How to get the most from garden catalogs

By Tom Seymour | Feb 22, 2013
Photo by: Tom Seymour February means searching garden catalogs.

It’s mid-February, time to start thinking about next season’s garden. For many, that means perusing various garden catalogs, a most enjoyable way to while away a cold winter evening.

Garden catalogs give us the ability to thoroughly research a wide variety of vegetable and flower types from the comfort of our own homes. And that means a lot, given the number of named varieties offered for sale.

As hybridizers refine their art, we see more and more specially-bred vegetables. The sheer number of offerings makes choosing any one variety a challenge. Also, as “heirloom,” or non-hybrid varieties become ever-more popular, the slate of types to choose from becomes nearly overwhelming.

Comparison shopping

As an example of just how mind-boggling a selection that catalogs offer, let’s first consider beans. To keep things simple, this discussion won’t include lima beans or dry beans. As a source, I’ll use the 2013 home garden catalog from Vermont Bean Seed Company.

Vermont Bean, like many other companies, regularly lists their “Bean Of The Year.” For 2013, the winner is Accelerate, a “Large sleeve pod…selected for its heavy yield and disease resistance. The medium green pods are 6-7 inches in length and are borne evenly on the plant. It remains productive throughout the whole season.”

Those few lines touch upon a number of things we need to know about any bean before buying it. These can be put in the form of questions and we can ask the same question of any bean variety. These are, what is the shape of the pod, what kind of yield might we expect, does it have good disease-resisting qualities, how long are the beans and how long into the season does it continue to produce?

After reading about Accelerate, I find that most of its qualities appeal to me, but the thickness of the pod (large sleeve pod) puts me off. I like a more slim and petite pod. So it’s turn the page and look at other green round pod varieties. Here, we have 20 different beans to choose from. Of these, Tema appeals most to me. Vermont Bean lists it as being able to germinate in cold soils. And everyone knows that planting bean seeds in cold soil spells the kiss of death for most varieties. Everything else sounds good, too, about this variety. But one thing warns me off of this otherwise fine-sounding bean. The catalogue does not say anything about its resistance to disease. If it were a heavy hitter in the disease-resistance department, they would probably mention that, since it is a good selling point.

So on to the next section, filet beans. These are the classic French filet style beans, thin, tender and sweet. French filet beans used to have a “string,” but today’s varieties are stringless. Of the six varieties shown, one called Nickel captures my attention. It’s listed as cold and heat tolerant, slow to develop seeds, compact plants with strong, upright branches and good disease resistance. Best picked when 4 inches long.

I’m sold on this variety and plan to try it this year. I usually plant three different types of bush beans and like to try a new one each year. So this year my trial bean will be Nickel.

Confusing cukes

Many heirloom cucumber varieties have not survived due to their being disease-prone (hybrid cukes have more vigor and are less sensitive to diseases). Some heirlooms survive, though, and among these are, Improved Long Green, Early Cluster, Longfellow and West India Gherkin.

Most of the cucumbers seen in catalogs will be of the hybrid variety. And like beans, the numbers of varieties can prove overwhelming. But not to fear. Just approach cucumber choices the same as you did with beans, by having a list of predetermined questions. For cukes, we might want to ask the following: To what length do the fruits grow, how many days to maturity, is the skin smooth or prickly, what is the yield, what is the best use (slicing, pickling), is it a bush variety or does it sprawl for a great distance and does it have good disease resistance?

Sometimes, when space is limited, I’ll choose a bush-style pickling cucumber. And although I seldom make pickles, my favorite, Bush Pickle, from Vermont Bean, serves me well as a slicing cuke. Also, bush varieties lend themselves to container culture. This allows anyone with a sunny southern exposure, to grow cucumbers for fresh eating.

These Bush Pickle cucumbers only grow to perhaps 5 inches long and are fairly thick. They are of a light green skin with some white rays. Also, the blunt end is very light. Other companies sell similar products, but by different names. So if shopping from a different catalogue or even buying off the shelf, look at the photo and if it matches the above description, it is probably the same vegetable.

Tomato particulars

Of all the offerings found in garden catalogs, tomatoes must rate as the most complex and confusing. Still, by narrowing down potential candidates to those that meet our predetermined criteria, we can easily make informed choices. When choosing tomato varieties, here are some things to consider.

First, tomatoes seed should be started from 6-8 weeks prior to planting outdoors. Don’t start too soon, since that may cause the plant to become thin and scraggly. Then, look at the catalogue ad and see the number of days to maturity. This is not from the time of sowing seed, but from time of setting out in the garden.

Next, carefully digest all the other particulars, noting size, color and flavor. Some tomatoes have firmer flesh than others and some are sweeter than others. The listing should mention all that. Also note whether the tomato is determinate (sets fruit all at one time) or indeterminate (produces steadily over a long period). For fresh eating, I prefer indeterminate. And for canning, it pays to use determinate varieties that come on all at once, making for just one good, long day’s work canning.

And finally, check out disease resistance. Tomatoes are subject to a host of diseases. It pays to get a tomato that is very disease resistant.

Have fun

The catalogs will continue to roll in for a while yet. And since we still have plenty of time to place our orders, don’t hurry. Instead, have fun. Dig into the different varieties, learn about them and then when ready, make the choice that best suits your wants and needs.

Tom Seymour of Waldo is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, Registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist and book author.

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