Life and thoughts from a small-scale organic farm . . . and its farmers

This is a blog that explores ideas around the growing of food and community at Glen Valley Organic Farm.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

2011 Variety Reviews: Part I

In his book The Winter Harvest Handbook Eliot Coleman states that farmers have a responsibility to share their knowledge and experiments with each other to improve organic growing. In this spirit, I offer the following variety reviews from our trials this season. This is the first installment of reviews -- I have other varieties to note, plus reviews shared by other growers.

Our trials focus on finding suitable organic varieties of seed to replace standard conventional options. A primary focus is the production of profitable, marketable crops. As such, we use a number of hybrid varieties for the sake of yield, appearance and consistency of maturity dates. At the same time, we are always looking for suitable open-pollinated varieties to replace or grow alongside hybrid varieties.

Our farm is located in Abbotsford, in the Fraser Valley. We had an exceptionally late start in 2011, with cool, wet weather through to July. The second-half of the season provided warm, dry conditions, allowing crops to mature. These conditions have been taken into account when reviewing varieties.

Batavia was a new variety for 2011. It performed well, producing an early crop of crowns and side shoots afterward. The catalogue notes that Batavia does not have the same heat tolerance as Belstar, although it is significantly earlier. Belstar produces consistent, even crowns. When grown side-by-side with conventional hybrids such as Everest and Diplomat, both Belstar and Batavia are slightly smaller with somewhat less-dense crowns. Overall, though, both are excellent organic alternatives.

Over the past few years I’ve been searching for an open pollinated broccoli that would perform well for markets. Calabrese looked promising based on catalogue, but we were unable to get any reasonable harvest from these plants. Some plants produced small crowns, but for most it was even difficult to find marketable side-shoots. Most of the planting ending up flowering early-on.

This round-type radicchio produced consistent, sizable heads that held well in the field. We were pleased to see this variety available as organic. Leonardo impressed customers at markets, particularly alongside the trevisio-type hybrid Fiero (which is not available as organic seed).

This isn’t actually a new variety, although it was new to me this season. I thought this would be at least a popular novelty, particularly given that some customers are beet fanatics. Although the crop grew well, the beets did not have a high market appeal. We sold some in multi-colour bunches as “rainbow beets”, but would approach with caution in the future, particularly given the high cost of the seeds. Purple beets are perennial favorites and we stick to Early Wonder Tall Top as the preferred variety. Gold beets are second-most popular and nothing compares to Touchstone Gold. Chioggia Guardsmark appeared in 2010 and was a significant improvement on the traditional Chioggia, although the striped beets are not significantly popular at any of our markets.

I added Buscaro to our crop plan in order to get a late-season harvest of red cabbage after our tried-and-true Red Acre was finished. Overall, Buscaro disappointed with small heads and inconsistent maturity dates. This is one example where the open pollinated variety (available from BC’s own Stellar Seeds) performs best.

Although others on the farm may have been cursing me under their breath for the amount of cabbage I seeded this season, I couldn’t resist some of the varieties listed. Of these, Kaitlin was one that impressed the most. This sauerkraut-type cabbage produces large (12-15 lb) heads of densely packed white leaves. Plants mature uniformly, meaning you’ll either need an army of krauting customers on standby or plans for processing them yourself. They hold well in the field and in the cooler. Sauerkraut made in the summer from Kaitlin has exceptional flavour.

Although Cortland wasn’t a new variety this season, I am compelled to review it after trialing it for two seasons. We grew Cortland alongside Bedfordshire Champion (an open pollinated variety from Stellar Seeds) in an effort to find an organic seed alternative to Copra. After two seasons I remain hesitant to suggest either as an all-out replacement. Both Cortland and Bedfordshire Champion had high rates of bolting in the field. This season, neither variety’s tops fell over at maturity. Both retained significant amounts of moisture in the necks, making curing difficult and resulting in high rates of loss in storage. We didn’t have this problem last season, although neither variety stored as well as Copra. Given that Copra is produced by Bejo (which produces an array or organic seed varieties) and is widely used by organic farmers, it would seem logical that the company would develop an organic version soon.

I would be hesitant to review a non-edible pumpkin (or at least a carving pumpkin), except that Jack Straw was an exceptional variety. Plants produced large, consistently-sized pumpkins that matured evenly and with time to spare before Halloween.

Listed as “a rare Japanese specialty for the porch or the table,” I couldn’t resist trying this new variety. This is a stunning pumpkin, with a visual appearance that draws customers’ attention at the market stand. Plants are productive and the catalogue notes that it can even be grown in large containers. My only mistake was harvesting it too early; I took the word “black” in its name as an indicator of maturity. In fact, mature fruit turn a chestnut-orange. I was about to write off this variety based on this mistake and the resulting lack of flavour. Luckily I left enough fruit to realize my mistake a few weeks later. It’s worth growing again.

Finding a Buttnernut variety that matures before rains (or frost) set in has always been a challenge for us. So it was nice to see a new, early, open-pollinated Butternut variety. But the promised 90 days in the catalogue is too ambitious. We still struggled to get the fruit out before frost – long after our 95 day varieties were picked and cured. The squash we did get were excellent texture, flavour and size (not too large). It’s a nice squash, but not the silver bullet for short-season climates.

2012 Wish List
Of course, I can always hope that there are some surprises in the new seed catalogues for 2012. At the top of my list is an indeterminate beefsteak tomato comparable with Big Beef in productivity, flavour and durability. The main objective is to find a seed that isn’t produced by a Monsanto-owned company.


  1. Thank you for this review, Chris, I will try and do some reviewing of my own this winter. We grew the two broccoli varieties (Belstar and Batavia) and were impressed with the number and size of sideshoots as well as the duration of sideshoot production (broccoli transplanted in May was still producing marketable shoots in October). We also found the main crowns to be on the small side, though this isn't a problem if the sideshoots are significant.

    We grew Cortland onions and found the same problems as you: poor drying down and curing due to too much moisture in the tops. We also had a cool, wet spring and summer and blamed this for the problem. It's good to know that Copra performed well in these conditions and I will try it next year.

    I guess NB and BC aren't that far apart in some ways!
    Thanks again,

  2. I'm curious about what the problems with Chioggia (the original) were. I grew them this year and my family loved them (beets are the one vegetable I don't eat). They seemed pretty early and a decent size.

  3. Agreed on Calabrese. I really wanted it to be successful, but it just doesn't produce the nice heads of the hybrids. For market I would usually bunch the small heads together. Next year I might experiment with sowing it close together... the plants aren't particularly large, so even if yield/plant isn't good maybe it can be space efficient.

    Can't remember if I mentioned it when I emailed you, but Nutterbutter (Jeremy gave me a couple plants) was very productive for me. Agreed that it was definitely not 90 days to maturity, though.


  4. Eden -- The challenge with traditional Chioggia from a commercial production standpoint was that a high percentage of the roots were more torpedo shaped than round and the crop had a high bolting rate. Chioggia Guardsmark is an improvement of the variety addressing these characteristics.

  5. Hi guys,

    Thanks for the reviews of all these varieties - priceless info. Hoping you'll let us know what you think about more varieties next year. Tom - High Mowing

  6. I can only echo Tom's sentiment - We all love this kind of information. Keep the conversation going, and let us know how we can help!
    David Manson, Johnny's Selected Seeds