5 Best Vegetable Varieties for Your Spring Garden

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Red Russian kale

Spring is such a special season, bursting with plans and possibilities, but then you must refine your lists and actually decide what to grow. Vegetable varieties offer a huge range of sizes, colours and flavours of garden vegetables, but which varieties are truly special?

In rough planting order, here are my top five classic vegetable varieties to plant in cool spring weather. I come back to them again and again because they are beautiful, productive, and delicious to eat. They’re also sturdy open-pollinated varieties, so with proper planning you can save your own seeds. Having stood the test of time, most of the varieties here are popular and readily available, so you can often find seeds at retail stores.

Dragon carrots
‘Dragon’ carrot has it all – beauty, flavour, and high nutrition

1. ‘Dragon’ Carrots

There are plenty of great carrots out there, but why not grow carrots that are costly to buy? One of the reasons I grow carrots is for the lively flavour of roots fresh from the ground, and ‘Dragon’ has a double dose of zing, and as much lycopene as a ripe tomato. It also has purplish red skin over bright orange flesh, so it looks amazing when thinly sliced into a salad.

Released more than fifteen years ago by plant breeder Dr. John Navazio, author of The Organic Seed Grower, ‘Dragon’ or ‘Purple Dragon’ adapts to a wide range of climates and soils, and sizes up more dependably than many other colored carrots. Most roots grow to about 7 inches (18 cm) long. They will store in the refrigerator for months.

Little Gem lettuce
Crisp little heads of ‘Little Gem’ lettuce are garden treasures

2. ‘Little Gem’ Lettuce

Compact, fast-growing ‘Little Gem’ lettuce is sometimes called a petite romaine, but the leaves are softer and less fibrous than a romaine, with hints of butterhead. A long-time favourite of European chefs and now popular in the US, ‘Little Gem’ is much like the old French ‘Sucrine’ variety, which is called either a romaine or a butterhead, depending on who you ask.

Growing only about 8 inches (20 cm) tall, ‘Little Gem’ does well with close spacing; plants can be grown only 6 inches (15 cm) apart. The plants have few spreading outer leaves compared to other lettuce varieties, so there is little waste as ‘Little Gem’ goes from garden to table. I have found that trimmed heads of ‘Little Gem’ can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, a rare feat for garden lettuce.

Red Russian kale
An overwintered ‘Red Russian’ kale plant produces a flush of new leaves and delicious flower buds

3. ‘Red Russian’ Kale

Reportedly brought to Canada in the late 1800’s by Russian trappers, ‘Red Russian’ or Ragged Jack kale began appearing in American gardens in the 1980’s. Cold hardy and easy to grow, ‘Red Russian’ bears big, flat leaves that develop unusual crinkles as they age. The tender leaves become buttery when cooked, and they are easily preserved by freezing or drying. Most of the kale I add to winter soups is dried ‘Red Russian’.

In my experience, ‘Red Russian’ is less attractive to caterpillars compared to other kales, and those that do appear are easy to spot resting on the leaf veins. As their grand finale, ‘Red Russian’ plants that survive winter produce sweet, broccoli-like flower buds in spring, which are a seasonal delicacy when lightly steamed.

Sugar snap peas
Tall ‘Sugar Snap’ peas bear heavy crops over a long period

4. ‘Sugar Snap’ Peas

In his early years as an Idaho plant breeder, Calvin Lamborn was given the task of straightening out the curved pods of snow peas (mangetout). Why not make them plump and juicy, too? When Lamborn’s ‘Sugar Snap’ peas were released in 1979, they were hailed as a vegetable revolution, and were proposed as a healthy alternative to French fries.

Decades have passed, different or improved varieties have come and gone, obscure heirlooms have been revived, and the best snap pea is still good old ‘Sugar Snap’. The vigorous vines run to 6 feet (2 m) or more, which makes them fun to grow, and in good weather they will produce for more than a month in my climate. The plump, sweet pods are great fresh, and I also blanch and freeze quite a few for adding to stir-fried dishes.

Cylindra beetroot
Upright ‘Cylindra’ beetroot can be grown at close spacing

5. ‘Cylindra’ Beetroot

What’s the best beetroot for making pickled beets? One hundred years ago, in response to high demand for pickled beetroot for sandwiches, Danish plant breeders developed elongated ‘Cylindra’. In addition to making perfect slices every time, the skins slip off with a gentle squeeze after roots are cooked and cooled. Sometimes called Butter Slicer or Formanova, ‘Cylindra’ grows best when direct-seeded where you want the plants to grow. The roots pop out of the ground when they are ready, which takes the guesswork out of harvesting. Used as cooked greens, younger leaves of ‘Cylindra’ are comparable to Swiss chard.

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Comments

 
"Barbara, thanks so much for these recommendations. There are so many varieties to choose from these days that it helps to get recommendations from a trusted source. I frequently grow Red Russian kale, but had not thought of overwintering them. I haven't tried the other varieties you suggested so will add them to my list."
Nicholas Richter on Saturday 17 February 2024
"Thanks, Nicholas! Hope we both have great gardens this year."
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 18 February 2024

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