/dense. Again, your extension agent can help you with this.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:35 PM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: Kentucky Pole Beans grown from seed on a sturdy frame never, ever disappoint. You can eat them raw, eat them steamed, or make a-spiiicy pickled beans for the winter or for gifts.
posted by lstanley at 1:36 PM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: My favorite tomatoes to grow are black prince tomatoes. Otherwise try any variety of heirloom tomatoes. Mostly because they cost so much at the market, but are so easy to grow, and they are delicious.
posted by jabberjaw at 1:41 PM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: No idea about chemical balance/nutrient levels.

If you haven't, get a lead test done before you plant anything (Brooklyn College offers inexpensive ones). Our DC yard has 550 ppm, which is well above the safe level for gardening w/out raised beds. This apparently is not unusual, especially around older houses.

I grow kale, collards, and chard through mid-summer in DC, and usually get a good crop before bolting, if you're looking for an alternative to more fragile greens.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:42 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Contact your local extension office for a list of varieties that work well in your area. I have no idea if my favorite tomatoes will work in your part of the country or not, but I bet someone w/ extension does.
posted by Gilbert at 1:43 PM on March 1, 2012

Response by poster: A few comments:

I'm persuaded about the lead test - I will do it this weekend. I'm up in North Columbia Heights/South Petworth in an area with only moderate foot traffic, and haven't had problems with litter/grossness or theft (yet! I'm sure tomatos are more tempting - and hiding them or putting them a bit away from the street might be a good idea.)

Arugula and spinach did very well for me in the fall and are still growing well now - I realize that they will bolt, and given this weather, bolt perhaps very early. We've just been upgraded to 7a hardiness zone.

I've got a good idea of what types of vegetables I'd like to grow - it will be most helpful if people can recommend specific varieties that they've enjoyed or that have done well in the mid-Atlantic area. For example, I'd like to grow 2-3 varieties of cherry tomatoes, at least 1 each of green and yellow, and some big varieties - but I'm facing decision paralysis when looking at the enormous tomato section in the seed catalogs!
posted by foodmapper at 2:04 PM on March 1, 2012

i used to grow yard-long beans on my deck in manhattan...they are a lot of fun to cook with as they really lend themselves to artistic arrangements...also they are delicious.
posted by sexyrobot at 2:21 PM on March 1, 2012

We get the best use out of cherry/grape tomatos and herbs. Particularly basil.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 2:23 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm facing decision paralysis when looking at the enormous tomato section in the seed catalogs!

I've grown Black Krims for the last two years with good yields.

If you're not intent on starting seeds, several of the vendors at the Takoma Park Farmer's Market generally have good quality tomato seedlings starting in late spring / early summer.

Theft will be a problem though, almost definitely. My garden in Mt. Pleasant is off the beaten path and on fenced city land, but I still lost ~50% of my tomatoes last year to thieves. If you can, plant more than you need, and check them a few times a day for ripe fruit.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:25 PM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: Sounds like you're working with 90 sq. ft. of garden space? You can get a lot in that space when you do square foot gardening. And good for you on the double-digging!

If you want non-Monsanto, you'll be looking at heirloom/open pollinated varieties. Not sure which seeds catalogues you have, but you'll want to start ordering from places like Baker Creek or checking the description for varieties that are OP (open pollinated), sometimes called "heirloom". Basically, you want seeds that have been passed down through generations of seed savers.

I'm up in Canada and am not familiar with mid-Atlantic areas, however, these are the indeterminate OP tomato varieties that have done well for me:

Cherry - Green Doctors (green), Jaune Flamme (yellow/orange), Black Cherry (purple), Snow White (white), Mexico Midget (red). Sungolds are not OP as they are a hybrid - also, they are sweet but they split easy.
Globes - Eva Purple Ball (pink), Green Zebra (green)
Beefsteaks - Cherokee Purple (purple), Black Krim (purple), KBX or Kellog's Breakfast (yellow), Chapman (red).

