Time to Order Seeds
Well folks, it’s garden time again. I have a stack of garden catalogs beside my couch. When taking a break from work, I pore over this year’s offerings. Though your die-hard gardeners probably already have their orders speeding through the mail, it is still late snowy winter here in zone 4 of North Idaho, and there is plenty of time, no matter where you live, to put together a seed order for the coming year.
This is the time for dreaming: do you long, as I do, for a sweet pepper that ripens to red in a cool climate? Are you hankering for a cool-soil tolerant watermelon? A pumpkin or dent corn that ripens ten to twenty days ahead of all others?
It is also a time for reflection: how did your choices work out last year? This is one of those times for taking out your garden journal and reading your notes.
In this blog, I will share some of the varieties that performed superbly last year, and I will also tip you to some varieties that are a stand out in this year’s catalogs. Before I begin, let me tell you that I only look for open-pollinated varieties that will mature in my growing region, as I want to produce my own seeds, whenever possible.
Another thing, I don’t want to have to baby something too much. I am willing to take reasonable measures to see that a variety yields a crop, and I might even baby a watermelon some, but I am not going to devote my life to the endeavor. Either the variety is hardy enough to thrive here with a reasonable effort, or it is too much trouble for me.
I scour the catalogs looking for early, cold tolerant, open-pollinated varieties. If one is growing peas or cabbage, this is not too difficult, but if one’s taste runs to peppers, tomatoes, corn, squash, etc., one can find oneself on a never ending quest. Let me give you some suggestions, as you make your way on your own garden journey.
Last Year in Review
An Excellent Early Cucumber: Bushy, Queen of Cool
Having said that, I’ll share what worked for me last year. One excellent performer was Bushy cucumber, offered by Seed Savers Exchange. Bushy thrived in cold weather that I have seen slow other cucumbers to a stop. Originating in Russia, and advertised to mature in 45-50 days, Bushy performs like a champ. I have grown other short season varieties, such as Cool Breeze, which is supposed to be exceedingly cold weather tolerant, and Little Tyke, said to mature in only 34 days, and I have not had the vigorous growth put on by Bushy. In addition, Bushy gave me cucumbers earlier than both and is open-pollinated to boot, whereas the other two are hybrids. Bushy is a find, and I will not grow any other, as long as I can get the seeds.
Peppers: Bringing Some Heat to the North
Another pleasant surprise performer last year was Hot Hungarian Wax pepper. I have never had a pepper show such tolerance for cold weather. Even the Sweet Banana pepper plants turned yellow and lost a few leaves during our characteristic mid-June inclemency, but Hot Hungarian Wax never even wavered. It just kept setting on new fruits until the plants looked like they had little yellow horns all over them. The Sweet Banana peppers rebounded, as usual, and did give a phenomenal yield, so I don’t want to belittle their heroic efforts, but they don’t rival the sturdy Hungarian Wax for cold tolerance.
Some people say that the Hot Hungarian Wax peppers are not very hot. All I can say is, let them stay on the plant until they turn deep yellow and tinged with orange. I had to label them Triple H when I froze and canned them–that’s Hot Hungarian Hydrogen Bomb. They made my husband’s eyes roll like a slot machine. And if you don’t like very hot peppers, you can pick them earlier. I took some younger peppers and stuffed them like a bell pepper. They were superb–just a hint of spiciness.
Incidentally, the Sweet Banana peppers are mild and taste good in Mediterranean style dishes.
Autumn Britten: The Best Early Fall-Bearing Raspberry for Zone 4
The last new-to-me variety I found especially pleasing last year was the Autumn Britten fall-bearing raspberry. I had previously grown Heritage fall-bearing raspberry, but, in my present location, that variety is marginal. I tried several other fall-bearing varieties without satisfying results. I loved Heritage’s big size, meaty texture and perfect blend of sweet and tart. Other fall-bearing varieties advertised for zone 4 seemed tasteless, or dry, by comparison. They were a disappointment. But last year, the Autumn Britten I had planted the year before yielded a crop in August, and the berries were superb. This year, I am putting in nine more plants.
Other Exciting Personal Discoveries for Cool Seasons
The Quest for a Red-Ripe Sweet Pepper: Antohi Pepper and Round of Hungary
This year, I am excited about a couple of pepper varieties offered by Johnny’s Selected seeds: Antohi Romanian and Round of Hungary. Antohi Romanian is supposed to be edible in 53 days and red-ripe in 78. It is an heirloom Eastern European frying pepper that is listed as exceptionally cold tolerant. I have already started my peppers for this year, but I shall order a package of Antohi Romanian to keep handy for next year.
The other intriguing pepper, Round of Hungary, isn’t listed as exceptionally cold hardy, but it is supposed to be edible in only 55 days and to ripen in 75 days. I want to grow it, as it is a cheese pimento type with thick walls. Oh, how I long to raise a pepper like that here.
