By mid-February, vegetable gardeners who want to plant seeds that are not available through local vendors need to be thumbing through their catalogs or browsing online. While the inventories in local greenhouses and gardening stores has expanded greatly in recent years, it's always fun to plant a tomato that isn't a Rutgers or a cucumber that isn't a Straight 8. That's where mail order comes in.
We can wait to select seeds that will be directly planted into the ground, but time is running out to order seeds for vegetables that must be transplanted into the garden. As a practical matter, tomatoes and other transplants need to be started by the end of the month or early March.
Right now my own shopping list of mail-order seeds can be divided into four categories: tomatoes, beans, cukes and herbs. I'll undoubtedly wind up buying more, but this is where I'm starting.
I'll plant at least four varieties of pole beans. Two will be reliable varieties, such as Blue Lake and Kentucky Wonder. When you try seeds you haven't planted before, it's always wise to hedge the experiment by sowing old standbys in the garden as well.
In addition, I like the looks of the Purple Pod bean available from Gurney's (www.gurneys.com) and also the Painted Lady, a bean from Vermont Bean Seed Co. (www.vermontbean.com) whose blossoms are attractive to hummingbirds.
For tomatoes, I will plant such common varieties as Early Girl, Rutgers, Parks Whopper and Brandywine, all of which are available locally. However, for the experimental tomatoes, I'm seeking greater variety.
I am intrigued by the Big Bite, an indeterminate beefsteak with dark red flesh, being offered for the first time by Totally Tomatoes (www.totallytomato.com). This is a disease-resistant, 75-day tomato that will bear large fruit all season. I also am interested in a paste tomato from Totally Tomatoes called Opalka, another indeterminate that is supposed to have a deeper flavor than most Roma-type tomatoes. The fruits on this one are oblong but 4 to 6 inches in length.
As an adventure in improbability, I also am planning to order seeds from the Beaverlodge Series, new this year in the Territorial Seed Co. catalog (www.territorialseed.com). These seeds were bred in Canada, not known as a hotbed of research on tropical fruit, but they are 55-day tomatoes and come as slicers or plum tomatoes. While they are determinate, which means they do not produce all season, they bear fruit early. This may have something to do cold-tolerance linked to their Canadian genealogy. Perhaps they grow earmuffs. In any case, I'll bite on this one.
For cucumbers, I'll be planting a proven slicer like SpaceMaster or Salad Bush, along with a few less common varieties. I love the little round, sweet fruits on lemon cukes. Some years I can find the plants in local greenhouses, but some years I can't. Seeds are available from Pinetree Garden Seeds (www.superseeds.com).
I'm also going to order a mildew-resistant Japanese cucumber from Pinetree called Summer Dance. This is a slender green cuke that can be eaten unpeeled.
Pinetree also is one of my favorite places to buy herb seed. It offers a wide assortment of basils and a respectable inventory of international herbs. This year I'll be ordering Cilantro Delfino from Pinetree. This is a slow-to-bolt cilantro that grows quickly and is suitable for northern gardens. Although I haven't had any trouble growing cilantro here, the slow-bolting claim caught my eye.
While there's security in planting the same thing year after year, one of these experiments might well become a fixture in my garden.