Coming up: vegetable varieties

THE BOUNTY OF BURPEE

September 06, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

FORDHOOK FARM, PA. — Fordhook Farm, Pa.--Butterstick squash. Gardener's Delight cherry tomatoes. Royal Chantenay carrots. Roly Poly zucchini. Purple Ruffles basil. Crispy bell peppers.

Even the names are delicious.

It's no accident. The fruits and vegetables piled on the table here at Fordhook Farm are designed to be alluring in every aspect: looks, taste, hardiness, disease and pest resistance, ease of germination, appropriateness of name. That's the way the W. Atlee Burpee Co. hopes to persuade people to grow at least some of their own food with Burpee's seeds.

After all, home gardeners have been depending on the bounty of Burpee for more than 100 years -- ever since W. Atlee, whose first interest was breeding exotic fowl, began bringing back seeds from his bird-buying trips to Europe.

It didn't take him long to discover that European varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers often didn't perform well in the relatively harsh climate of North America. Drawing on his experience breeding poultry, he began to breed new varieties of plants that would live up to growers' hopes.

"Burpee seeds grow!" proclaimed the company's literature and across the country, gardeners began growing the products of Burpee research: Iceberg lettuce (introduced in 1894); Fordhook lima beans (1907); hybrid cucumbers (1945); Big Boy tomatoes (1949), and hundreds of others.

L There are a few weeds in the seed-producer's world, however.

"Gardening is booming," says George O. Ball, chairman, president and chief executive officer of both the W. Atlee Burpee and Pan-American Seed. But it's also changing; Mr. Ball notes a "shrinkage of the American garden, both in time and space," that is dictating the kinds of plants seed-growers must produce.

'User-friendly' plants

"There is a demand for more compact and more 'user-friendlyplants," says Simon Crawford, a British-trained plant breeder who oversees impatiens development, among other things, for Pan-American Seed. "There's more interest in container gardening." And, Mr. Crawford notes, there has been a "dietary revolution" as people pursuing a healthier lifestyle eat more fruits, vegetables and salads. "There's a huge market for salads with better eating quality," he says, and an emerging trend to what might be called "designer produce."

"Supermarkets in the U.K. now designate what varieties will be sold, based mostly on taste," Mr. Crawford says. He should know: He bred a variety of tomato called Melrow for the exclusive use of the British chain Marks & Spencer.

"This summer," reads a promotional brochure from the store chain, "Marks & Spencer invite you to rediscover the tomato as it used to be. Savor a range of succulent varieties grown specially for their taste and flavor."

Mr. Crawford predicts that Americans will soon be clamoring for produce by name, "as people realize fresh produce from selected varieties can have better taste."

Mr. Ball hopes many of those people will be clamoring for seeds to grow their own. "Gardening's biggest competitor is the

supermarket," he says, noting that consumer pressure for better-tasting produce has led to increasing variety in stores.

But there are plenty of things gardening provides that supermarkets can't, he says. For instance, there are "the rich memories." "The garden is like a child, it requires care." And gardening is an art, a "personal and unobtrusive" one that "keeps us in touch with the earth."

And, Mr. Crawford predicts, "As the general public becomes more aware of the importance and fragility of the environment, there will be a rising interest in growing and caring for plants."

Mr. Ball sees some encouraging signs. "Our base of customers is broadening," he says. "They used to be older and male. Now there are more females, and more prosperous consumers. . . . We estimate that 8 million gardeners today use Burpee seeds and plants."

The tradition begun with W. Atlee Burpee, of providing home gardeners with a satisfying seed experience, continued under his son David and continues today under the supervision of David's son Jonathan, who is assistant to the chairman.

Mr. Burpee and his sister, Blanche Burpee Dohan, were on hand recently at Fordhook Farm, about 45 minutes north of Philadelphia, where they grew up and which they now run as a bed-and-breakfast inn, for the introduction of the newest varieties in the Burpee incubator to the press.

Mr. Burpee recalled working in the fields where new varieties were tested and successful varieties were grown for seed.

"My job was in the kitchen," his sister said. "I was the

professional vegetable eater."

Hybrids for today's tastes

Among the varieties gardeners can look forward to for the 1993 season are the Heatwave tomato, a hybrid bred to keep producing fruit even during the hottest summer; the Roly Poly zucchini, a round, light green squash described as "the apple of the garden," and the Tumbler tomato, a bush cherry tomato (suitable for container growing) with high sugar and acid content for intense taste.

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