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Kip Anderson
Gardener Kip Anderson

February: Loving Those Catalogs

It's that time of year again — but who needs valentines? Kip pores over his seed catalogs, looking for new varieties to introduce to his garden.
by Kip Anderson

Stokes Seeds never fails to introduce new vegetable varieties in almost every category. Often as not, the new cultivars are improvements on old ones that they replace. I can't try every one of them, but several are on my list for 2006. 'Navarro' is a flat-podded green bush bean that's earlier than the standard 'Roma II.' The late-season broccoli 'Ironman' is something I will have to grow beside the older varieties I've been growing for years, just to compare. I'm always looking for new butterhead lettuce varieties, and that means I'll have to order a packet of 'Odyssey,' which has a large dark green head. 'Encore' is a new garden pea said to be "the most outstanding," very sweet and prolific. I always grow ancho peppers (for chili rellenos), and this year I will try 'Ancho Réal.' Of course, I will be getting many packets of ornamental seeds as well. In general, I like to order individual colors in a particular flower series, which is easily done with the Stokes catalog. Exactly which colors I've chosen for this season's annual flowerbeds will remain my secret — for now.

The front pages of the Burpee catalog are always filled with new varieties — to tempt us, I suppose, and it works. Two new tomatoes caught my attention: 'Red Lightning,' a red and yellow striped variety, and 'Black Pearl,' a purplish black cherry type said to have a Concord grape flavor when chilled. Also listed are "recent favorites," which are often Burpee exclusives. 'Summerlong' Sweet Basil is one of these; it is described as virtually never going to seed, which is a very good attribute indeed. The latest in their line of white marigolds is 'Snowman.' I liked all the previous versions, so I guess I'll try this one too. 'Dakota Gold' Helenium is something I don't believe I've heard of before: an annual, rather than perennial, member of the genus said to be easy to grow, weather-tolerant, neatly mounded and long-blooming. A recent favorite of mine is 'Tequila Lime' Zinnia, actually pale green and very useful for helping to coordinate disparate elements in mixed flower arrangements, as I discovered last year.

Thompson & Morgan is at it again, coming up with more amazing flower varieties than the mind can encompass. The good news (or is it bad news?) is that I don't have to try all of them. For starters, there is a new Eschscholzia (California poppy) called 'Summer Sorbet,' a "mouthwatering color combination" of pink and creamy white. It can (and perhaps should) be sown directly into the garden, but just to make my life a little easier I think I'll try sowing it into a clay pot. And I must have some of their Cosmos 'Double Click,' a fully double to semi-double mix in white, pink and rosy red shades. The T & M catalog is so exhaustive that it is easy to discover in its back pages many varieties overlooked in previous years. Amaranthus 'Marvel Bronze,' for example, is a tall plant with dark foliage and deep red flower plumes. And how about perennials from seed? This year I'd like to try the dwarf Delphinium 'Summer Blues,' Primula capitata 'Noverna Deep Blue,' and Scutellaria baicalensis — these are the kind of blues I like to sing about.

Park's Seeds never lets me off easy. Now I have to find room for two new cherry tomatoes: 'Snowberry,' which is creamy yellow with white flesh, and 'Ladybug,' which is crack-resistant and (so they tell me) perhaps the sweetest red cherry yet. Still no rest for the weary. Last year an annual foxglove series called 'Camelot' was introduced; this year, individual colors are being offered, and something tells me I must get seed for 'Camelot Cream.' Now, here's something I haven't seen the likes of before (except once, many years ago with Bob Thompson at the old Waltham Agricultural Extension Service field station), dwarf ornamental corn — grown not for party-colored ears but for the variegated foliage. 'Tiger Cub' has white-striped leaves, and I think I'd better find a place for some of it. Speaking of ornamental annual grasses, Park's is offering Melinis 'Savannah,' a six- to twelve-inch plant with blue-green foliage that gives rise to inflorescences turning from mauve to rose to cream. Many potted plants are also offered, with dozens of new varieties, but one that really turned my head is Thunbergia 'Raspberry Smoothie,' a climber whose creamy-pink flowers have a deep plum-purple eye. May I stop now?

This year, Johnny's Selected Seeds offers dozens (at least) of new plant varieties that can be grown from seed. Though I mainly rely on them for the latest in vegetables, right off the top I notice a new color in the floriferous and disease-resistant 'Profusion' Zinnia series, 'Profusion Apricot.' But more in keeping with my usual expectations are several new lettuce varieties, including 'Adriana,' a butterhead said to be larger with better disease resistance than 'Ermosa,' my favorite summer bibb lettuce for many years. For those of you who favor colorful Swiss chard, 'Golden Sunrise' is an orange-stemmed variety, the latest in the ongoing trend toward isolating colors found in their AAS Winner, 'Bright Lights.' Cucumber 'Rocky' is the best variety for seedless baby cukes, and I'm all for that — no fan of large seedy fruit am I. As for red onions, shall I choose 'Ruby Ring,' with its long storage life, or 'Red Bull,' with extra large uniform bulbs? Perhaps some of both. I am interested in the carrot 'Vitana,' said to be mild and sweet even in the heat of summer. For an adventure, check out Johnny's startling array of exotic vegetables including, now ...edible gourds? Let me read that again.

Though Bluestone Perennials is constantly updating their extensive range of ornamental cultivars, I often need to go back to the old reservoir to keep my flowerbeds flourishing — five percent attrition per year is not surprising in a large perennial garden. Eryngium 'Sapphire Blue' is new to them, and I would love some for the cutting garden. For the edges of our shade garden, I must try Aruncus 'Noble Spirits,' a very dwarf goatsbeard. Leptinella 'Platt's Black?' I have no idea what this is, except as it is described: tiny fern-like leaves forming a purple-gray mat — sounds perfect for around my stepping stones. And now, to renew the border with some favorites from the past, I will need to order Artemisia 'Powis Castle,' Aster x frikartii 'Wonder of Staffa, and Malva alcea 'Fastigiata.' Some foxglove, of course, because they are biennials or short-lived perennials and must be re-established periodically, but which of the seven varieties they offer are right for me I haven't figured out yet. I really should get some more Penstemon 'Red Rocks' for the front of the border — it's short, and it blooms all summer. Am I finished yet? Only if I ignore the huge new selection of Clematis at the back of the catalog and, for that matter, the dozen or so very tempting new shrubs listed there.

New All America Selections (AAS) Winners demand at least some passing notice every year. Seed for them is available in many different catalogs. The Winners commanding my attention for this season are Nicotiana 'Perfume Deep Purple' (what could be wrong with that?), Salvia farinacea 'Evolution' (you don't have to be a Darwinist), Carrot 'Purple Haze' (you won't believe your eyes), and the Italian-type Sweet Pepper 'Carmen.' And there you have my selections from the very select.

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

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Published August 31, 2007