I love the ritual of ordering seed — it's probably the most decadent part of my job. First, the citrus crate, crammed to overflowing with catalogues, is hauled next to my favorite chair. Then the fire is stoked, a red pen is found in the desk clutter, and enough food is gathered to last several hours. As I settle in and conform to the well-worn contours of the antique wing chair's stuffing, the normal restrictions of time, space, and cost seem as far away as next year's tomatoes.
This past gardening season, though, I had the extra job of testing new vegetable varieties for 1988 (and a few of '89's), so things weren't quite so simple. I had sent letters to just over 100 seed companies, asking what they considered to be their best introductions for the new year. The results were overwhelming — a bushel basket of samples arrived by spring. And they kept coming. Indeed, long after every last inch of the garden had been planted, seeds were still falling out of my mailbox — many with long personal letters attached.
I couldn't grow them all (who could?). So I tried my best to chose varieties that sounded like they had that quintessential difference. Take beans, for instance. It took more than a description like "Flat green pods, 6 to 7 inches long, good for freezing" to entice me to give up precious garden space. But Dragon's Langerie, a wax bean that promised the works — high yields, earliness and tender, long pods, all wrapped in a colorful "package" — was irresistible, and thus was included in my trials.
So before you put your feet up and daydream through your own stack of catalogues, you might like to see how some of '88's newest performed in my garden — both the pick of the crop and a few of the "pans." (Most are available from seed companies other than the ones specifically mentioned here.)
Sweet Million FNTL Hybrid: This cherry tomato started the season slowly, but eventually produced "sweet hundreds" of one-and-a-quarter-inch fruits. Friends who received the excesses praised the flavor of the little tomatoes (many said they tasted even better when broiled). My five-foot-tall bamboo cages could barely contain the large, indeterminate and quite disease-resistant plants. (Park)
Gold Nugget: I like colorful salads, and the rich golden hue of these cherry tomatoes stands out like a spring flower. Gold Nugget tomatoes were our first of the season and kept on producing, oblivious to disease. The flavor is hearty without being overly sweet or tart, and the plants stay a wonderfully manageable height of under two and a half feet. (Johnny's)
Breeder's Choice: This Sugar Extender hybrid (a corn bred to last a long time before its sugars turn to starch) produced an excellent first crop that held its sweet flavor over about a two-week harvest period. Most stalks carried two small (seven-inch) ears. Kernels are pale yellow — almost white — and pleasantly sweet without being candylike. (Burpee)
Early Pearl: It took years of seed-saving efforts by back-yard growers to make this early, open-pollinated sweet corn once again available to the public. The harvest season is extensive due to the staggered maturation of the six-inch ears (usually two per stalk). Our patch put out some of the most succulently sweet corn we've ever tasted. (Good Seed)
Wax, Finaud, and Snap Beans
Dragon's Langerie: This unusually named (and spelled) wax bean got my attention — in the catalogue and in the garden. It came on with a furor and kept on producing. The large, flat beans had an excellent mild taste, even when up to eight inches long. They also had color: The pale yellow beans sported purple stripes at snap stage, which changed to cranberry at shell stage (the stripes function as built-in ripening timers and disappear during blanching). (Vermont Bean Seed)
Finaud filet bean : Here's what I like, a vegetable that works hard so I don't have to. The long, slender pods of traditional filets must be picked daily to capture their delicate French taste. Finaud beans, though, hold onto that intense young flavor and tender texture as they mature, so the plants need picking only one to three times. You'd be hard pressed to find a bean that puts out more in a very small space. (Cook's)
Mini Green: These baby beans stay short and tender — they don't get big and tough like normal snap beans. Since I break the calyx end off beans as I pick them, I never had to do any further snapping of Mini Greens in the kitchen. (Park)
Orobelle golden pepper: I can't praise Orobelles enough. Friends, astounded at the baskets full of sweet-tasting peppers that I gave away from only five plants, asked over and over for their source. Each of these hybrid peppers turns from green to a golden yellow and is blocky, well formed and large. The plants were also very disease-resistant. (Johnny's)
