Wednesday, December 28, 2011

seed reviews- 2011's results, 2012's hopes

Nero di Tuscana kale- still going strong, Piracicaba broccoli in the foreground

 I started this blog in March of this year, during the long, cold 2010-11winter that seemed like it would never end.  My first post ran down the list of seeds I had just ordered from Fedco and what my hopes for them were.

Now it's the end of the year and it's time to take stock of the garden in 2011.  Everyone else is making lists and counting down things from the last year and predictions for the future.  I'd like to write about something other than cancer, and this is the second-most compelling thing to write about that I can think of at the moment.

Keep in mind that this was a difficult year for gardening.  A long cold winter, followed by a very wet and cool spring that suddenly transitioned into a very hot, humid summer, then a mild, but extremely dry fall.  Add in a couple of violent storms, like the late May tornado that hit Minneapolis and you have a summer which puts even the best varieties of garden plants to the test.

So  know that if I am harsh on a particular variety that you like, it may have only been the weather.  Most seeds were from Fedco, and bred for cool, moist conditions in the state of Maine.  Very well suited for Minnesota's summers overall, though we're drier in the late season, and probably hotter as well, though the growing season's about the same length.  Other seeds came from Jung's, based in central Wisconsin, or from the local Ace Hardware (origin of seeds completely unknown) when I had some empty spots to fill.  I picked up a variety of pepper starts from local garden shop Egg/Plant after all of the starts I had begun from seed seemed to have failed.

So the following are my seeds ordered in spring in bold- the spring predictions after a dash and how they actually performed in the summer in red.  Got it?  If not, leave a comment and I will respond.

Windsor Fava Bean - an awesome producer, and delicious- our third year growing them
Not the best producer this year.  The plants grew quickly in the cool, wet spring, then fizzled in the hot July.  We had a decent number of beans in late June, early July, but they pretty much dried up and went away mid-summer.  We've never been able to repeat our first amazing year of a double crop of favas without having to replant.  I think cool weather throughout is the key.  I may try another variety (Gigante?) this year.

Shirofumi soybeans - first time with these
Total flop. I may have not given these enough room.  I planted them in our community garden space, which I tend to overplant.  The cool spring didn't let them establish, and they were overwhelmed by the greens and squash vines.  Big disappointment. The plot right next to ours had a bumper crop of soybeans, so I know it wasn't the weather.

Oregon Giant Snow Peas - the seeds are huge- first time with these as well
Like the favas, these also did very well in the spring.  They ARE big- largest peas I've grown yet, but not mutant-monster size.  Good flavor- the kids liked eating them and it was almost problematic keeping them from eating them all while they were playing in the yard.  Not that I'm going to complain about my kids eating vegetables.  Even the neighbor kid came over to eat them!  I'll definitely plant these again.

Cream of Saskatchewan melon -  a yellow watermelon that should grow in Minnesota if it's able to make it in western Canada
Disappointing.  Not very vigorous, and the melons were sour and relatively flavorless.  Not a true yellow watermelon either- more off-white as the name implies.  If this is the best watermelon that could grow in the north, then it's not worth growing watermelon-- however see my entry on Yellow Doll below.

Telegraph Improved European Cucumber- sounds like a variant of the English cucumber my wife likes
A definite keeper.  Tasty, crunchy cucumbers.  A lot like the Lebanese cukes that Gita likes eating.  Hard to find, but I think most cucumbers are.  The fact that they're thin and curly makes them even harder to see among the vines.  But worth the search.  I enjoyed these as much as my wife did.

Danvers Carrot- We've grown this one for at least 4 years now-- tasty and super-productive in our shady garden
And again this year.  A sweet, productive carrot in our sandy soil.  We had so many, and no room in our freezer, that I made a batch of carrot wine.  I'll cover that in another post.  I racked it today and it has fermented to nearly dry in under a month.  Not bad.