Also try Malabar spinach, a vining spinach that doesn't bolt in heat; Tall Telephone peas which grow up to 6' tall

Check out these locations in Maryland for Seed Savers Exchange seed racks.

Oh, and tell us the seed catalogues you're looking at and I'll take a quick look online and recommend specifics from those catalogues if you like.

I also have a seed starting chart in Excel if you'd like that, just have to plug in your frost free dates for spring and fall and it'll auto-calculate when you need to start indoors, direct sow and transplant out. Email is in my profile. Offer is open to anyone else.
posted by KathyK at 2:26 PM on March 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure which catalogs you have, but I'd recommend the Southern Exposure catalog, as they specifically mark varieties that grow well in the heat and humidity of the mid-Atlantic. Not all varieties do. That said, I've had very good luck with some of the Asian and South Asian cucumber strains.

Watch out for squirrels.
posted by OmieWise at 2:42 PM on March 1, 2012

For cheap and hilarious spiciness, try cayennes. Every year I get 4 plants for $1, and we end up with more chilis than we know what to do with. They've started to self-seed, so I may even save the dollar this year. Cayennes love sun, and as long as they don't dry out completely, they'll keep growing. Squirrels will try them once ;-)
posted by scruss at 2:47 PM on March 1, 2012

Response by poster: I've got the Southern Exposure, Baker Creek, and Seed Savers Exchange catalogs, and Fedco online. It's the 11 pages of tomatoes in the Baker creek catalog that totally stymied me!

Good tip to focus on the cultivation notes in the Southern Exposure catalogue, thanks! I promise to stop threadsitting now.
posted by foodmapper at 2:50 PM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: It's the 11 pages of tomatoes in the Baker creek catalog that totally stymied me!

I completely understand this sentiment. But can I gently suggest that this is exactly why gardening can be so enjoyable? It's very tempting for first time gardeners to get super excited and borderline anxious about what to plant, when, how much, how deep, when to water, how to position, etc. The reasons why some folks like one variety more than others isn't all that useful - they might have a different climate, resulting in a different taste or texture. They also might prefer different qualities than you (production levels, sweetness, whether or not it's rare, etc.) so without those caveats it's really hard to make a decision for YOUR gardening without that information.

Here's my best advice. Read those seed catalogs, circling the ones that seem most interesting to you. Try to figure out whether or not they're good for novice gardeners - some seed catalogs actually have a whole section (or page on their website) devoted to good seed variety picks for new gardeners. If the catalog uses words like "reliable" or "consistently good performer" then that's a good one to go for. But also just go with your gut - does a dark juicy red one sound nice? Does a small firm ultrasweet cherry sound delightful?

Keep a garden diary. Draw out your garden, and note where you planted each species. Take notes over the season about whether or not it seemed to do well, or whether you liked it, or if it was a pain in the neck for a small reward. Then next year you can amend your seed purchases as needed.

Just assume there will be some failure, some mistakes, and some glorious, glorious amazing gifts. Growing some of your own food is amazingly fun - it's both magical and quotidian. Enjoy the process and don't fret too much right now about getting it right.

That said, get a lemon cucumber. So delicious and it's a different taste than regular cukes. Great with Hendrick's gin :-)
posted by barnone at 3:11 PM on March 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

11 pages of tomatoes? That's nothing. Check out these pages if you want to be overwhelmed.
For tomatoes and potatoes, I would recommend Tom Wagner's breeding work.
This man is like a living Luther Burbank. He is most famous for his Green Zebra tomato, but you can find plenty of other varieties in his online shop.
posted by leigh1 at 3:38 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depending on your yard set up, you might have more luck with more covert veggies. When I lived north east of Dupont Circle a decade ago, my green beans growing on a No Parking sign along with morning glories went great where my sunflowers suffered from pretty steep attrition.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:42 PM on March 1, 2012

Seconding Cherokee Purple tomatoes, we get some nice ones from my tiny North Petworth front yard garden. Also habenero peppers were amazing and prolific and gorgeous to boot.
posted by Cocodrillo at 5:16 PM on March 1, 2012

Potential seed source: Landis Valley Museum's Heirloom Seed Project. Its Herb and Garden Faire is held mid-May.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:34 PM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: Baum's Yellow Pear will grow like mad. It'll produce hundreds of tiny pear tomatoes well into October and grow over 6ft if planted with a trellis or well-staked. You'll be canning in self defense if you plant more than three. The Austin Red, it's counterpart, is almost as vigorous. Brandywine and Cherokee Purple are super flavorful beefsteaks, but they're both a bit delicate and blight susceptible.

