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What’s Growing?

The garden features cool and warm season crops, culinary and medicinal herbs and pollinator friendly plants.

Typical Growing Schedule



Direct Seed



Broccoli, Cabbage, Onions




Cauliflower, Lettuce, Peppers, Tomatoes




Sweet Potatoes, Eggplant

Beets, Carrots, Chard, Kale, Kohlrabi, Mustard, Peas, Radish, Spinach, Sunflower




Beans, Cantaloupe, Cucumbers, Okra, Peas, Pumpkins, Summer Squash, Sorghum, Watermelon, Zucchini, Pápalo

Broccoli, Cauliflower, Lettuce, Onions

*Washington, DC is Zone 7 borderline Zone 8. Consult your local cooperative extension office for a planting calendar for your area.

Unique Varieties at the Headquarters Garden
Written by UW-Madison Department of Horticulture and Seed to Kitchen Collaborative

University of WIsconsin-Madison logo
Seed to Kitchen Collaborative logo

There are many interesting varieties around the Headquarters People’s Garden, and each one has a unique story about where it came from. Visit the tabs below to learn more.

Plant Breeding 101

Have you ever been to the produce aisle and wondered how there got to be so many different types of lettuce? You might be surprised to learn that broccoli, kale, cabbage, and brussels sprouts all come from the exact same plant species. The incredible diversity of produce we have today has been developed over thousands of years, as plants evolved with and alongside humans. Early farmers and foragers would save seeds from plants that had desirable characteristics — like big fruits or big leaves, excellent flavor, or the ability to store over the winter— and plant those seeds again in the spring, repeating the process season after season. Today, the science of selecting and reproducing certain plant traits is sometimes known as plant breeding.

There are several different ways of breeding plant varieties:

Open-pollinated varieties are those whose characteristics remain stable across generations. Older varieties, also known as heirlooms, are examples of open-pollinated varieties that can be saved in your garden from season to season. These varieties will continue to display the same characteristics of the previous generation. You can even select seeds with your own ideal traits!

Hybrid varieties are created by cross-pollinating two plants from different inbred lines. To develop hybrid varieties, breeders first take two populations of plants with desirable characteristics and reproduce them until the characteristics are stable. Then, they cross-pollinate the two populations to create an offspring that has the characteristics of both populations. Unlike seeds saved from open-pollinated varieties, seeds saved from hybrids often look very different from the parent plants, and instead display a wide diversity of traits that were present in the original populations.

Genetic engineering allows breeders to change individual traits in plant varieties by editing, inserting, or deleting gene sequences using different molecular techniques. There are not very many crops with genetically engineered varieties on the market today, although many are used in commercial farming of corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets.

There are lots of interesting varieties around the People’s Garden, and each one has a unique story about where it came from. Scan the QR code on the variety sign to learn more.

Beit Alfa Cucumber

Native to present day India and southern China, the cucumber has been a staple in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines for thousands of years. Early cucumbers were likely quite bitter due to protective compounds in the cucumber skin which discourage insects and other pests from eating them. Over the years, plant breeders have selected varieties for less bitterness and better flavor, bringing to the table the cucumber we recognize today.

In the 1930s, plant breeder Hanka Lazarson began working on an improved cucumber at the Beit Alfa kibbutz in northern Israel. She started with the local Damascus variety, which “tasted good,” but produced cucumbers that were unevenly shaped and sized. So, she set out to develop a variety that was more uniform in appearance. As she worked to identify plants that made right-sized fruits, she realized that the increased uniformity also contributed to better flavor and texture. In a 1946 journal entry, she wrote, “Our studies showed that if the cavity space of the cucumber is greater relative to the thickness of the shell. It has a juicier flavor and finer texture.”

The kibbutz knew they had a great cucumber on their hands, and in 1936, Lazarson started distributing the seeds of the new variety in the Middle East, and quickly, around the world. Since then, hundreds of heirloom and hybrid varieties have counted Beit Alfa as an ancestor. Of the variety she’d defined, she wrote: “Productive variety, excellent taste and high yield: these indicate the type we called Beit Alfa Cucumber.”

Beit Alfa cucumbers are small, sweet, prolific, and can be harvested in short order, usually about 55 days from planting. Commonly referred to as a “burpless” variety, Beit Alfas have thin skin, few seeds, and lower levels of cucurbitacin, the compound that made early cucumbers so bitter. They are also adaptable to many different growing environments, making them a popular choice among home gardeners.

