For many years, I’ve prided myself on my heirloom garden. I’ve recounted the history of antique vegetables, praised the strange shapes and colors of heirloom tomatoes, and searched for the oddest, richest, most interesting varieties to grow, all in the quest to challenge myself as a gardener.
And it has been a challenge. Along with the beautiful heirloom vegetables come diseases, pests, and limited production. Don’t get me wrong—I will always love my heirlooms. However, as the daughter of a scientist, I adore learning, whether it’s about the migration patterns of monarchs or new, hybrid plant varieties. (Let’s please make certain we have our terminology straight: hybrids are not GMOs. Hybrids can occur in nature through cross-pollination, although the ones we’ll be chatting about include varieties specifically bred by brilliant plant geeks for high yields, flavor, and disease resistance. You know I’ll never try to sell you on GMOs.)
The week prior to school beginning, I abandoned Peter and our children and headed out to California, invited by the National Garden Bureau to attend #VeggieTrials2015 as a member of the #NGBPlantNerds team. I had no idea what to expect.
It was a week of sheer pleasure, like receiving a Ph.D. in plant genetics and breeding in four days, while also packing in a bit of play time with fellow plant geeks.
I’ve never met so many brilliant plant aficionados in my life.
As part of #VeggieTrials2015, we visited eight seed companies dedicated to creating the latest, greatest plants. The companies we visited focus on commercial trade, with their seeds distributed through an extensive network. However, several of the companies strive to produce seeds designed for the home gardener. While the companies don't sell directly to the consumer, you can find their seeds through retail outlets.
Oh my goodness. The things I saw! You’re going to be so happy.
Hundreds of tomatoes cascading down tresses of ‘Rapunzel’—growing in a container!
Okra in window boxes!
Eggplants in containers!
Compact hot peppers, dripping with gorgeous, striking fruit—an ornamental beauty that’s completely edible (if you’re brave!)
Beautiful 'Chocolate Sprinkles' cherry tomatoes that mimic everything I love about heirlooms--but with higher yields and disease resistance!
An Heirloom Marriage--'Costoluto Genovese' and 'Brandywine'--to preserve delicious flavor while increasing productivity.
Cucumbers spilling from hanging baskets, interplanted with blooms and herbs, creating a lovely focal point for a front porch.
I made a list. I want one of everything.
When I sold my heirloom plants last spring at the farmers’ market, customers most frequently requested compact varieties suitable for containers. Sadly, there aren’t many heirloom varieties of tomatoes that meet the criteria. Heirlooms sprawl and meander, and while I will always loved them, it’s not often that I use them for an attractive container planting.
My customers must have a direct line to the plant breeders we met, because I saw so many beautiful, compact vegetables and herbs that would turn a balcony or patio into a lovely, edible feast.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to share more from the tour, because I’m still processing information and photos. I also hope to test some of these varieties here at Garden Delights, both in my greenhouse and gardens, to give you a first-hand account of their performance.
The beauty of #VeggieTrials2015, though, is that the new varieties offered by the seed companies undergo extensive testing. Really extensive. Look at the acreage devoted to trialing new introductions. I found myself with a bit of acreage envy during the trips.
Many of the varieties we saw currently undergo trials in the hopes to become “All-America Selections.” Do you know AAS? The non-profit group organizes trials throughout North America, with independent judges scoring entries on a scale of 0-5, submitting their scores after the growing season. With the new variety grown side-by-side with controls, judges rate the candidates for earliness of bloom/harvest, novel colors or flavors, unique flower form, total yield, length of flowering or harvest, and overall performance. Only varieties with the highest average score are considered for the AAS Award.
Why’s the award important to home gardeners? For us, it’s akin to the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” By purchasing seeds with the AAS designation, you know your chances are good that you’ll grow a healthy, highly productive, flavorful vegetable garden. Of course, you’ll also find flower seeds and plants with the AAS designation, too. (Cut flower trials and perennials are new programs.) You can find a list of AAS winners here.
Part of the fun in experiencing Veggie Trials is learning about new varieties not yet released to the public. I felt like one of the "Agents of Shield," with my camera and mind filled with images of secretive plant breeds.
OK, so maybe a new pepper variety won’t save the world, but it sure does make life intriguing for the garden obsessed.
While new veggies are always alluring, the best part of the trip involved meeting wonderful plant geeks—my tribe! The fabulous Diane Blazek, Executive Director of the National Garden Bureau and AAS, organized the trip and invited my fellow #NGBPlantNerds: Bren Haas; Beth Billstrom; Niki Jabbour; and Adam Cortell. It was such a pleasure to spend the week with them, but it was also fabulous to meet the passionate plant breeders and marketers from the seed companies. (Thank you for hosting lovely dinners and lunches and cocktails for us!)
As part of the trip, I asked several of the folks we met to share their favorite recipes from the garden with me. Lucky you, because they agreed to let me share them here! Tonight, it’s time for you to savor a watermelon drink to cool off after gardening chores…or to relax after a hard day of work by turning it into an adult beverage with a splash of your favorite vodka. Your choice!
On our last evening in California, we met with the lovely Seeds by Design family. When I say “family,” I mean it in the literal term. Not only do they operate an impressive company, with numerous AAS winners in their product line, this family is incredibly warm, generous, and welcoming. From the moment we met, they made us feel a part of their home. Arianna, Ashley, and I compared our fan obsessions, with me drooling over their trip to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. We toasted the impending arrival of twin grandbabies. We saw photos of a lovely autumn wedding, with décor provided by veggies from the Seeds by Design fields. Miles served “piecey bites” while he carved the meat.
It was a perfect, delicious evening. It felt like we knew the family for years, not hours.
As we snacked and chatted, I told Ashley how much I enjoyed the watermelon drink. She referred me to Arianna, who graciously agreed to let me share her recipe with you. Enjoy!
Arianna’s Watermelon Agua Fresca
Half of a medium to large watermelon
Couple of fresh mint leaves
1 can of frozen lemonade
32 oz. pitcher of black tea
Muddle the watermelon. Add black tea and can of lemonade. Mix. Cut mint leaves into mixture with scissors. Mix. Add ice just before you serve.
Note from Arianna: I used about 5-6 mint leaves, but I would say you should base it on taste. Along with everything else, you can add more or less. Substituting a Green or Herbal Tea could be just as good.
I can't wait to share more adventures of the #NGBPlantNerds with you. Next up: container varieties to make you yearn for a perfect patio or balcony to create your small space garden. Stay tuned!
Until then, cheers! I hope you enjoy Arianna’s Watermelon Agua Fresca.
P.S. The #NGB Plant Nerds trip was sponsored in part by NGB and the seed companies we visited. However, as you know, all opinions are my own and not at all influenced by delicious dinners overlooking the ocean. Really, I promise!