As for other veggies:
- Thai Green and Pingtung Long are the lowest maintenance eggplants I've ever grown, and trellis easily and well.
- Ideal Market and Empress are my go-tos for pole and bush beans, respectively.
- Amish Snap for peas. I've tried planting shell peas before and honestly, they weren't worth the trouble.
- Petite Granite is a great compact watermelon that will actually keep for two-three weeks after picking, as long as it's kept in a cool, dry place.

Hopefully this'll help get you started.
posted by givennamesurname at 5:38 PM on March 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The best tasting heirloom tomato I've ever had was a Japanese Black Trifele. The black tomatoes generally have a very rich taste.

And it's a good tip to just pick on catalog and concentrate on that, and the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange people are great. Very personable, very knowledgable, and they're growing the seeds in your area.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:54 PM on March 1, 2012

I grow sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, beefsteak and Brandywines, plus whatever other varieties look good at the farmer's market. I like variety, so I buy seedlings instead of starting my own. I grow lettuces, esp. arugula, because it's silly to buy a big bag of it at the store; I can't eat it very fast. I love being able to pick my own fresh salad. Basil is pricey, but easy to grow. I add green beans, summer squash and winter squash.
posted by theora55 at 8:16 PM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: I'm in Canada, so we have a slightly different climate. That being said, my favourite varieties are:

Cherry tomatos: Golden pearl, Sundrop, Tiny Tim
Slicing Tomatoes: Stupice (produce early and are delicious), Bonny's Best, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra and Mennonite Orange (I like colourful tomato salads). Oh, and Jubilee's are nice too.
Beans: Royal Burgundy. These are a purple bean, which makes it so easy for harvesting.
Cucumbers: Straight Eight
Peas: Sugar Snap, Green Arrow

You may also want to look into companion planting. For example, if you are going to grow both tomatoes and basil, the tomatoes will grow better if you grow the basil nearby. Here is an interesting, but old, article from McGill University, including a chart of companion plants.
posted by valoius at 10:27 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You won't be able to grow corn with your layout; corn needs to planted in blocks at least 4 rows wide and 8 plants per row to polinate properly.

I love brandywine tomatos but lose about half to blight; best to plant a few if you elect to try this variety.

Agree with royal burgundy beans. Not only are the beans easier to pick the plants themselves have purple stems making it easy to weed.

Also for something different: fresh picked soybeans are delightful and they tolerate heat well.

For squash: star and eight ball zuchinni are cool looking and aren't as prolific as their convential betheren.
posted by Mitheral at 7:20 AM on March 2, 2012

Best answer: Here are my suggestions, based on my perspective and experience. Basically, anything that says it's a family heirloom is going to be super delicious as these are the seeds that have been passed down through generations.

Baker Creek:
Green: Green Doctors, Green Zebra, Spear's Tennessee Green (haven't tried this one yet, really want to)
Orange: Djeena Lee's Golden (have heard good things, never grown)
Pink: Anna Russian, Rose de Berne (heard good things)
Purple: Black Cherry, Black Plum (big producer), Cherokee Purple, Paul Robeson, Purple Russian (big producer), Black Krim
Red: Amish Paste, Sioux, Stupice (an early one), Bloody Butcher (want to grow this early one this year)
Striped: Ananas Noire, Isis Candy Cherry (heard good things), Striped Roman (heard good things)
White: Snow White
Yellow: Dr. Carolyn (heard good things)