Green Meat Radish- another new one.  It sounds like a small Daikon variation.  We've tried the bigger daikons and had success the first year, then bad luck every year after.  Not sure if we have some sort of fungus or nematode affecting the daikons, but hopefully green meat won't be affected.
Total flop.  I think I do have to give up on Daikon-style radishes.  There was plenty of top growth, but no root growth.  Strangely, there was a single radish that produced a nice root, but it was woody and tough.  I mixed in some Daikon seeds from last year and some white icicle seeds from Ace, all flopped.  Something is wrong here.  I may have to not grow radishes for a couple of years in this soil. 

Space Spinach- sounded good in the Fedco catalog
There's not much I can say about spinach.  It came up and was gone a few weeks later, like all spinach.  I replanted another variety in late summer, and we had a fantastic fall crop that lasted quite a bit longer.  I'll have to try that again next year. 

Mustard Mix- a mix of the south asian greens my wife likes so much
Pung Pop mustard- see above
Both were good.  I think I saved some of both for the fall crop I mentioned above.  Both did OK in the spring, then wowed me in the fall.  I mixed all of the greens together in the fall planting and I didn't pay much attention to which did best, but they all were good.  The hardest part is setting aside the seed, then remembering to plant again in August.
Piracicaba broccoli- Was sold out this year at Fedco!  I was so bummed out-- I special ordered it from another company- we'll see if it arrives.   Piracicaba has been one of the best plants we've ever planted in our garden.  Small florets of really tasty broccoli all summer and well into fall.  Besides the kale, this is the longest lasting thing in our garden.
Ordered it from the 'Hudson Valley Seed Library'.  Good seed, but more expensive, and much fewer seeds.  I had to be careful planting these.  Nevertheless, they did well, as always.  It seems that it was worth it.  We harvested broccoli on December 26th this year!  If the weather holds, maybe we'll be able to pick some side shoots in January.   I feel like this seed is a real find.  Fedco had a crop failure in Piracicaba this year, so I'll have to order elsewhere again. 

Nero di Tuscana kale- we ususally order two varieties of kale each year- a Russian kale, usually a purple or multicolor kale, and a lacinato, or dinosaur variety .  This year, we're sticking with lacinato only.  As wonderful as the kale is, it tends to take over the garden.  We end up with a forest of kale by the fall, and the Russian kale just isn't as tasty as  the lacinato.
Another bumper crop.  This is the closest thing I've seen to an indestructable plant.  We harvested some of this as well on the 26th.  That means we've been eating this kale for just about exactly half a year now.  It's sweeter after the frost, and seems to still be growing those little puckered leaves that it puts on in the late fall.  The bizarre weather didn't phase it at all- I was a bit worried about the heat- but no problems.  Probably the single best plant to put in a Minnesota vegetable garden.

Cajun Jewel okra.  We've ordered it in the past and it was sold out.  This year we got it!  Supposedly it's better adapted to our cooler climate and shorter growing season.  Last year I planted Clemson spineless (I think that was the name) from the hardware store, and it did well, but that had more to do with the hot summer than anything else. I'm keen on seeing what Cajun Jewel does in our community garden space.
Flop.  The cool, wet spring did it in.  I replanted in late June with a burgundy variety from Ace and got a few pods, but not enough to make it worthwhile.

Jaluv An Attitude hot pepper- a jalepeno variety that does well in northern climates
This was a new one, and a good one too!  I started six or seven indoors, and planted them mid-May, then a late frost killed off most of my tomato and pepper starts.  I gave Jaluv An up for dead, but didn't pull them up since there was still a little bit of green there.  I was surprised to see three of them survive, then in July start to thrive.  Jaluv An gave me a nice steady supply of little purplish jalapeno-style peppers through August, September and October.   Nice heat level- hot, but not overwhelming.  A good find!  Apparently developed to thrive near 45 degrees latitude.  They did well here at 44 degrees and 58 minutes north.
Garden Peach tomato- I planted this 10 or 12 years ago and loved it.  It really is peach-like.  Sweet, slightly fuzzy and fruity.  Hard to believe it's real.  I think the kids will like this one.
This is just a fun tomato to grow.  Pretty, productive, and tough through a difficult summer.  No disease issues, and the fruits made great salsa.  The kids didn't find it as interesting as I did, but Gita liked them a lot.  A keeper.