Nativity Seeds, “Damascus Cucumber To Beit Alfa Cucumber,” (2020)

Black Beauty Zucchini

The 20th century was a time of massive growth for the seed industry, which used snappy marketing to promote all types of new and interesting fruit and vegetable varieties. For all the pizzazz, it could be difficult for farmers and home gardeners to determine just which new varieties were actual improvements on the seeds they may have already had. Enter the All-America Selections, which rely on a panel of judges and controlled trials to determine the best new varieties on the market.

Black Beauty Zucchini is one such award winner, crowned in 1957 for being one of the earliest-ripening and longest-producing varieties of the dark-skinned zucchinis. Black Beauty was bred by John Scarchuk, a plant breeder at the University of Connecticut. Scarchuk received a degree in botany from UConn and began working for the University’s Storrs Agricultural Experiment Station in 1938. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and returned to Storrs, where he spent the rest of his career. Each state has an Agricultural Experiment Station, designated and funded by the government to promote agricultural innovation across the country and to bring new and useful plant varieties to the American public. During his time at SAES, Scarchuk bred 7 All-America Selection winners, including Candlelight ornamental peppers, Dark Opal basil, and Table King squash. Of Black Beauty, the New York Times in 1957 wrote: “This new variety with a heavier crop and longer season will bring added praise. Black Beauty can be picked when merely the size of a big dill pickle or when large as a cucumber. The flesh is tender, sweet, and buttery… The more that is picked, the more that is produced.”

Hamilton, Robert. “Tomorrow’s Plants on 7 County Plots.” The New York Times, (15 May 1983)

Hastings, W. Ray. “All-America Flowers Add Vegetables for ‘57.” The New York Times, (6 January 1957)


While many of the fruits and vegetables we eat result from decades, and sometimes centuries, of breeding and selection, other foods on our plate are not that far removed from those we can find in the wild. Porophyllum ruderale is one of those species, a green herbaceous plant that grows extensively across the Americas, especially in disturbed soils.  Because the herb is used by many different cultures, it has many names, including summer cilantro, killi (from Quechua killkiña), cilantro boliviano, and yierba porosa, which refers in Spanish to the large pores on the leaves that release a strong smell when crushed. Perhaps its most common name in the United States, pápalo, comes from the Nahuatl word for butterfly: papalotl. You may recognize other Nahuatl words in our culinary vocabulary, like xococatl (chocolate), tomatl, (tomato), ahuacatl (avocado), chian (chia), and even chīllipōctli (smoked chiles, or chipotle).

Indigenous Americans have used pàpalo for centuries as a flavorful, fresh addition to foods and as a medicinal herb, and its existence was an important part of the prehispanic diet. Many people still harvest pápalo from wild sources or introduce it to certain locations, where it is left to establish itself. More recently, pápalo also has been introduced as a cultivated crop on both small and large farms. Farmers who plant and tend pápalo tend to favor plants that are shorter stature, less pungent, and have small, round, well-formed leaves, and the seeds from varieties that carry these characteristics are considered prime examples of the species. For this reason, cultivated pápalo tends to be smaller and less fibrous than its wild relatives–a reminder that humans and the foods we eat are constantly evolving with and alongside one another!


Vázquez, R. M. C. "Tendencias en el proceso de domesticación del papaloquelite (Porophyllum ruderale (Jacq.) Cass. subsp. macrocephalum (DC.) RR Johnson. Asteraceae)." México DF: MSc Dissertation, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (1991).

The Boss Pumpkin: An Interview with Plant Breeder Lindsay Wyatt

Anyone who has picked out a pumpkin for carving probably has ideas about what makes an excellent Jack O’ Lantern: a perfect shape, dark orange coloring, maybe a nice, sturdy handle. When Johnny’s Selected Seeds set out to develop a new Halloween pumpkin, plant breeder Lindsay Wyatt had her eye on many of those same things.

“We take data on yield and uniformity and color,” she said. “The handles also have to be strong enough for someone to pick up a pumpkin by the handle and not break.” Importantly, she wanted to breed a pumpkin that was prolific enough for commercial growers to sell at the grocery store. “But we also wanted a pumpkin that would be really nice and lovely for someone to grow in their garden for their kids to carve for Halloween,” she added.

At the Johnny’s research farm in Maine, Wyatt and her team make over 70 new hybrid combinations every year, selecting the parent varieties that have desirable traits, and combining them via hand pollination. The next year, they grow the resulting hybrids to determine which combinations produce results that meet their goals. At harvest time, they invite the entire farm crew to walk the field and place a flag near their favorites, like an experimental pumpkin patch.