Southern Exposure:
Red: German Red Strawberry, Stupice
Pink: Brandywine (Sudduth's Strain)
Purple: Cherokee Purple, Eva Purple Ball, Paul Robeson
Yellow: Djeena Lee
Cherry: Dr. Carolyn, Matt's Wild Cherry (super prolific)
Bicolor: Green Zebra, Old German
Pastes: Amish Paste, Black Plum, San Marzano

Seed Savers Exchange
Amish Paste
Black Krim
Black Plum
Brandywine, Sudduth's Strain
Cherokee Purple
Currant Gold Rush (prolific)
Currant Sweet Pea (prolific)
Eva Purple Ball
Green Zebra
Isis Candy (heard good things)
Jaune Flamme (personal fav)
Kellog's Breakfast
Mexico Midget
Red Zebra

Pruden's Purple
Green Zebra
Cherokee Purple
Paul Robeson
Black Krim
Rose de Berne
Aunt Ruby's German Green
Black Cherry
Green Doctor's Frosted
Amish Paste

Try this list of tomatoes from Ark of Taste:
Amish Paste
Aunt Ruby's German Green
Chalk's Early Jewel
Cherokee Purple
Djeena Lee's Golden Girl
German Pink
Livingston's Globe
Livingston's Golden Queen
Orange Oxheart
Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter
Brandywine, Sudduth Strain
posted by KathyK at 10:18 AM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I also have a U-shaped garden that I'm laying out square-foot style. Mine's the perimeter of the yard, with the open side to the south, so I've got a leg that's morning sun, a leg that's afternoon sun, and the whole back strip that's basically all-day sun.
The morning-sun side bed (2x15) has greens: kale (Siberian Dwarf), chard (Bright Lights, because it's pretty), mustard (Indian hot).
The afternoon-sun side bed has fruit and greens: alpine strawberries, regular strawberries (Evie2 and ozark) with sorrel (french) and lettuce (red romaine).
Along the back (south-facing, lots of sun), I lined the cedar fence with metal deer fence to act as a trellis, so the row of square-feet against the fence gets climbers - tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, melons, squash, etc. Then there's a row of squares along the front edge of the bed that's good for short stuff: basil, scallions, bush-beans, carrots, beets, kohlrabi, turnips, etc. I've tried peppers and eggplant but here in Zone 6 I was getting about 2-3 fruits per plant before frost hit, so I decided not to bother this year. Or maybe I should just be starting from seed a lot earlier.

The thing is, I can tell you I grow Indian Hot mustard, Siberian Dwarf kale, and Ruby chard - but are these my favorite varieties? No, those are the packets I bought (chosen from the somewhat limited selection of 40-cent sample packets) and they seem to work. Well, I did choose the kale because I like curly kale, not flat kale, and because I didn't want giant plants... but maybe you like flat kale better. I planted 4 different types of carrot last year, for comparison - I'd recommend you one, but my conclusion was, they all tasted pretty much the same. Personally, I won't be growing lemon cukes again. This year I "chose" Amira cucumbers, because that's what my mom grew last year, and she gave me some seed when I was complaining about the dud lemon-cuke experiment.

A place to get small amounts of seed, so you can have a lot of different varieties: Artistic Gardens sells 40-cent sample packets. That's about 5 tomato seeds, or about 2 square feet of carrots. My favorites of their 18 tomato varieties are the Snowball and Brandywine. I don't like Romas much for eating but if you want to cook with them, that's the basic essential.

Have fun, figure out what vegetables work best for you, and then start specializing in what varieties of those key crops you like best.
posted by aimedwander at 11:14 AM on March 2, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you very much everybody, for your suggestions and advice, particularly on the wide, wide, wide variety of tomatoes available. Special thanks to KathyK for winnowing them into a reasonable set of choices. Barone, thanks for the reminder to pay close attention to the catalog descriptors. And I do love Hendricks, so a lemon cucumber sounds delightful! Happy gardening all!
posted by foodmapper at 9:48 AM on March 3, 2012

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