With new season, taste for gardening again takes root

March 14, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

"First boil the water, then pick the corn." That's the gardeners' mantra, the ideal of freshness that drives them from seed-catalog season to harvest season, planning, digging, planting, weeding, watering, pruning, thinning . . . It's all for the glorious tasting at the end.

Not everyone has room to plant corn -- "You shouldn't plant it in less than four rows," says gardener Virginia-Brown Melvin, whose "tiny little" plots are in Roland Park -- but everyone who plants anything, it seems, loves that fresh flavor of produce right out of the garden.

Ms. Melvin grows two varieties of sugar snap peas -- the kind you can eat pod and all, with a burst of sweet green flavor -- but she admits they're so delicious right off the vine, "it's very difficult to get them in the house."

"Gardeners today are more interested in vegetables -- even raw vegetables -- fresh from the garden," says Jonathan Burpee of the W. Attlee Burpee Co. in Warminster, Pa., the third generation of his family in the garden-seed business. "Edible snap peas, broccoli, carrots, even beans."

It's the "taste and crunchiness" that appeal, he said.

"A lot of people grow home gardens so they get fresh fruits and vegetables," says Sally Bouchillon, vegetable seed buyer for Park Seed Co. of Greenwood, S.C. "And they know they haven't been sprayed."

Gardeners are more environmentally conscious that they used to be, she said.And many, like Ms. Melvin, with less room to garden than they might like, are looking for ways to save space. "Pole bean sales are up -- probably because they grow up, they take up less space. And people are trellising cucumbers to save space." Ms. Bouchillon says

A lot of gardeners are concentrating on "containerized" crops, says Lee Strassburger, Burpee merchandising director and staff horticulturist. "We have a new tomato called Tumbler that has good home-grown flavor, but it can be grown in a hanging basket. Gardeners are getting pretty creative -- growing beans or peas up a railing on a deck or patio."

Convenience can be an issue, too, Mr. Strassburger notes. Burpee's Topper bush beans are considered "user-friendly" because the beans are produced on top of the plant, where they're easy to see and pick.

Another Burpee product that's proven popular this year is a new tomato, Heatwave, a hybrid type that continues to set fruit in temperatures as high as 96 degrees -- good news for gardeners in warmer climates who start losing the tomato crop in a long heat spell. But Burpee doesn't expect Heatwave to overpower the still-popular Big Boy tomatoes, in the catalog for 45 years.

Burpee is also pushing its Roly Poly zucchini, new this year, a round green variety that is good raw or cooked, and delicious when stuffed.

While tomatoes and zucchini are old favorites, Mr. Strassburger says that these days "a lot of people are interested in unusual things -- colored peppers, for instance." A vegetable that once was green and only green now comes in yellow, brown, orange, red and lilac as well. "Next year we hope to introduce ivory and gold," he says.

Ms. Bouchillon thinks chefs and retailers have an influence on gardeners. "Whatever restaurants and grocery stores are pushing, people decide they want to grow that, too."

Mr. Strassburger says environmental concerns are another reason people switch varieties from an old favorite. For example, a new variety might offer more disease resistance and thus require fewer chemical treatments.

Ms. Melvin is one gardener with an inside track on new varieties. She is a volunteer at Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore, one of more than 100 gardens across the nation where All America seed selections are tested. Test gardens get the seed after the All America committee -- a non-profit, educational organization -- selects winners among hundreds of new varieties sent in every year by seed producers.

The test gardens display the year's winners a year before they become commercially available.

"One plant we were very excited about last year was a tomato called Husky Gold," developed by Park Seed, Ms. Melvin says. The plant is a bush type, intended to remain compact as it grows. "It was very sturdy, you didn't have to do anything to it," Ms. Melvin says. "It had a very good flavor."

Gardeners can spend the summer checking out Cylburn's test crops and deciding what new varieties they want to grow next year. Cylburn also has a display garden at the Maryland Home, Flower & Crafts Show at Timonium Fairgrounds, which began Wednesday and runs through today, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Another Maryland gardener has fond memories of Timonium at state fair time: John Edwards of Rockville has won several prizes for his peppers. "I'm always experimenting with different kinds," says Mr. Edwards, who is editor of the newsletter for the Men's Garden Club of Montgomery County. His garden totals 800 to 1,000 square feet over several areas and includes 22 varieties of hot peppers and 40 varieties of sweet peppers.

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