Some activities are recession-proof, and gardening has traditionallybeen one of them.
Statistics suggest that as times get leaner economically, more people will turn to gardening as a thrifty yet productive way to spend their spare time. Home-gardening-related businessesare hoping for a small boom.
Although many of these companies seem to have spent the last few years emulating the K mart example of catering to the "upscale" spending habits of the 1980s, there are good bargains to be had in the garden marketplace, especially through mail-order seed companies. Electric mini-greenhouses, imported spades and high-tech mulches are nice, but next to the soil itself, seeds are the basis of a gardener's efforts.
The selection of garden seed available to Howard County gardeners has never been greater. The variety seems to grow exponentially every year.
Most noticeable in many catalogs' flashy front pages are the 1991 All-America selections. The title of these newly introduced varieties is usually well deserved. New types of vegetables and flowers are tested throughout the country in trial gardens for several years, and their performance is compared with older, proven varieties. If they show superior characteristics and enough seed is available to satisfy public demand, they are awarded All-America status. Many of our most reliable standbys, like sugar snap peas and melody spinach, are former winners.
This year's selections include three vegetables. The most promising appears to be Kentucky blue bean. This is a pole variety that reputedly combines the vigor of my grandfather's favorite, Kentucky wonder, with blue lake, a tender bean whose flavor ispreferred by many gardeners. The judges pronounced this bean earlier(about 60 days from seed to first harvest) and more resistant to bean rust, a fungal disease common in Howard County, than either original. Pole beans in general outproduce bush beans and provide a longer picking season. If trellised efficiently, they are no more space-hungry than their low-growing cousins.
Trivoli squash, a hybrid, is a spaghetti type, grown like a winter squash. It grows as a compact bush, instead of rambling vines, and produces three to five squash per plant. If your family likes this nutritious alternative to pasta and you have a small garden, this variety will be welcome.
The third All-America vegetable for this year is a hybrid icebox-sized watermelon called golden crown. The judges said they particularly liked the flavor of this variety. It has spreading vines but produces earlier than standard watermelons -- 75 days from seed, 60 days from transplant. This, along with its reported disease tolerance, should be a plus in Howard County, where diseases often kill the vines before fruit ripens. Although the flesh of this watermelon is red, the rind turns goldenyellow when fully mature.
Flowering All-America selections for 1991 include three vincas, two pansies, a bicolor geranium and an annual gaillardia (a relative of the wild blanket flower). Vincas, small plants that resemble impatiens in size, habit and color range but are more tolerant of sun, are appearing successfully in Howard County gardens. The new ones -- pretty in pink, pretty in rose and parasol -- will probably be available at local garden centers this spring.
I've grown cynical about growing pansies in Howard County. Unless started as fall seedlings and wintered over for spring bloom (which they doquite well), they just don't provide much satisfaction before our summer heat does them in. The new varieties all claim heat tolerance, but I've been disappointed before. I'll keep my eye on padparadja (orange) and maxim marina (blue patterned).
By contrast, the gaillardia is a drought- and heat-resistant plant, and annual types do well inmy garden. Red plume is short, 12 to 14 inches, and a burgundy shade.
Under the "why didn't I think of that" category for 1991, I've discovered the Long Island Seed Co. (1368 Flanders Road, Flanders, NY 11901), which specializes in selling seed "blends" and has been doingso for 10 years. Wildflower mixes are common now, and for the past few years, I've enjoyed lettuce mixes that provide a variety of greensin one bed. But this company sells beans, tomatoes, cucumbers -- allthe common garden vegetables -- in mixed packets. And their reasoning makes a lot of sense for most crops. Buying seed this way gives thehome gardener the opportunity to experiment with many varieties without having to buy dozens of expensive packets. And the "genetic diversity" inherent in sowing several varieties of the same crop together provides a hedge against a whole crop being wiped out by insects, diseases or other adverse conditions.