Mini Green and Mini Yellow peppers: The pepper versions of cherry tomatoes, Minis require too much cleaning and cutting to be used for cooking or relish, but they're just right for salads, hors d'oeuvres and out-of-hand eating. The hearty plants looked like replicas of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, each drooping under an excess of little orange lights. (Seeds Blum)
Chile-Espanola Improved: Touted as "a special short-season chile that will turn red even in cool or northern climates," Espanola Improved was, indeed, the first of our seven hot pepper varieties to ripen. Ten neighbors with braver tongues than mine did all my chile testing and proclaimed this version to be only mildly hot and excellent for use as stuffed chiles rellenos. Hotness, though, varies with climate and soil conditions — you could get very different taste results. (Plants of the Southwest)
Listada de Gandia: Only two of our many garden visitors recognized this beautiful purple and white tiger-striped fruit as being an eggplant. Each averages five inches long, is roundishly plump, and looks more like an exotic table decoration than a practical vegetable. But practical it is. Plants consistently outgrew four other eggplant varieties and produced right up until frost. And the skins are so delicate you can leave them on when cooking. (Southern Exposure)
Extra Long eggplant: This Oriental eggplant is another that looks like the product of an artist's imagination. Each fruit was eight inches long, a mere inch-and-a-half wide and a deep, electric purple. Just under the calyx, there are several color bands ranging from light purple to white. The compact plants took longer to bear than Listada, but eventually put out many fruits with mild taste and delicate skins. (Sunrise Enterprises)
Chinese Long White: Of all the eggplants in our trials, this long ornamental was the most severely set back by pesky flea beetles. Late in the season, though, the plants rallied to produce plump fruits. (Tsang and Ma)
Greenpeace: It's hard to imagine a more decorative leaf vegetable than this rare Russian kale from the Greenpeace Experimental Farm in British Columbia. Magenta-colored stems, veining and edging accent the frilly, oak leaf-shaped foliage. (Southern Exposure)
Red Russian: Here's another beautiful version of this cold-weather staple. The foliage turns completely red with the onset of cold weather. (Peace)
Ravella Hybrid: Ravella, the only cauliflower sent in for our trials, proved to be such a vigorous and disease-resistant winner in spring that we used it for our entire fall planting. We harvested nothing but perfect white heads averaging from six to nine inches across. (Park)
Italian Green and Red Chard Mix: This lovely mix was praised so much by our neighbors that even my chard-hating husband agreed it was worth planting. Sold as a small-space container crop, the pretty ruby-and-white-stalked plants practically took care of themselves. I cut them nearly to the ground in midsummer, after which they came back to bear heavily again. (Shepherd's)
New (and Old) Beets
Replata: Shep Ogden, head of The Cook's Garden seed company, told us he sowed these beets, one to each cell of a plug tray, and set the starts out (under a spunbond row cover) as soon as the soil could be worked. "No need to thin," he said, "just harvest a bunch from each spot." We tried his ideas (sans cover) and they worked. On May 20 we had our first mouth-watering meal of these tender, sweet little beets. (Cook's)
McGregor's Favorite Beet: This old Scottish cultivar (newly imported from Holland) is highly ornamental. The deep purple leaves make a good spring substitute for radicchio in salads. Another surprise—the roots are carrot-shaped. Though not as sweet as many other beets, McGregor's lasted almost forever without becoming woody. (Garden City Seeds)
Wave upon wave of salad goodies awaits harvesting when you plant each of the nine varieties of The Mesclun Collection in a separate row. Lettuces, arugula, dandelion, chervil and chicories — the only thing lacking is the dressing. (Plant the arugula two weeks later than the rest or be prepared to cut it back a few times.) There was enough seed to plant two 4' X 20' beds — four rows per bed. That's only eight varieties? Uh, well — I just couldn't bring myself to use garden space for the domestic dandelion. (Le Marché)
Thai 88: What does a lettuce from Thailand look like? Well, this one was an oakleaf type with tightly wound, light green leaves on eight-inch heads. The plant stood up fairly well to hot weather, though not as valiantly as the standbys Oakleaf or Salad Bowl. (Southern Exposure)
Rossa D'Amerique: Either a cutting or loose-head lettuce, D'Amerique was an eyecatching success when interplanted among the spring cabbages. We also used it as a border plant (each head was 10 inches across) and in a cutting mix of our own concoction. The soft, mild-flavored leaves are wavy and puckered, with rosy tips. (Cook's)
