Tidewater Gardening - January 2012

Thoughts on Seeds


K. Marc Teffeau

With January comes the arrival of the seed catalogs. For some it brings up the thought of this year’s vegetable garden, what to grow and what new varieties of vegetables to try out. We had a mild fall and some growers were able to harvest certain crops right through December. As I write this column the first week of December it is a balmy 62 degrees outside. I remember one year when the fall was that mild and I was cutting broccoli on Christmas day for our Christmas dinner!
One of the vegetable gardening trends that has emerged over the last few years is planting and growing heirloom and open-pollinated vegetable seeds and transplants. There are a couple of different seed houses that specialize in these varieties including the Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com).
The Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization that focuses on endangered and uncommon heirloom seeds and has a network of gardeners in all 50 states and 40 different countries who exchange vegetable seeds of different varieties. The Seed Savers Exchange annual catalog contains over 600 plant seed varieties available for sale to the public. The neat aspect of reading through their catalog is that along with the description of the vegetable or flower, they usually include the history of the variety, if it is known – where it originated and interesting tidbits of information about its heritage.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is located in Mansfield, Missouri, the same small town where Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband Almanzo finally settled. Here is where she wrote her classic “Little House” books about her life on the prairie. There is a Laura Ingalls Wilder House and Museum that my wife and I visited on our trip back from Branson, Missouri, this summer. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds features over 1400 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs, including European and Asian varieties.
If you love tomatoes and you raise your own transplants you need to check out the Totally Tomatoes (www.totallytomato.com) catalog. I never knew there were so many different types of tomatoes! Forget your Better Boy or Beefsteak – check out the German Red Strawberry, the Dixie Golden Giant or the Mountain Magic Hybrid VFF varieties. Totally Tomatoes offers both open pollinated and hybrid types of tomato seeds. They also carry a large selection of garden and hot pepper types along with other vegetables.
In the January Tidewater Gardening article I usually highlight the All-American Selections Award Winners for the new year. 2012 is no exception. Again AAS has two annual flowers and two vegetables that they feature. On the vegetable side for 2012 , the “newbies” are a pepper ‘Cayennetta F1” and a watermelon called ‘Faerie.’ The 2012 flower winners are an ornamental pepper called ‘Black Olive’ and a salvia called ‘Summer Jewel Pink.’
Cayennetta F1 pepper is a mildly spicy, easy to grow chili pepper. It produces 3- to 4-inch tapered bayonette-shaped chili peppers. Their green color matures to a glossy red. The plant grows to 24 inches tall by 20 inches wide and requires no staking. This makes it an excellent plant for container or patio gardens.
Unique to this variety is that it has good cold tolerance as well as dense foliage cover to protect the fruits from sun scorch and it handles extreme heat very well. This pepper is an all-around good choice no matter where you’re gardening.
If you are looking for a watermelon alternative to the standard large green ones, consider planting Faerie F1. Faerie is a non-traditional watermelon in that it has a creamy yellow rind with thin stripes, yet still yields sweet pink-red flesh with a high sugar content and crisp texture.
Home gardeners will like growing something unique in their garden and the fact that the vine are vigorous, yet spread only to 11” means it takes less space in the garden. Each deep globe 7-8” fruit weighs only four to six pounds making it a perfect family-sized melon.
This variety also has insect tolerance as well as the prolific fruit set that starts early and continues throughout the season. It sets early, normally coming to harvest 72 days from planting.
On the ornamental side, another pepper has been selected for 2012. Ornamental pepper ‘Black Olive’ is considered a standout, especially in the southern gardens where heat is a major presence.
Its upright habit has nicely draping purple foliage and produces dark purple/black fruit which appears in small clusters against the dark purple foliage and bright purple flowers.
Black Olive can be used as a 20” border plant, a great color splash for containers or as a cut flower in mixed bouquets. One of its unique qualities is that it produces attractive, fiery hot edible fruit. Length of time from sowing seed to flower is 14 weeks (98 days) and this pepper is resistant to Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV).
Salvias, with their different colors, are always a nice addition to the flower bed. Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Pink’ is a dwarf-sized, compact plant that produces a prolific bloom count throughout the growing season. As a bonus, the 1/2-inch blooms on the flower spikes appear almost two weeks earlier than the other pink salvias.
This salvia grows about 20 inches high by 16 inches in width. In garden spacing, it is recommended that you plant them in full sun and 10 to 12 inches apart.
If you direct seed Summer Jewel Pink into the flower bed, it will come to flower in 50 days, earlier than other salvias. Like its red varieties, pink salvias also attract hummingbirds – another advantage!
Along with the All-American Selections organization, the National Garden Bureau is another non-profit industry association whose purpose is to promote home gardening. Each year representatives of the professional horticulture industry select one flower, one vegetable and one perennial to be showcased. Each is chosen because they are popular, easy to grow, widely adaptable, genetically diverse and versatile. For 2012 the NGB has chosen the heuchera for the perennial.
I have written about heucheras being an underappreciated plant for a shady perennial bed. According to the NGB, heucheras are all-American. Literally. There are nearly 50 species of heuchera inhabiting woodlands, prairies and mountainous regions. Different species hail from the islands off the California coast to the highest mountains in the Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico.
With this diverse range of habitat, these plants are able to find a niche in everyone’s garden. Breeders in America and Europe have taken a well-aimed swipe of a paintbrush between these species, and have assembled a plethora of plants with amazing flower and foliage forms that didn’t exist a scant ten years ago. Not only are these plants aesthetically pleasing, but they have become stronger, fuller and more disease resistant. With few pests, great adaptability to containers and a seemingly unending number of forms, heuchera should be considered for everyone’s garden.
The common name for this native perennial is coral bells, but it was also called alum root due to its medicinal qualities. Native Americans used them to stop wounds from bleeding. The stems can be used in a pinch if you cut yourself in the garden. Heuchera americana, an east coast native, was offered in the first American seed catalog published by Bernard M’Mahon in 1804.
In the past, heucheras were relegated to a utilitarian role in the landscape as they were useful in shady spots. Not known for having the showy flowers required for Victorian-era gardens, these plants didn’t have the wow factor to grab the color-loving masses. However, breeding advances of the last 20 years have resulted in this perennial being moved into a more highly appreciated role in the landscape.
The heuchera flowers are relatively dainty on most varieties with a color range from whites to pinks to reds. There are a few cultivars that have a very pale yellow tint. Foliage can vary widely from the 1/2” wide leaves of the Heuchera pulchella to the 11” wide leaves of the Heuchera villosa. Foliage colors can be matte or glossy, hairy or smooth, and can have contrasting veins which change colors with the seasons.
Heucheras require well-drained soil. If you’ve had problems with coral bells in the past, most likely you’ve tried to plant them in soil that’s too wet or full of clay. To solve that, plant your heucheras in raised beds, on a berm or in containers. Even mounding the soil where you plant them will help. A premium organic planting compost will also provide excellent drainage with enough moisture.
Other than keeping the soil well drained and mulched, coral bells have very few other maintenance needs. Let them dry between watering, refrain from using excessive fertilizer and give them neutral or slightly acidic soil (the perfect ph is 5.8 to 6.3).
Many coral bells do well in part sun, but stay away from hot afternoon rays as the foliage will often fade, wilt or scorch under intense sunlight. Instead, provide shade during the hottest times of the day, or plant where your heuchera will get consistent full or filtered shade.
For more information on heucheras, check out the article at the National Garden Bureau website at www.ngb.org.
Happy Gardening!