GROW IT RIGHT
Want satisfying yields and beautiful blooms? Strive for the best possible growing conditions in your garden and yard. It's as simple as that. While you can't control everything (like rainfall, frost, and drought), you can take advantage of your site's positive features and plan gardens that will thrive in adverse conditions. Gardens aren't effortless, though, so take the time to improve your soil with amendments and compost, gauge your garden's water requirements, learn about pestproofing and safe pest controls, and, above all, keep an eye on the garden so you can recognize and react when changes occur. When you're paying good money for quality seeds and transplants, you'll want to give them a great start when you bring them home.
BE INFORMED BEFORE YOU BUY
The local garden center or your favorite mail-order catalog can be a bewildering place. Internet shopping for seeds and live plants is even more complicated. How do you choose among so many vegetable varieties that promise to be the tastiest, the earliest, the highest yielding, the most disease resistant, the most nutritious, or the biggest? Can ornamentals really deliver on their promises for long-lasting bloom, drought tolerance, or intoxicating fragrance when they're described in terms that make them sound all alike? And can you trust plants labeled an All-America Selections winner, a Proven Winner, a Perennial Plant of the Year, and other designations?
I wrote this book to help you understand that variety selection is one of the most important factors for garden success. Top-performing varieties will make gardening easier because they will deliver a benefit we value, such as extra-earliness (for example, 'Cherry Belle' radish--20 days to maturity), tenderness (such as 'Bright Lights' chard), or heavy yields ('Better Boy' tomato) and, in the case of flowers, longer-lasting floral displays (such as 'Wave' petunias).
BE INSPIRED, NOT CONFUSED
Garden catalogs start to arrive in December and January, with colorful photographs and descriptions that are meant to entice us into buying seeds or plants on good faith. The same kind of enticement happens at Easter, when garden centers load up with seed racks and tray tables heavy with healthy-looking transplants begging to be taken home. Often we are influenced to buy a particular petunia because it is already in flower, or we choose a six-pack of tomatoes on the strength of an attractive plant tag, or perhaps an herb labeled "tarragon" reminds us to enlarge our herb garden. But when you transplant all this promise to the garden, you discover that the first heavy rainfall destroys the petunia display because it isn't rain resistant, and the tomatoes are a variety that needs a long growing season, and the "tarragon" turns out to be the tasteless Russian variety and not the more desirable French.
What most of us need is guidance so that when we leaf through a catalog or wander the garden center aisles, we can make intelligent decisions. That's the goal of this book. Here you will learn about vegetable varieties that can perform the way you want, or flower varieties that produce long-lasting displays under adverse conditions, or lawn grasses that suit your region. You will also learn about varieties to avoid, for various reasons, even though these are the varieties you'll find in a seed rack or on a garden center table--because they are cheap to produce or look good in a six-pack, or simply because they have an appealing name or look enticing in a photograph.
Gardening is one of life's most pleasurable activities, but only when we see results that justify the time and expense spent on planting and nurturing our gardens.
This book aims to help you experience the most enjoyable garden possible, full of beauty from seasonlong flower displays or, in the case of edibles, from higher yields, earliness, tastier flavors, and other desirable factors. In other words, I want to help you distinguish between plant hope and plant hype.
New Names and Old Favorites
Seed packet descriptions and transplant labels can be confusing. Different companies often feature photos and descriptions of what appear to be identical varieties, but the names are different. And where is the explanation for paying extra for a plant labeled as "all-female" in the case of cucumbers and summer squash, or a "triploid hybrid" in the case of marigolds and watermelons, or "day neutral" in the case of strawberries? Is the cost really justified or not? In most cases it is, and I will explain precisely why (or, in some cases, why not). I'll explain why two identical varieties can be sold under different names, like 'Greenbud' broccoli and 'De Cicco' broccoli or 'Rainbow' chard and 'Five Color' chard, in the case of vegetables. The heirloom tomato 'Big Rainbow' is the same as 'Striped German' because a mail-order marketing company decided that 'Big Rainbow' was a better-selling name than 'Striped German'. The same is true of many flowers, where two different companies will sometimes call the same plant by different names: For example, I can't see a difference between the heirloom French marigold 'Harlequin' that dates back to 1870 and the more recently introduced 'Mr. Majestic', or the heirloom morning glory 'Grandpa Ott's' and the more recent 'Star of Yalta'.
