I was asked a question in my Facebook group (Cultivating Resilience with Kirsten Serrano) that I decided to turn into a post.

Amy B asked:

What are some of your go-to/almost always grow (and succeed) crops? And what are some that aren’t so common that you have tried and are favorites now?

What a fun question and January is the perfect time for a farmer to get all fan-girly about her favorite crops, so here are my all-time faves and some “weirdos” I have tried over the years and was blown away by. I am limiting myself to my top 10. I hope I will inspire you to grow one of these gems. Most importantly, keep exploring the world of food.There is so much diversity when we move beyond the grocery store.

A little background for those that don’t know me and my farm. I have been seriously growing for 12ish years. I started growing a lot of food as an “f-you” to the crappy American food system when I started my food literacy journey. That passion grew until I told my husband that my need to grow food meant he had to take it to our restaurant and make it disappear. Thus, we became the first “farm to fork” restaurant in our community all the way back in 2006. For those of you in hipper places, please know that in Indiana we were way ahead of the curve. Our commitment to growing produce for our restaurant has grown yearly. In 2020, we increased production 50% in response to the pandemic. Our restaurant is not open to the public or doing carry-out during the pandemic. We decided that the safest route for the community, ourselves, and the employees we could keep is to stay closed and run a meal subscription service until running a restaurant is a safer and financially feasible endeavor. I am growing in zone 5b and am not certified organic but use beyond organic growing practices.

Cucumbers: Mini White, Armenian, and Mexican Sour Gherkin

  • Mini White: I first found these in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog, but I see them commonly now. Obviously, I am not the only fan. Unsurprisingly, they are best picked small and white. They will yellow as they overripen. They are very prolific and never ever bitter. My husband’s favorite.
  • Armenian: My greenhouse owning neighbor introduced me to these. They are actually a melon, not a cuke. (Cucumbers and melons are in the same family.) This one grows long and slender. For flavor, these are my personal favorite. In my experience, rabbits will go after just about any tender young seedling, but this is the one they will go for first. Not especially prolific, but worth it in my opinion.
  • Mexican Sour Gherkin: Also, known as “Mouse Melons” and “Cuca-Melons” A decade ago I was teaching kindergartners and first-graders about gardening, and at the end of the school year we planted take home gardens for each student in half-bushel baskets. These tiny cukes (they are indeed mouse-sized) are the perfect crop for kids and containers. All summer long I received pictures of tiny students marveling at their tiny cucumbers. Sour is in the name for a reason. They aren’t bad tasting, but these are really grown for the novelty value. I grow them almost every year because they are just delightful. At the restaurant, we pop these on side salads. What a perfect way for a diner to know they are getting truly farm-fresh food they could not get down the street. The vines they grow on are diminutive and are slow to get going, but once they do, watch out. You will have more of these little guys than you know what to do with. For me, they self-seed. I have not purchased seeds in years. I just let them pop up where they were the year before and transplant them where I want them. They very much need something to climb.

Tomatoes: Brad’s Atomic Grape

Tomatoes come in every conceivable color, shape, size, and flavor. More than anything, I recommend that you enjoy growing new ones. Be adventurous.

What!? I am only picking one tomato? Yep. There are dozens I could name that I have loved, but honestly, there are too many great choices not to keep trying new ones. I grow 20-30 varieties a year. The one I know I will keep growing is this:

  • Brad’s Atomic Grape: I have never seen a tomato as beautiful as this one. It tastes great, is super-productive, and disease resistant. These grape tomatoes are the product of innovative seed breeding by Brad Gates at Wild Boar Farms and they are just the tip of the iceberg. Check out all the tomatoes he has to offer.


Greens: Thousandhead Kale, Bright Lights Chard, and Italiko Rosso Dandelion

  • Thousandhead Kale: I love to eat kale. I love to grow it, and I have never met one I did not like. That said, I grew this one for the first time last year and I will continue to do so every year. The leaves, regardless of size, are the most tender I have ever had. This kale is a winner. It is still going strong now in January in the high tunnel. My husband the chef quickly fell in love and asked me to harvest this one all season long.
  • Bright Lights Swiss Chard: What’s not to love? This hardy green goes all season long and those stems are like little fireworks displays in the garden. I have minced those colorful stems to garnish food and I fermented them this year too!
  • Italiko Rosso Dandelion: Looks just like dandelion greens with a red stem but it’s actually Italian heirloom chicory. This is a beautiful plant, but what made me really fall in love was the fact that it has zero pest problems and never bolts. I like it more as a cooked green but young leaves can be added to salads.

Squash: Zucchino Rampicante and 898 Squash

  • Zucchino Rampicante: An Italian heirloom. I honestly can’t remember for sure where I first came across this, but I think I originally ordered it from Baker Creek. For over a decade I have considered it my farm’s signature crop. It takes up a massive amount of space, but it’s worth it. This squash has it all. It beats watery zucchini on both flavor and texture. This is firmer and better-tasting–making the best fresh zucchini noodle around. Those beautiful long necks are seed-free too!  I do not like it as a winter squash personally, but some do. Unlike regular zucchini, which needs to be harvested in time or becomes a monster, rampicante is more forgiving. Best of all, this squash grows like mad and stands up to squash bugs just fine. I don’t use chemical controls on squash bugs, so I plant traditional zucchini and summer squash and look at it as an early summer crop. By the time the bugs take it out, the rampicante is producing and does so prolifically until the cold gets it. I keep these massive vines in check by trellising them on cattle panels.
  • 898 Squash: This is a squash that represents a revolution in seed breeding, flavor, and nutrition. I wrote about this squash for my best-selling book Eat to Your Advantage. This excerpt was later cut for length.

“When price per pound and yield are the factors controlling the market, breeders will be asked for large, watery produce. Let’s use butternut squash as an example.  Butternut has been bred to be big and watery which means diluted flavor/nutrition. We all know what butternut tastes like and it has its fans (include me here.) What most of us don’t know is how much better it could taste.Chef and author Dan Barber, Cornell University plant breeder Michael Mazourek and upstate New York seed farmer Matthew Goldfarb are changing that.  They founded Row 7 Seeds in 2018 with the goal of breeding crops that have superior nutrition/flavor while still being commercially profitable to farm.  The company grew out of a project to produce a truly flavorful butternut squash. They succeeded. The Honeynut squash is a marvel of flavor/nutrition with denser, nutty-sweet flesh and a skin so thin that you don’t need to peel it. You don’t have to wait for the Honeynut to hit your grocery store. I’ve grown it at my farm for the past three years and can attest to its superior flavor. You can have it too. When you order seeds, make sure to check out Row 7’s (www.row7seeds.com) other amazing offerings.”

Radish: Purple Daikon

  • Purple Daikon: If you have farmed with kids, you have probably grown radishes. They are a fast, dependable, and gorgeous crop. The drawback is they aren’t that well-liked. I have watched many a youngster excitedly grow a radish only to be disappointed at the taste. In my mind, that’s not a reason not to grow them–trying something new and deciding it’s not for you is time well spent. But daikon is a radish you can really fall for. It’s usually far milder than your average radish and I love it. It’s crisp, sweet, and juicy. Leave them in the ground until you have a few touches of frost and you will get the best flavor.

Happy Growing!


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