St. Blaise: What a great little romaine-type lettuce this turned out to be. The small, light green heads are very vigorous and have a nice, hearty (neither sweet nor bitter) taste. St. Blaise stood strong in both spring and summer weather. (Cook's)
Cocarde Oak Leaf: I love oakleaf lettuces, so I was naturally excited to grow my first red one. Spring crops (and one planting started in July under shade cloth) displayed more than 50% maroon coloring, while the fall crop turned almost entirely crimson. Plants were six to eight inches across and very vigorous and had a loose, upright growing habit. (Le Marché)
Sputnik F1: This so-called three-season spinach did produce well throughout the year, though the spring crop was the best by far. Leaves are dark, semisavoyed and fairly large. As a rule, the germination rate for spinach is nothing to be praised, but Sputnik was a delightful exception. (Cook's)
Viroflay: The seed for Viroflay comes treated — a negative mark in my book. The resulting plant, however, is definitely a spinach success story. The smooth, large leaves (up to four by six inches) are a breeze to wash. The texture when raw isn't as succulent as a savoy, but it's just as good when cooked. (R.H. Shumway)
Butterblossoms: If, like me, you want a little bit of zucchini but not too much, Butter-blossoms should fit the menu nicely. For months on end the compact, bush-type plants put forth a primary crop of large, edible male blossoms that were perfect for stuffing. Only a few wayward female blossoms developed into real zucchini. (Southern Exposure)
Are you a small-space or container gardener? Here are two cukes so compact that each could just about be grown in an old shoe. We harvested our first Burpee's Pickalot hybrid and Johnny's Northern Pickling cukes on July 1 from vines just one foot tall. The plants never got any larger, but the cukes (up to five inches long) just kept coming. And both varieties had excellent disease resistance (though squash bugs did ours in late in the season).
Napoli F1: Overall, Napoli seemed more for market than home gardeners — it produced excellent, uniform roots, but they had only average flavor. The six-inch carrots have blunt ends and medium orange flesh. (Johnny's)
Mokum: Mokum is touted as an excellent-tasting, early-maturing carrot. True, our May 11 sowing was ready for harvest a full month ahead of other varieties, but, sadly, the taste was only average. (Thompson & Morgan)
Primrose Gem chrysanthemum from Thompson & Morgan has the notation WOW! in my notebook for June 8. On into early August, these compact 12-to 18-inch globe-shaped plants were still producing masses of feathery, straw-colored blooms with golden eyes. New for 1989, Pinata Hybrid Mixed gazania from Burpee was one of my most exciting finds. The low, mounded, silver-green plants began blooming on July 1. Way into fall, the foliage still looked spring fresh and kept putting out bold yellow, orange and red daisylike flowers. Swiss Giants pansies from Seeds Blum had lots of large, pretty faces to show off in spring. Throughout the summer they continued blooming (where planted under taller crops), and even in November volunteers peeked out from among the cabbages and parsley.
However, Nolana Paradoxa-Blue Bird and Lychnis X Haageana Mixed , both from Thompson & Morgan, may be spectacular in other locales but were failures in my trials. Nolana wasn't nearly as lush and full as it looked in the catalogue picture, and my Lychnis transplants withered away in the garden.
Conclusions and Recommendations
When I look back on last summer, I realize that a lot of the new varieties performed quite well. But not so many passed my personal acid test; i.e., earned a place in next year's garden (when I don't have to grow them). Here's the run-down of those new vegetables that I'll gladly be asking for a return engagement. Sweet Million and Gold Nugget cherry tomatoes. Dragon's Langerie wax bean, Orobelle and Chile-Espanola peppers, Listada de Gandia eggplant, Greenpeace kale, Ravella cauliflower and Italian Green and Red Chard Mix.
But what about 1989's irresistible-sounding vegetables? Well, here are just a few that have me eager to jump out of my wing chair: Tabasco pepper from Shum-way's (the scorching variety responsible for that famous sauce). Elephant Head amaranth from Peace Seeds (a thick-flowered heirloom that "looks like purple elephants have taken root in your garden"), Pod corn from Vermont Bean Seed (kernels of this multicolored ornamental corn each have primitive-looking little husks). County Fair '87 cucumber from Park Seeds ("harvest with no fear of disease"), Zucchetta Rampicante summer squash from Shepherd's Seeds (an Italian heirloom with a long, bulbing end that holds the seeds) and Tomato St. Pierre from Redwood City Seeds (reputed to produce an abundance of sweet, tender fruit even under adverse conditions).
Sigh. I guess I'll be expanding the garden borders yet again. That just goes to show what spending too much time reading seed catalogs will do to you.