Also, it's useful to know that the market for live plants and seeds is always changing. A small army of plant breeders from mostly the United States, Japan, Holland, Germany, Israel, and the United Kingdom is constantly working to improve garden varieties of flowers and vegetables. As one breeder introduces a worthy new variety, another breeder may immediately try to improve it. Throughout this book, I often name the breeder responsible for a particular variety, like Johnny's, Pan American, Sakata, Syngenta, and Takii. Most of these names are not familiar to the public, since these breeders distribute their varieties through other companies better known to the public, such as Burpee Seeds, Harris Seeds, Park Seed, Stokes, and others. These are all reputable companies, but be aware that even a well-established company can change ownership and start to take shortcuts.
Another remarkable aspect of the seed and plant industry is the small army of amateur gardeners and farmers that's responsible for saving heirloom vegetables and ornamentals from being lost to cultivation by saving seed and sharing it through seed-saving exchanges. Many times, these are plants that grew in your parents' or grandparents' yards and have been dropped from commerce for many reasons, such as a succession of crop failures that made seed production too costly, or the introduction of an early (though not necessarily more flavorful) variety. Luckily, some gardeners valued a disappearing variety so highly that they saved their own seed and passed it along from one generation to the next. 'Brandywine' tomato, 'Lazy Wife' pole snap beans, and 'Dr. Martin's' limas beans are good examples.
The best plant varieties become popular by word-of-mouth recommendation. Who can argue against the popularity of Vidalia onions, for example, except that true Vidalias can be grown in only two counties of Georgia, and many onions sold as Vidalia may actually be 'Granax' or 'Walla Walla Sweet', which are more widely adapted for home gardeners? Among perennial flower varieties that became popular from word-of-mouth recommendation are 'Barnhaven' primroses, 'Siloam' hybrid daylilies, and Saunders tree peonies. Some varieties have become favorites among home gardeners through heavy advertising. 'Wave' petunias became popular after an aggressive publicity campaign, and 'Profusion' zinnias became a hit after they were seen in the California Pack Trials, an annual show-and-tell event run by leading plant breeders. Hibiscus 'Southern Belle', 'Bright Lights' chard, and 'Sugar Snap' peas enjoyed overnight success as a result of awards from All-America Selections, the national seed trials.
Generally speaking, home gardeners take a lot of convincing to try a new vegetable variety, because a familiar name conveys trust. But the person who is cautious about trying a new vegetable will readily try a new flower variety. Disappointment with the performance of a new flower, it seems, is less traumatic than disappointment with a new vegetable or fruit.
SUBSTANTIATION FOR "THE BEST"
A recent poll revealed that many inexperienced home gardeners rely on garden center personnel for advice in choosing varieties. While many garden centers do employ a trained horticulturist to advise customers, in the busy season, the centers are staffed with seasonal help, who may or may not be qualified to offer advice.
One of the best places for nursery owners and garden center buyers to evaluate annuals and perennials is the California Pack Trials (also known as the California Spring Trials), an event that takes place the first week of April along the Pacific coast of California. More than 40 plant breeders have production facilities here and put on a display of their products for evaluation by garden center buyers in particular. The California Pack Trials started in 1966 when Glenn Goldsmith, founder of the plant breeding firm of Goldsmith Seeds (now a part of Syngenta Flowers), began a tradition of showing his customers comparisons between his breeding lines and those of his competitors. He displayed these in "packs"--the traditional six-pack plastic pots used by most garden centers and nurseries to sell live plants to the general public--and also in other popular transplant sizes, even gallon containers and hanging baskets. Soon, other breeders followed his lead, and the California Pack Trials became the place to make comparisons on plant performance. Collectively, the California Pack Trials have become the greatest flower show on earth, with more than 100 acres of flowers exhibited in outdoor display gardens and in greenhouses located between San Diego and San Francisco, with the greatest concentration of displays around Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Gilroy, and Salinas.