Opalka paste tomato- We make salsa every year and go through a lot of tomatoes during the growing season.  I'm hoping this is a good one.  The write-up in the catalog looked good.  Will it deliver?
No.  The one that survived transplanting to the garden succumbed to blight in mid-summer.  A direct seeded one survived and produced a few very tasty tomatoes, but was too late to produce many.  I'd plant it again because the tomatoes were so good, maybe by direct seeding in mid-May. BTW- we bought some Federle starts at the ECFE silent auction and they were fantastic by the way.  The tomatoes were almost identical to Opalka, but the plants were more vigorous, and no sign of blight, until almost the end of the season.  Federle may be the better tomato for this region.

Sweet Basil- for the pesto we make and freeze in the fall.  We couldn't go without some basil in the garden. 
Grew like a weed. I scattered seeds all over our community garden plot and ended up with more than we could use.  A wonderful plant that makes gardening worthwhile almost on its own.  Not worth starting indoors- the direct seeded ones will overtake it.  I've tried it multiple times now with the same result.  I won't start it indoors ever again.  Instead I'll scatter seeds everywhere in May.

Caribe cilantro- we still have wild cilantro coming up from some we planted 5 seasons ago.  But this is supposed to be more robust and slow-bolting.  The opposite of the stuff we have volunteering in the garden right now.
Flop.  Where did it go?  I'm not sure.  We didn't see much of it.  The volunteer cilantro didn't come back either.  Maybe it was just a bad year for cilantro.

Yellow Doll- I traded seeds with a co-worker who ordered seeds from Jung, and Yellow Doll was one fantastic trade.
And what a trade- big contrast to Cream of Saskatchewan.  This produced a bumper crop of softball-size and larger fruits with almost no effort.  They were bright yellow and deliciously sweet.  My grandma has actually grown this same seed and had a lot of success.  This was my first time trying it.  It made growing watermelons seem easy.  If you want to try growing watermelons in Minnesota, this may be the seed to try.

Winter Luxury pumpkin -was the other Jung seed I picked up from the same co-worker. 
Again, this one turned out well.  I hesitate to endorse Jung because their catalogs are so chemical-happy, but they do produce good seed.  Like Yellow Doll, Winter Luxury produced a LOT of small, bright orange pumpkins which have made delicious pies and are storing well so far this winter in the root cellar.  Lives up to its name.  This was the best producing plant in our community garden plot.  Even after a good number of them were stolen, we still ended up with 8 or 9 of them to store for the winter (and even made little jack-o-lanterns from two of them.)

Any suggestions on what to plant in 2012?  This was truly a year to weed out the weak varieties- let me know what worked well for you and what you'd reccommend. 


  1. I definitely got some ideas from this. Thanks!

    And I'm stealing this idea for my blog, too, just so you know. :)

  2. Hey Jeff - Your review of Nero di Tuscana kale sold me on it. Like you, we always grow some kind of kale (last year dwarf scoth blue if I remember correctly) and always collards. If we grow more than we can eat fresh, we blanch it and freeze into big ziplocks. Also, the chickens love eating kale and collard greens.

    I have grown the Federle tomato for about three years now. It always does decently for us, and the shear size and meatyness are a plus. I definitly have others that I prefer for flavor and habitat, but Federle is a keeper. I have a ton of saved tomato seeds if you wanna try anything new, let me know. Cheers, Andy

  3. Hi Sarah,

    Feel free to use whatever ideas you like. I consider my entire blog to be a part of the creative commons, so I'm happy to see others use parts of it- if you use a photo or a paragraph, I'd request that you attribute it to eighth acre farm, or better yet, link back to the site!

