Focus on Garden Varieties for Zone 4: Spring 2012

Time to Order Seeds

Seed CataloguesWell 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.

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10 Responses to Focus on Garden Varieties for Zone 4: Spring 2012

  1. Leslie Pease says:

    Hi Sarah, I love the new look of your blog. I was looking back through your gardening posts and found this. I was reminded of a tomato plant called the North Idaho Tomato that my uncle Wally Melior developed just for our climate. He started Melior Floral years ago which then turned into Falcon and is now Sugar Plum. My family no longer owns it but he and his son until their deaths produced plants specific to our region. It was very hardy. I used to get seeds from my Grandma Annie and had saved my own until my divorce when I had to give up my beautiful garden. I think I will have to check with the grandchildren as I hope that his legacy lives on in the seeds. It’s too late this year but maybe for next year. 🙂

    • PoetHerbalist says:

      Leslie, oh my, I hope you can get seeds that were developed by your uncle and cousin. What a legacy to leave to North Idaho and other cool season places. I hope you get to have your garden next year, and I hope I do too. I’d love to get a hold of seeds for the North Idaho Tomato. And think, those would be heirloom seeds that were developed before genetic engineering.

      I’m glad you like my blog renovation. Thank you for the compliment.

      • Leslie says:

        Yes I believe Uncle Wally was 100 when he passed a couple of years ago. He was Granny Annie’s brother in law. Granny helped work in the greenhouse for a while during summers. His son Phil took up his love of growing things. He passed away months ago from cancer. His emphasis was more on roses. He produced some beautiful ones. I am realizing more and more that my family’s love of growing things is slowly passing on and it will be up to us in this next generation to carry all of this knowledge and skill forward or I fear it will be lost. I’m thinking I need to go and visit Phil’s widow in Priest River for a visit. She was wanting to sell much of the roses, etc. last time I spoke with her. Granny and I had planned a trip last year before she got too ill. I think it’s time for a road trip. 🙂

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  4. Char says:

    I live is SE Idaho, in Rexburg, and our local nursery carries the Somerset Seedless! The nursery I’m going to buy from is called Lone Pine Nursery. Perhaps they can get one to you somehow? Call 208-356-6966 and ask them! Good luck!

    • PoetHerbalist says:

      I am so sorry for taking this long to get back to you! For some reason I didn’t receive an email notifying me of your comment. How very thoughtful of you to share the information about where to get Somerset grape! I will definitely look into that. That really makes my day. Thank you

  5. I like this blog. I do not know if I can do this in Iceland. You say.
    You too no doubt have your own garden fatasies. 🙂
    Best 🙂
    Lilly Valgerdur Oddsdottir Reykjavik, Iceland

    • PoetHerbalist says:

      Hello Lilly,
      Thanks for commenting on my blog. I do not know the exact conditions under which you garden in Iceland, but I presume you must grow in Zones 3or even zone 2. A good place to look for information for gardening in zones 2 & 3 is to look to Canada, such as in upper Saskatchewan. The Morden agricultural research station has developed many horticultural varieties for these challenging places. A particularly impressive area of research is the development of bush cherries that are hardy in zone 2. Some of them are sweeter than others: I believe the Juliette collection of sweet cherries is one of the sweetest, though it has been two or three years since I looked into the subject.

      Many fruit growers in zones 2&3 rely on fruits such as honeyberry, lingonberry, elderberry, Aronia berry, and Arctic kiwi. These are offered by Millers Nursery Millers also offers an impressive array of dwarf blueberries that are hardy down to zone 3: Chippewa, Northcountry, Northblue and Northsky.

      I have heard that Iceland makes extensive use of geothermal energy for greenhouses. I don’t know if you are in the position to do that, but surely using a greenhouse and/or cold and hot frames makes excellent sense for your region. There are varieties that are more suited to container or small space gardens. Tiny Tim and Red Robin are miniature cherry tomatoes one can obtain from Totally Tomatoes seed company. Pintree Garden Seeds has a section of seeds for container gardens. They offer Delicata winter squash, Alibi cucumber, and a number of other varieties. A few books to consider might be Small Space Gardening by Melinda Myers, Fresh Food from Small Spaces by R.J. Ruppenthal and All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.

      Blue Jade, advertised as one of the few corn varieties that can be grown in containers is offered by Seed Savers Exchange

      Of course, a perfectly sensible way of going about things is to grow cool loving vegetable varieties such as lettuce, salad greens, cabbage, carrots, garlic, peas, beets etc. These old standbys are delicious when fresh from the garden and packed with nutrients.

      I hope this gives you some ideas. Happy Planning Lilly. Please drop by again.

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