Appetite for spring

Seeds: New varieties confirm trends to plants that require less growing space, have more than one use and resist disease. Here's a look.

January 31, 1999|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,Special to the Sun

Oh, welcome harbingers of spring! Garden catalogs are proliferating. This year, in addition to old favorites, there are many tempting new vegetable and melon selections. While it is not possible to mention them all here, we have included a sample of those most widely available.

Several trends have emerged. One is the development of space-conserving varieties that enable gardeners with smaller plots to enjoy vegetables traditionally restricted to big gardens. For example, broccoli 'Munchkin' and 'Small Miracle,' both just over 1 foot tall, have respectable 6- to 8-inch heads and can be planted a mere 8 inches apart. 'Umpqua' is a multibranching type that offers good side-shoot production for a second cutting.

The trend is also toward "dual use" vegetables that can be harvested at different stages. The cucumber 'Double Feature' can be picked at 50 days for pickling or 57 for slicing.

Increased disease resistance is a prime issue among new vegetables, as is the ability to offer longer harvest periods. Several new pole beans that bear continuously over a long season are making a debut. Among them are 'Selma-Zebra,' a mottled purple bean from Switzerland, and 'Fasold,' a 62-day, French climber resistant to anthracnose and bean mosaic virus (BMV).

There's also a selection of downright cute vegetables this year. They run the gamut from 'Eight Ball' zucchini, which reach the size of a tennis ball in six weeks and a cheery miniature pumpkin named 'Wee-B-Little,' to 'Blue Marble' eggplant, an elegant Italian import with snow-white flesh and a deep-purple exterior.

Corn

Also evident is the continued interest in heirloom vegetables. For corn lovers, there's 'Country Gentleman,' a popular 19th-century farmers' market variety with "old-fashioned" corn taste.

The real focus in corn this year, however, is on super-early types, such as 'Earlivee,' a 7-inch yellow, ready in just 60 days and, at 5 feet tall, a convenient size for the home garden. 'Kandy Quick,' at 67 days also looks very promising and has resistance to northern corn blight and Stewart's wilt.

For the gardener who has missed being able to get 'Silver Queen,' there is now 'Silver Princess,' a sugar- enhanced (SE), full-size ear with silver-white kernels, ready in about 75 days. And if you just plain love gorgeous vegetables, Burpee's "Ruby Queen" corn should be on your list, a truly red, SE beauty ready in 75 days.

Lettuce

A number of heirloom lettuces are being reintroduced this spring. Many are from Europe and are loose and butterhead types that may be harvested over a long period of time and are well-suited to mesclun style salads. They include:

* 'Freckles,' an especially attractive loosehead variety, with crisp, apple-green leaves flecked with deep burgundy.

* 'Hanson,' a butterhead type with bright, chartreuse leaves guaranteed to brighten up your salad.

* 'Sanguine Ameiore,' a compact, 9-inch, Italian butterhead with fine red spots and streaks.

A new lettuce I am looking forward to trying is 'Crispy Frills,' which can be used as a loose-leaf at 50 days or left to head up for harvest as a crisphead at 80 days. Either way, it seems like an excellent way to hedge your bets in the spring, no matter what the weather turns out to be.

Pepper

There is a plethora of new peppers to cater to the growing Tex-Mex craze in American kitchens. For those who prefer to grow their own fire, the new peppers include: 'Biker Billy,' a jalapeno type, 2 inches wide with extra doses of heat and flavor; and 'Francisca,' a habenero both hotter and earlier than others on the market. The peppers are green ripe in 83 days.

Those wary of too much heat should try 'False Alarm,' a "must have" for the home garden at a space-thrifty 18 inches tall.

New sweet peppers worthy of note are 'Early Sunsation,' a yellow bell type resistant to many diseases. I tested this one last year and found it to be a trouble-free, prolific bearer of 4-inch fruits that were delightfully sweet when fully ripe at about 70 days from transplant.

'Bananarama' is a sweet, banana-type pepper with 8-inch fruits that start yellow and mature to orange-red at 70 days. A colorful garden companion to it might be 'Flamingo,' a sweet pepper that ripens to pink and red. The container gardener will find the 'Redskin' hybrid handy, producing an abundance of dwarf bell peppers on an 18-inch plant 65 days after transplanting. (You can start indoors or buy it as a partially grown plant.)

Melon

The move toward compact crops designed for smaller home gardens can only be welcomed. These enable closer planting and greater yields from a given space, plus quicker harvest times. Outstanding in this category is 'Early Crisp,' a large, 7-pound, honeydew-type melon with short vines, ready in about 80 days. It is also resistant to cracking and fusarium wilt. Another compact melon is 'Honey Bun' cantaloupe, which produces 5-inch, "single serving" fruits in 73 days and could be adapted to container culture.

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