As it has been supplied to Johnny’s Selected Seeds by growers in Switzerland, perhaps I, too, have a chance here in my short, cool season.
Tamales in the Cold Country: Corn Varieties for Cornmeal and Flour
Another vegetable that interests me is corn. Not just sweet corn, but I want a cool-soil tolerant corn that can be ground for making tortillas, tamales and corn bread. Usually, one must grow either a dent corn or a flint corn for that purpose.
I say usually. I have already discussed, in a previous blog, why I grow Hooker’s Sweet corn, a cool-soil tolerant corn that is white with a flush of purple when ripe for the table at 60-69 days. Amazingly, Territorial Seeds, out of Oregon, calls this lovely variety Hooker’s Sweet Indian corn and shares with us that mature kernels dry blue-black and “grind into the sweetest cornmeal” all in 75-80 days. Since, in the past, I have absent-mindedly allowed much of my Hooker’s corn to ripen to the blue-black stage quite by accident, I am thinking that I might let some finish up maturing until dried, and experiment with grinding it. I have dried some of the kernels before, and thrown them into beef stew with tasty success.
You aren’t supposed to grow sweet and grinding corn in the same garden because they cross-pollinate, so, if I could get away with using the same variety for both purposes, it would be ideal for me.
If you want to grow a corn that is specifically grown for grinding, however, and you must work with a short growing season, another possibility would be Painted Mountain, developed in the mountains of Montana. Johnny’s tells customers that this variety forms vibrantly beautiful multicolored ears that are used for “decorating, easy grinding, roasting, or use in hominy grits.” Painted Mountain makes in 85 days and has Johnny’s symbol for being exceptionally cold tolerant next to its name. On another page, Johnny’s Selected Seeds describes Painted Mountain as being edible in the “milk” stage (the stage when kernels, when nicked with a fingernail, exude a light, milky juice).
The two varieties discussed above mature a good 10-25 days ahead of any other varieties of grinding corn. Though Oaxacan Green Dent is listed as maturing in 75-95 days in the Seeds of Change catalog, Johnny’s lists it at 95 days. Why the discrepancy in maturing time? The reason is probably that Seeds of Change offers varieties grown in a number of places, while Johnny’s operates out of Maine, a short season growing region. What takes 75 days in Oaxaca, Mexico, or in the Southwestern United States, could easily take 95 days, or longer, in the cool soils of Maine.
And this is true for many other vegetables, such as peppers, tomatoes and squashes. This is why varieties that have been developed and tested in cold regions are so important to gardeners in zone 4.
The only other early corn for grinding that I am aware of that might be good for short seasons is Mandan Red offered by Seeds of Change (who also offer Hookers, by the way). Maturing in 80-85 days, this corn was developed by the Mandan Indians in the North Central Plains area. Also described as being highly edible in the sweet milk stage and good for parching (dry roasted on a skillet), Mandan Red matures to a deep red when mature.
I have not personally tried Painted Mountain or Mandan Red, but those are the two best bets, along with Hookers, if you are hankering for homemade corn bread from your own garden, and you garden in a place like I do.
A Pumpkin that Ripens in Wyoming: Cheyenne Bush Pumpkin
This brings me to the subject of an early maturing pumpkin developed in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the USDA Field Station. Cheyenne Bush Pumpkin ripens in 80-90 days, and has a compact bush habit. I would say that, if a pumpkin ripens early in Wyoming, it will ripen anywhere. This variety is offered by Seed Savers Exchange.
Brand Spanking New: Somerset Seedless Grape
The last variety I will discuss that you might consider is a new seedless grape that is hardy to -30 degrees! Yes, you read that right. I said seedless. This brand new grape is offered by Miller Nurseries. Somerset Grape is advertised as the hardiest seedless grape, and was developed by the famous horticulturist Elmer Swenson, who has offered those of us in the north many other hardy grapes over the years.
Though I yearn to try Somerset, I may never have the opportunity, as grapes are not allowed to be shipped to Idaho. And to this insult comes more injury from the Idaho Department of Agriculture. This year, the catalogs all inform their readers that onion sets may no longer be shipped to Idaho, and to really work one up into a froth, several companies may not ship seed potato to the Famous Potato state either. What’s up with that, Idaho?
I say an inquiry is in order.
Where the Seed Meets the Soil: Getting Down to Reality
In the meantime, I have started my onions from seed, along with Hot Hungarian Wax peppers, Sweet Banana peppers, Oregon Spring tomato and Tiny Tim tomato. This year I dream of getting my cold frames built and setting out peppers and tomatoes in May. I do so want red-ripe peppers and early tomatoes this year. That will take plenty of planning, good timing and hard work.
You too, no doubt have your own garden fantasies. May those fantasies sustain you as you make your plans for garden year 2012.by