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A special book for the gardener-cook

By Phyllis HanesFood editor of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 1983



In horticulture as in cookery, Lois Burpee has been both curious and exploratory, collecting gardening hints and wisdom from generations of Burpees, whose seed catalog was first published in 1876.

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Mrs. Burpee has tasted every vegetable grown in the Burpee test gardens, cooking them for everyday family meals and making a point of serving to guests the new vegetables being introduced by the seed company.

Now this unusual woman, who became interested in cooking through the vegetable garden, has put much of her information and many of her recipes in Lois Burpee's Gardener's Companion and Cookbook (Harper & Row, $16.95), illustrated by Parker Leighton and edited by Millie Owen.

Born in Palestine, where her parents were missionaries, Lois Burpee also lived for a while in Scotland. She studied botany at Wellesley College and she first met, then married, David Burpee while doing horticultural research in the trial gardens at his famous Fordhook Farms, in Pennsylvania.

Several years ago when I visited the Fordhook Farms, she showed me her own garden, which she tilled, planted, and tended herself and which provided vegetables for her table all summer and into the winter.

Mixed in with her vegetables were marigolds, the flowers her husband spent years developing, for those marigolds with the pungent odor act as a repellent to nematodes and other garden pests.

What Mrs. Burpee grew in her garden then was influenced by her late husband's likes and dislikes - a long list of vegetables that also passed the test of her own discriminating taste buds.

Today, just like millions of other gardeners, Mrs. Burpee orders seeds from the catalogs, getting her order in early.

This year, as usual, she is looking forward to the early lettuce, fresh asparagus, and spring peas that will be the first of the crop.

Mrs. Burpee understands what the new generation of beginning gardeners want from their first garden, small or large, and she has good advice on what and how to plant.

''After you start your first garden, don't plan to go away for the first three weeks,'' she said. ''That's when plants need special care to get their roots established.

''But don't plant too early. Wait until the ground warms up to at least 50 degrees F., or the seeds won't germinate.

''Not all vegetables need to be started from seeds.Buy some vegetable plants for the first garden,'' she advises.

''If your garden is small, don't buy big garden tools. There are small rakes and hoes that will be easier to handle. My small spade is most valuable to me.

''Plant your rows with the direction of sun in mind so there are no tall plants that shade the rest of the garden.

''Dig deep for root crops. For others, digging and loosening the earth six to eight inches is enough,'' she said.

''Plan to grow in containers if that's the best way for you. There are more and more plants that grow especially well in containers.

''Start your first garden with a few tomato plants of the smaller varieties, two green pepper plants, some lettuce, radishes, and beans from seed.

''Add a clump of chives, some curly parsley, and thyme, or your favorite herbs.

''Plant the things you like but don't plant too much if your garden is small. Don't make gardening a burden.

''Two zucchini plants will give you a lot to eat. And harvest zucchini when it's small. It will make the plant produce more and it's much better quality.

''If your zucchini gets too large, slit them open and let the birds have them , or use them in your compost pile.

''And whatever you plant, look on the seed package to find out how many days it takes to maturity. You don't want to be away on vacation when your beans or corn are ready to be picked.''

Mrs. Burpee explains how to tell the difference between a pumpkin and a squash by inspecting the stem; of her experiments with the use of various herbs; and how she learned about cooking Chinese food when she was at Wellesley.

She also tells which kinds she likes best of each vegetable.

''I grow the Lutz beets because they're sweeter, though they're not as symmetrical as the popular Detroit Red variety,'' she said.

''Choose lettuce that is tender and will last longer in the summer without bolting to seed. If it does bolt, trim the tall stalk for salads or cook it lightly. That's something I learned years ago from Arab women.''

''Grow the small eggplant to be eaten before the seeds are large, to avoid bitterness,'' she advises.

She likes the large, flavorful Delicious tomatoes, but recommends the smaller ones for small gardens. For hanging baskets, plant Basket King Hybrid tomatoes and Spacemaster cucumbers.