Seed catalogs go big and small

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A song called "One-Ton Tomato" (a parody of "Guantanamera"), as aired by radio host Dr. Demento in 1980, has stuck mercilessly in my mind ever since, and I recall it each year when the new Burpee seed catalog comes in the mail.

Last year's cover featured SuperSauce, "the world's largest sauce tomato."

This year's cover slays records with "the world's largest beefsteak," SteakHouse Hybrid. Seekers will also encounter El Gordo on Page 41, "the biggest cantaloupe in the garden," and Big Kahuna, a bean with "giant 11-inch pods," on Page 26.

All gardeners love to flip through catalogs to see what's new for spring, but there's no uniformity as to what catches the eye. For those with small families, small appetites or small fridges, petite vegetables win the prize. This year, Seed Savers, Baker Creek, Johnny's Selected Seeds and Territorial all feature a 3-inch cucumber called Miniature White.

And I notice that both John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds and Renee's Garden (the latter found on seed racks in stores) have introduced Honey Nut, a sweet-tasting butternut squash so small and light you can trellis it upward to save space -- for those who have small gardens, too.

Savvy but busy growers spot convenience in the fine print.

For instance, this year's "it girl" bean is one called Marcotte, a slender beauty offered by Park, Harris and the Cook's Garden, to name a few. She carries her pods high and visible, for a speedy harvest. That one tempted me until I spotted Fedco's new Montpellier Bush Haricots Verts, whose pods, they admit, "tend to be almost camouflaged and hard to pick" but are "exquisitely tender with a delicate flavor." For me, taste trumps all.

At the same time, I'm always on the lookout for new versions of plants I've found challenging to grow. Golden beets in my garden have never been as successful as the red, so I'd like to give one called Boldor a try. It is praised by both Johnny's and Territorial for its reliability and vigor. Pinetree Garden Seeds has a new, larger mache for those impatient with its exquisite but normally slow-growing rosettes.

Sometimes pest or disease resistance is the big attraction. If your carrots are prone to root maggot, maybe High Mowing's Resistafly is your boy. And its Iron Lady tomato could be your new weapon against late blight.

I'm drawn to all sorts of catalogs, including mainstream ones, but the more specialized they are, the more distraction they offer to a housebound gardener on a winter day. Seeds From Italy, for instance, sells Winter Squash Marmellata, which means "jam pumpkin." Whoever heard of pumpkin jam?

Adaptive Seeds' world tour takes you from Transylvanian sorrel to Tuscan arugula to Greek cress.

Southern Exposure puts a spotlight on St. Mary's County breeder Brett Grohsgal's super-hardy greens, such as his Even' Star Winter Arugula, Even' Star Land Race Collards and New Star Mustard.

Baker Creek amazes you with the dramatic, offbeat colors of Brad Gates' California-bred tomatoes.

Check out the small yellow-and-green-stripe Michael Pollan (the tomato, not the guy) and a "flattened beefsteak" called Large Barred Boar, which is "pink-brown with metallic green stripes." Dr. Demento might have some fun with that.

Barbara Damrosch's latest book is "The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook"; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.



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