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Kip Anderson
Gardener Kip Anderson

February: Planning For a Good Year

As Kip begins thinking about the year ahead, he takes a look at his favorite catalogs and discovers some new seeds and cultivars to try out
by Kip Anderson

It's time to order seeds and plants for the upcoming season, and as usual, it's not just a matter of restocking. No, no — that would be too easy — it's necessary to assess new varieties, from their catalog descriptions alone, and choose the ones that look promising. Read on to find out what I've come up with this year.

I like to grow broccoli — homegrown beats store-bought every time — and I especially like to grow it for fall harvest, so I'm always looking for new varieties appropriate to that season. Stokes Seeds is offering a new one this year called 'Diplomat'. Another crop for the fall is carrot 'Creme de Lite', a creamy pale yellow one whose purpose can only be guessed at — perhaps to look good next to the purple carrots available nowadays. The quest for the ideal cherry tomato continues, and a new contender is 'Cherry Pie', said to have excellent flavor, brix (sugar content) and shelf life. Seed for 17 ornamental grasses is offered in the catalog, many of them extremely unusual in appearance. The five new varieties include sedges and two genera I have never heard of. Sweet William is a superb cut flower, but normally it must be sown in summer for cutting late in the following spring; the 'Noverna' series, however, will bloom in their first year from a winter sowing under glass, without vernalization (exposure to cold temperature).

A tomato named 'Porterhouse' is "the greatest extra-large beefsteak we've ever bred," according to the Burpee catalog, and that's a claim I am more than willing to test. Another new tomato is 'Golden Mama', described as the first yellow paste tomato. Now, wouldn't that make a spectacular marinara sauce! 'Big Daddy' is a golden yellow sweet pepper, eight to 10 inches long with thick walls, of the Italian ram's horn type, which more often than not ripen red. 'White Wedding' is a double dahlia-flowered zinnia, short (12 to 16 inches) and therefore suitable for bedding. The problem I've always had with large white zinnias is that the blooms tend to be poorly formed. If this one looks anything like its photo in the catalog, I will be very pleased. Petunia 'Pink Sunshine' has bright lavender-pink petals with a "glowing" center. As if that were not good enough, they tell us it's specially bred to bloom heavily in mild, overcast days and to withstand harsh weather, from hot sun to summer rains. That works for me.

Among the new varieties offered by Park Seed this year is an heirloom shell bean called 'Yin Yang', the photograph of which fairly jumps off the page. Each bean is half black and half white, with "each color containing a spot of the other, for balance!" To me they look like killer whales sans fin or fluke. Super sweet corn 'Mirai', a variety which captured the Japanese market with "the taste of the future," comes in white, bicolor, yellow and mini yellow. Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) is an old favorite with outrageous reddish rope-like hanging bloom clusters up to two feet long. 'Dreadlocks' is a new variety of the species with bright magenta 1 1/2-inch flowerheads that are discrete rather than continuous, looking less like dreadlocks than the original perhaps, but certain to make a bold statement in any annual border. I'd like to break form and mention two varieties — recent introductions, not new this year — that certainly deserve a Victory Garden award of merit: black-eyed Susan vine (thunbergia) 'Blushing Susie' reaches 12 feet or more if trellised, but has flowers in shades of rose instead of the traditional gold; Dianthus amurensis 'Siberian Blues' not only has a rich lavender color unique among its kind, but it also blooms longer than any dianthus I've ever grown.

Every year, it seems, a few new varieties of bush green beans are introduced — the improvements are incremental, and the increments may appear negligible to all but the expert breeder. 'Pension' is a new cultivar from Johnny's Selected Seeds; it's an Italian flat-pod type, which many people prefer to round pod green beans. 'Hercules' is a new Chantenay carrot which, true to type, tapers sharply from its broad shoulders and performs much better than other types on heavy or shallow soils. Stores well too. Now, here is something I'm not familiar with, although they are reported to be a staple of Asian cuisine: edible gourds — not the kind we use to decorate our Thanksgiving Day table, but representatives of five exotic genera. 'Narcissus' (Lagenaria) and 'Comet' (Momordica) have been added to their list this year. On a similar note, in their Asian Greens section I count two dozen distinct cultivars, mostly members of the brassica family — and that doesn't even include Chinese cabbage. Six of them appear in the catalog for the first time. Returning to familiar ground, we have 'Sylvesta', a butterhead lettuce (my favorite type) "virtually identical to...'Nancy'," the variety I prize above all others. I guess a little added disease resistance can't hurt.

I probably mentioned this last year, but Bluestone Perennials specializes in providing, at very reasonable prices, a multitude of herbaceous perennial cultivars. The plants they ship are potted in fairly small three-packs, but by ordering early and growing them in the greenhouse I end up with robust specimens when the time comes to plant them outside in the border. For 2007 there are dozens of varieties new to the catalog, though not necessarily new to the trade — a good time, perhaps, to purchase some of those plants that seemed too expensive the last time you saw them offered for sale. Geranium 'Brookside' sports sapphire blue flowers in the summer; it is fairly short, a bit of a rambler. I've always liked Malva moschata, but found its habit to be a bit too loose and gangling. The cultivar 'Snow White', though, is short and compact, and flowers all summer. Too much of my garden phlox (P. paniculata) is taller than I would like it to be, but 'Little Laura' is a modest two feet tall, bearing trusses of white-eyed violet flowers. Stachys 'Hummelo' (not lamb's ears this, but betony) has lavender-rose flower spikes all summer on plants of medium height. A good number of shrubs are offered as well, including Abelia 'Silver Anniversary' with its "fantastic foliage" and second flushes of white blooms.

It's going to be a good year, I think.

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

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Published August 31, 2007