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Kip Anderson
Gardener Kip Anderson

January: Time for Seed Hunting

Our favorite seed catalogs and what they have to offer in vegetable varieties this season
by Kip Anderson

Now that the tasks of autumn are finished and the hectic holiday season has drawn to a close, it's time to take a well-deserved rest, to idle in the slowly brightening days of winter, relaxing until …

Not so fast there, young whippersnapper!

Of course. How could I forget? Seed catalogs have begun to arrive, and it's time to order for the oncoming season. There is no excuse for delay: how sad to find that some promising new variety is SOLD OUT! Besides, in weeks to come there will be other things to do, causing us to wish that the task of ordering seeds was already done with. So grab a pen, assemble catalogs and last year's notes, and take inventory of leftover seeds that may still be viable.

I have no idea how many companies sell vegetable seeds, but the number must be far greater than any normal person has any hope of dealing with. Therefore, for the sake of time-economy and sanity, over the years we have narrowed the field to a few that seem essential to us and, in the aggregate, cover all the bases. Regional differences and the scope of one's aspirations assure that everyone's short-list of essential catalogs will be unique.

STOKES SEEDS has long been a reliable source of vegetable varieties suited to a wide range of growing conditions and customer needs. If anything, they sometimes offer too many varieties — how does one decide from among twenty varieties of slicing cucumbers, for instance? Read the descriptions carefully, and experiment!

This year they are offering two new cauliflowers to go along with my old favorite, 'Violet Queen'. 'Cheddar' has orange curd and 'Green Harmony' has… take a guess! I have always found colored cauliflower much better tasting and easier to grow than the standard cumulonimbus type. While I'm at it, I'd better reorder two of my favorite broccolis, 'Paragon' (for spring planting) and 'Eureka' (for fall). And what's this, two new Nantes (a sweet, tender type) carrot varieties? I'll have to give 'Vitana' and 'Siroco' a try, as well as reorder 'Bolero', for years one of the most reliable in our garden, and 'Baby Sweet Hybrid', a true baby carrot. Someday I hope to narrow the number of sweet bell pepper varieties I grow to just a few; until then I'll keep on trying whatever's new, such as the red-ripener, 'Alliance'. I must grow some more of those 'Everest' (Chinese Lo Bok) radishes — nothing is quite so pungent-crunchy-sweet. Uh-oh. Eleven new tomato varieties. This is going to take some time.

JOHNNY'S SELECTED SEEDS has for years been an innovative force in New England vegetable gardens. As of this writing I have not had a chance to look over their 2005 catalog, but their 2004 offerings have left me with much to think about. Their winter squash 'Sunshine' (AAS Winner) grew very well for us; I still have a basketful in storage. Their 'Kakai' pumpkin, with dark stripes on a gold field, is extremely decorative in the fall still-life display, but once that has played out the fruit yield an even greater wealth of hulless seeds ready for the roasting and the eating. My favorite cucumber is their 'Diva' — even if you are not partial to cukes, you may change your mind after tasting this one. Let's not overlook two butterhead lettuces they offer: 'Ermosa' and 'Nancy' are each a thing of beauty that will melt in your mouth forever. Many heirloom varieties can be found in these pages, including zucchini 'Costata Romanesco', tomato 'Rose', and onion 'Ailsa Craig Exhibition'. These three are not just heirlooms, but perhaps even Best in Class.

PARK'S SEEDS can sometimes drive a gardener crazy with the wealth of ornamental flower seeds they offer (more on this next month), and counter-intuitively, because they are based in the Deep South, the vegetable varieties they offer perform well in the Victory Garden's northern climes. (I don't know why this is so; you'll have to ask them. I just go with what works.) This year they offer two pages of organic seed selections, and I could devote this entire paragraph to the temptations that beset me there; witness my forbearance. Moving on, I think I'll have to try out their bush bean 'Festina', grow it alongside my new old favorite, 'Jade'. And lookee here, another red onion, 'Redwing Hybrid', "simply the best," they say, and maybe so. Oh, and while I'm on onions, how about another packet of 'Candy Hybrid' and 'Super Star Hybrid'? And yes, my usual super-prolific pattypan summer squash, 'Butter Scallop'.

BURPEE has been with us since The Flood, or so it seems sometimes, and always standing on deck is something, or some many things, that can't be found elsewhere. First there were their "house" brands, not least of which is 'Burpee's Golden Globe' beet. Got beets? Beyond these classic standards, I hanker to try 'Flash Hybrid' broccoli: early and heat tolerant, with a "nutmeat" flavor; 'Gadzukes!' zucchini, a variant of 'Costata Romanesco'; more 'Sugar Crunch' cucumbers (they stacked up with the best we've grown); eggplant 'Fairy Tale', with small marbled fruit that took an AAS award this year and lots more. Do I have garden space for all of this? Can I spare even one of these promising varieties? Look! There's that 'Red Delicious' onion again. Must I grow two varieties of red onion this year? I really adore Lebanese-style zucchini, such as their 'Sweet Gourmet Hybrid'. Where am I going to find the room?

You can see what the problem is already, and we're just getting started.

THOMPSON & MORGAN is probably the most exhaustive source for ornamental plant seed in the world. Fortunately, their vegetable selection is more restrained and geared to some extent to British preferences. Still; if you like fava beans (as I do) and other European favorites, you're in for a long winter sleigh ride. It's a good ride, and well worth the taking. In February we will delve more deeply into this catalog, so clear your calendar and get ready to put in some overtime.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007