From the beginning, she knew one variety in particular would be a winner. “It was so good the first year, we grew extra the next year to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. It was almost hard to believe,” she said.

When it came time for the crew to place their votes, there were indeed a lot of flags clustered around one plot. The crew was so enthusiastic about the variety, they thought it should have a name that recognized it for being outstanding in the field. “Someone basically said, we should name it The Boss,” she laughed. “And we were all like, yeah, that’s the name now.”

And where did The Boss get its good looks? Wyatt nods to the late University of New Hampshire professor Dr. Brent Loy, who developed over 80 squash, gourd, melon, and pumpkin varieties over his long career. “One of those lines is a big part of The Boss’ genetics,” she said. “So this definitely would not be possible without public plant breeding.”

Herself an alumna of a public plant breeding program, Wyatt originally studied biology in college before learning about the Plant Breeding Department at Cornell University. Growing up, she had worked summers in her father’s nursery and always wondered where all the different colored petunias came from, but it wasn’t until she started looking for graduate school programs that she realized there was a dedicated field of study for creating new and interesting plant varieties.

As for how she made the leap from petunias to pumpkins, she chalked it up to serendipity and the projects available at Cornell and later, at Johnny’s Seeds. “And then,” she added, “I find that once you start working with any crop, you start to love it.”

Berkeley Tie Dye Tomato: An Interview with Plant Breeder Brad Gates

If you’re lucky enough to visit a Berkeley Tie Dye plant when it’s fruiting, it may be obvious how this pink and yellow and green-striped tomato came by its name. In fact, according to tomato breeder Brad Gates, the exchange that dubbed this famous heirloom went down with no words at all.

“I was selling tomatoes at the farmers’ market in Oakland, about a mile from Berkeley, and a guy wearing a tie-dye shirt came over and held the tomato to the middle of his chest. He gave me this funny look like, ‘Hey, it looks just like my shirt...’ I didn’t realize what a pivotal scene was playing out in those few seconds.”

Now, Berkeley Tie Dye is known around the world for its groovy looks and gourmet flavor. But when Gates started selling tomatoes, he didn’t even know just how much diversity existed in the crop.

“I started working on a Saturday for a friend doing the farmers market about 25 years ago,” he said. “I was expecting to show up and have all these red tomatoes to sell. But there were all these yellow and pink and purple ones and people were asking questions about them. I had to force myself to step outside my comfort zone and start tasting them.”

The experience had so intrigued Gates that he decided to grow tomatoes full-time. He started with dozens of heirloom varieties to find the tomatoes that grew well, tasted good, and produced prolifically. “We would get left with a bunch of them at the farmers market and others would sell out,” he said. Naturally, he began saving seeds from the varieties that did well.

“With heirloom varieties, you can save your own seeds,” he said. And because tomatoes are self-pollinating, you’ll often get a similar tomato year after year. “But once in a great while, you’ll get a natural cross-pollination, and a couple of plants show up that aren’t what they’re supposed to be.” As he was growing thousands and thousands of plants for the market, Gates took some of the new crosses he was seeing and began to grow them out, too. “And that was how I got into breeding tomatoes,” he said.

Fortunately for the world he did, because he was just about ready to hang up his farmer’s hat and get a different job. But as he saw people’s reactions to the new varieties he was breeding, he decided to stick with it. “I had the thought, ‘At one point, I’m the only person in the world holding Berkeley Tie Dye.’ And every restaurant I go to, everyone says, ‘Wow, these tomatoes are amazing. So I was thinking, ‘Well, the world shouldn’t be without this.’”

Gates sells mostly seeds and seedlings now, and you can find varieties he’s bred in farms and gardens from sea level to seven thousand feet. In fact, he says, when someone grows open-pollinated seeds and saves them from year-to-year, they’re creating adaptation to challenging environments.

The diversity preserved in the process will ensure that people can feed themselves in all these different places, he added. “I’ve had people tell me that one of my varieties was the last producing tomato plant in a summer in Tucson, and I’ve had people have good results growing close to the San Francisco Bay, where it’s always cool and foggy.”

“Having diverse genetics and being able to select again and again in your area, it’s one of the best things for people who want to grow a garden,” he said. “It doesn’t take a white coat and a biology degree. Even a home gardener can grow something unknown or something special that you can’t get at the store.”

All it takes, according to Gates, “is common sense and determination to grow a decent number of plants for a decent number of years.”