Winter is almost upon us, and our gardening has substantially slowed down (or completely stopped). However, it’s that time of year when the new seed catalogs will be arriving and we’ll be planning our spring garden. Many of you have asked me about what I like to plant year after year, or what grows well in my hardiness zone (8b). So, I thought this was a perfect time for a four-part series on my favorites for the garden.
Every year, I grow several varieties of each type of vegetable or fruit. However, I have certain varieties that I plant year after year because they grow well in my zone and they are a tasty favorite.
The nightshade family includes tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Of all the garden families, this one is my ultimate favorite.
This has to be my absolute favorite slicing tomato. This is a Russian variety that grows to about 3-4 inches in diameter and ripens to a purple-red with a green-purple blush on the top.
When I first sliced this tomato and saw that some areas of the inside were almost black, I thought the tomato was rotten. Not so!
This tomato is not as acidic as some. The flavor is so sweet that this is my favorite tomato for insalata caprese (sliced tomatoes with fresh mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, drizzled with basalmic vinegar).
I think I have a penchant for purple tomatoes as this is my second favorite slicing tomato. This is an old Cherokee Indian variety that ripens to a purple pink color all over. I usually harvest tomatoes that average 3-4 inches in diameter, but I have had a few that were a bit larger. It has a nice flavor that is good for salads or just eating plain with a sprinkle of sea salt.
I must say, many people in the Charleston, SC, area have told me they have trouble growing this variety here, but I’ve not had a problem.
I have grown this variety every year because the plants produce the largest paste tomatoes I have ever seen.
A variety grown by the Amish community, these tomatoes are very meaty and quite tasty. They’re great for making sauce or for canning.
If you want a cherry tomato with a hearty tomato flavor, this German variety is the one. Clusters of one-inch tomatoes grow all over the vine.
Listada de Gandia
Although I grow Black Beauty eggplant every year in my garden, I chose not to include that in my favorites because it is a common heirloom and is also sold in grocery stores. This Spanish heirloom has won my heart with its beautiful skin and sweet, tender flesh. I’ve never found it to be bitter (as some ripe eggplants can be), and it holds up well in various dishes, including eggplant parmesan.
Emerald Giant Green Bell
This variety was developed in 1963 (over 50 years ago), so it is not quite an actual heirloom. However, the large, thick-walled fruit are very tasty – whether eaten green or red. The plants are also very productive and produce well even in the midst of our South Carolina heat. Unlike some pepper varieties that almost stop producing mid-summer, this variety still produces through the summer and goes crazy when the weather cools off some. This is my sweet pepper workhorse, and I won’t plant any other variety for my green bells.
Red mini bell peppers
This is a new-comer to my garden, and I thought it was going to be a one-season wonder because of its very small size. However, the flavor of these tiny peppers is outstanding, and I use them in salads or eat them at breakfast. This variety is very productive, too; one plant will produce dozens and dozens of peppers all season long. The thick-walled flesh holds up well to stuffing, too. (Think, stuffed with feta cheese then roasted in the oven. YUM!) Please note: many companies sell mini red bell peppers that seem to be different varieties, so get this variety at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Lemon Drop Peppers
Beyond the cayenne and jalapenos that grow in most gardens (including mine), there is the most amazing chili pepper from Peru – the lemon drop pepper. I will never have a garden without this unique chili. These 2-3 inch long peppers ripen to a beautiful yellow and are used for seasoning all sorts of dishes. They have a good heat to them when ripe or even unripe. However, once ripe, they have a nice lemony aftertaste, which gives my hot pepper jam a citrusy note. As they do in Peru, I also dehydrate them and crush them to use as seasoning.
My very-close-second favorite chili, this African-American heirloom is a two-inch, spicy chili with full-bodied flavor. The name comes from the original use of seasoning fish and shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay area. However, I have used this pepper in my chili con carne and my tomato sauce (among other dishes). This variety is so beautiful it can be grown as an ornamental in your front yard. From the white and green mottled leaves to the colorful ripening stages of the fruit (green, green and white, cream, light yellow, orange, red), this variety is stunning as well as tasty.
Although a new-comer to my garden, I can’t leave this one off the list because I will surely grow these every year. Another ornamental, this compact variety is perfect for containers. The leaves are dark green with a purple blush, and the tiny flowers are white, trimmed in purple.
The half-inch fruit are a deep purple and ripen to a deep red. But don’t let these tiny peppers fool you. They are extremely hot! Yet, they are most unique among chili peppers – they are the hottest when immature (purple), growing milder as they ripen (red). How cool is that?
I will always grow several varieties of nightshades in my garden, even experimenting with new seeds every year. However, these are my must-haves, the varieties my garden will grow year to year.
What are your favorite nightshades? Share them with us, along with your hardiness zone.
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