The California Pack Trials cover a much wider selection of plant families and varieties than some of the other trials and display exhibits, such as state universities, but the main objective is to show what a particular plant looks like on the sales bench in a small pot even though the best way to really determine the value of a variety is to see how well it performs out in the garden after it has been transplanted. Some of the growers involved in the California Pack Trials, such as Pan American Seeds, Sakata Seeds, Syngenta Flowers, and Takii Seeds, do have outdoor display gardens so garden performance can be evaluated.
Another important source of information about superior vegetable and flower varieties is All-America Selections, an institution started by the late Ray Hastings, a seedsman who in 1932 organized a network of test gardens with qualified judges to grow and evaluate new seed varieties from all over the world and make awards of recognition for the best. The test gardens are located in most climatic areas of the United States, with the judges drawn from universities and the seed industry. The new seed varieties are grown next to comparison plants already available here; the judges' scores are tallied at the end of the growing season, and the best performers are given awards: bronze, silver, and gold medals.
Some outstanding gold medal winners among vegetables include the 'Sugar Snap' pea, bred in Idaho by a professional pea breeder, and 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard, bred by a New Zealand home gardener. All-America Selections then uses its promotional expertise to introduce the award winners. When European seed companies saw how successful the All-America Selections were, they started their own award system known as Fleuroselect.
Many retail seed and nursery companies also run trial gardens, such as Burpee Seeds at their famous Fordhook Farm in Pennsylvania, and Ball Horticultural, a wholesaler headquartered in West Chicago. The Seed Savers Exchange--a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom varieties--also runs extensive trials to evaluate the performance of seed varieties in danger of being lost to cultivation.
In the academic world, many state universities run tests of annuals and vegetables and make awards of recognition for superior performance in their region. The University of Georgia, for example, names its Best of the Best annuals. Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University, and Michigan State University run similar programs. These evaluations are mostly for the benefit of local nurserymen and garden center owners, but the public can visit the trials and obtain lists of award winners from Web sites.
There are also plant associations that grant awards. The American Iris Society gives its Dykes Memorial Medal to the best new bearded iris introductions; the American Hemerocallis Society has an award system for daylilies, and there is even an All-American Daylily Awards system as well as All-America Rose Selections. And the Perennial Plant Association names a Perennial Plant of the Year. All of these awards, winners lists, and judging criteria can be found on the Internet.
Some public parks and botanical gardens have comprehensive display gardens where new varieties are evaluated. In particular, Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania labels many plants in its flowerbeds a Preferred Plant. Obviously, the average home gardener cannot visit all these facilities or keep up with all the garden industry improvements, so I've gathered as much information as I could by visiting these test and display gardens and plant trials, conducting interviews, and making comparisons to help you choose the best of the best for your home garden.
Keep alert for local specialty growers who often sell plants at a farmers' market or roadside stand. In my immediate area, in season, I can buy major perennial classes from local enthusiasts, including bearded irises, daylilies, hostas, chrysanthemums, and peonies. Remember, not all varieties find themselves in the main award programs, but that doesn't mean they should be overlooked. The benefits of Oregon-bred 'Barnhaven' primroses, for example, can be appreciated only by growing them (even though they are now available only from a remote breeding facility in Brittany, France). I discovered the charms of daffodil 'Gardenia' (a late-blooming, heavily perfumed, double-flowered white heirloom variety also known as Narcissus albus plenus 'Odoratus') after I acquired it from an heirloom bulb catalog and grew it myself at Cedaridge Farm; it may not have won an award, but it's surely a plant of distinction in my opinion.
BUYING SEEDS AND PLANTS
The decision to buy seeds or pay extra for plants depends on several factors. Some plants like sweet corn, peas, beans, radish, beets, and carrots are best grown from seed, as they resent transplanting. Others, like tomatoes and peppers, can take 6 to 8 weeks to reach transplant size, so you may prefer to buy small starter plants or even larger specimens, such as ready-to-bloom perennials in containers. Otherwise, a good general rule is: For instant results, buy plants; for economy, try seeds.
The Importance of Quality Seed
High-quality seeds will yield high-quality plants (given the right growing conditions, of course). A problem with buying seed is that you cannot tell if it is viable simply by looking at it, so it pays to buy from a reliable source and avoid using seed leftover from a previous year. The most reliable companies have their own test plots and offer only seed grown on organically improved soils.
Copyright © 2013 by Derek Fell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.