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.
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.
Southport Yellow Golden onions are the best for winter keeping, and Winter Bloomsdale spinach will live through winter for early spring use.
Short 'n Sweet, Goldenhart, and Chatenay are favorite carrots, and she tells why Swiss chard is good for the busy or weekend gardener. Perpetual chard has the best flavor, she thinks, and it stays crisp and green all summer.
In her book Mrs. Burpee includes traditional vegetable dishes like Harvard Beets and Baked Beans, as well as unusual vegetable dishes using salsify, celeriac, celtuce, and tampala.
There are recipes from the author's Palestine days, some for meats as well as fruits and berries, tips for freezing, and good ideas on how to get the most from your vegetable plants.
There are many charming personal comments, including some of Mr. Burpee's family jokes, and although it is not a memoir, the author's love and respect for the fruit of the earth show in her writing and recipes.
Today Mrs. Burpee, who has five grandchildren, carries on many of the Burpee traditions, working in her greenhouse, growing plants for the community, and spending a lot of time outdoors at Fordhook Farms, which is what she likes doing most of all. Here is a selection of recipes from her book. Rhubarb Cake 1 1/4 cups biscuit mix (or your own baking-powder-biscuit recipe) 1 egg 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar 7 tablespoons butter, softened 2 tablespoons cornstarch 4 cups chopped raw rhubarb 1 1/2 tablespoons flour 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Measure biscuit mix into a bowl and add egg, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 4 tablespoons butter. Blend together into a dough. Press dough into an ungreased 11-by-7-inch pan until bottom is covered.
Mix 1/2 cup sugar with cornstarch, stir into rhubarb, spread mixture over dough, and press down. Sprinkle any sugar and constarch remaining in the bowl over rhubarb.
For topping, mix 1/2 cup sugar, flour, ginger, and 3 tablespoons butter until crumbly and sprinkle over rhubarb.
Bake in a 350-degree F. oven for 45 minutes. Run a knife around edge of pan, and cool on a rack. Serves 6 to 8. Rhubarb-Pineapple Sauce 9 stalks rhubarb, 12 inches long, cut in 1-inch pieces 20-ounce can crushed pineapple 3-ounce packet strawberry-flavored gelatin
Cut rhubarb in 1-inch pieces and combine in a pot (not aluminum) with pineapple, including juice. Bring slowly to a boil over medium heat, and cook until tender. Add strawberry gelatin and stir in well. Cool. Makes about 4 cups. Broccoli in Ginger-Flavored Oil
Put about 1/4 cup of chickpea flour or whole-wheat flour in a paper bag. Shake some salt into it.
Wash broccoli sprouts, shake them almost dry, then shake with flour in bag.
Heat a thin layer of oil in a frying pan with 4 to 5 slices of fresh ginger root. Soak ginger in oil over low heat for 15 minutes, then remove.
Over medium high heat, stir-fry broccoli.
I was always surprised at how long this woman cooked it
- 45 minutes. All the ginger-flavored oil is absorbed by the broccoli. Strawberry or Raspberry New England Shortcake 2 cups flour, sifted 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 cup butter or shortening 3/4 cup milk 6 cups fresh strawberries or raspberries
Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and 2 tablespoons sugar. Work in butter and add milk. Divide and roll out each half to the size a 9-inch baking dish.
Put one-half in the dish, brush lightly with oil, and place other half on top. Bake in a 375-degree F. oven for 30 to 45 minutes.
Wash and dry berries. Slice or halve strawberries if you like. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar and let stand in a cool place for about 15 minutes. Turn fruit over, now and then.
When biscuit is baked, cool until not too hot to handle. Separate the two layers with a knife.
Place the bottom layer on a serving dish and spoon half the berries over it while it is a little warm so that the juice will penetrate.
Put top layer on and cover with the remaining fruit. The fruit should go on at least 10 minutes before serving. Serves 6 to 8. Snow Peas and Water Chestnuts 1/2 pound snow peas 1 tablespoon oil 1/2 cup thinly sliced water chestnuts 1 cup chicken stock 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold chicken stock
Snap off the ends and strings of peas. Heat oil in a skillet or wok. Add peas and water chestnuts and toss to coat.
Add stock, bring to a boil, then cover and cook over high heat for 3 minutes.
Push vegetables to one side and add mixture of cornstarch and stock to pan liquid. Stir only until slightly thickened, then mix vegetables in. Serves 2 to 3.