    I'd love to be able to read lots of other bloggers reviews of their seeds that they planted last spring! I hope lots of people decide to 'steal' the idea.

    Andy- I read and enjoyed your latest post on Autonomy Acres. Sorry to hear about the callousness of the school administration. Our daughter will be starting kindergarten next year and I'm hoping we don't run into something similar. Good for you for taking on homeschooling. I had a friend years ago who homeschooled, and she said that there is an organization of non-religous, or at least non-nutjob-fundamentalist homeschoolers out there. Can't remember the name, but I suppose if it's still out there you may have found it by now.

    Hope you like Nero di Tuscana! I'd recommend trying Piracicaba broccoli too. It produces little broccoli florets throughout the season, and even into the winter if it's mild. You can even eat the smaller leaves- they taste like a mix of kale and broccoli.

    I'll post a link to Autonomy Acres today- hope you'll chose to link back!

  4. Only rarely have I started plants from seeds - since I have such a tiny spot that I've alloted next to my house for a few veggie plants each year - and the kohlrabi and purple beans grow fast enough by direct sowing. But, you're almost inspiring me to contemplate if I should add something beyond my basics.

  5. My one notable success last year was 'Burpeeana' early peas. I direct seeded some presoaked seeds the first day the crocuses bloomed and had a very nice harvest 2 months later. I'm definitely planting more this year.

  6. Hi Jeff!

    I just found out about your blog when you posted about it on craisglist in Madison. Sounded like it was up my alley, since I also make wine and organically garden in a community garden. Just wanted to say that for plain old salad tomatoes, I LOVED chocolate cherries from last year. They were dark and almost brown with the sweetest juice i think I have ever tasted in a tomato (thus the chocolate part of the name).

    Also thanks for talking about directly seeding broccoli and basil in MN. I have always been afraid to here in WI, but will try it this summer. I do direct seed my kohlrabi and several other plants that others buy or start.

    RE: Winemaking: yes, you can make wine out of whatever you may have, but a warning: mint wine is as weird as it sounds...... :) It made a good mojito starter, though. Grapefruit was just OK, and the batch from Aldi's (saw you shop there) white grape/peach juice was a HUGE HIT. I jsut had to clean out my freezer, so I started a batch of mixed berry (mulberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and elderberries) port wine. So, I will find out in 3-5b years if it is any good..... :)
    Looking forward to reading more of your posts!
    Susan Nonn

  7. Hi Amy! Try direct sowing basil in the late spring/early summer. It's easy and seems incredibly decadent once it's producing. One of the best work to pleasure ratios for a garden crop.

    John- I like the idea of sowing peas when the crocuses bloom. I usually plant the garden in the little scrap of time I have in spring just whenever I get to it. Some year soon- when the kids are bigger, I want to plant according to the signs in nature- such as when the lilacs or crocuses bloom. They're great soil thermometers- they know a lot more than I do. I'll watch for it this spring.

    Susan- glad you like the blog! I've also tried a white grape/peach juice wine and it too was a big hit. I don't recall where I got the juice, but it was before Aldi came to the Twin Cities, but it was just the frozen stuff from a can. But it was delicious! I've been thinking I'd like to start another batch of something this winter, so I might have to make an Aldi run.

    BTW- I first experimented w. direct seeding vs. starting basil indoors the summer I lived on a farm near Viroqua in SW Wisconsin. That's where I first had that realization. Try it yourself and see. By early August, I can all but guarantee the direct seeded basil will be bigger.

  8. Just wanted to say I enjoy your blog--I found it via a google search for folks growing Jaluv An Attitude since that's a new selection for our garden this year.

    Sorry to hear about the Opalka not working out--we had spectacular success with them last year, in zone 5b, after two years of near total losses to blight. My wife fought the blight this year with copper spray, and I side-dressed the tomatoes with some epsom salts to combat blossom end rot. Both solutions are said to be organic, but some folks are pretty adamant about not using copper or anything mineral.