They come tumbling into the mailboxes of gardening families all across North America at this time each year. Telling an ever recurring story of color, form, beauty, and abundance, these garden seed catalogs point out what is possible, if not always probable, in our gardens. At the very least, they show us what to aim for. Many of them, liberally illustrated in full color, bear testimony to the printer's as well as the seedsman's art. But whether illustrated or not, most offer valuable information on frost tolerance, number of days to maturity, plant height, disease resistance, and more. In an attempt to please the gardener, most seedsmen realize they must inform him as well.
Johnny's Selected Seeds, of Albion, Maine, offers so much down-to-earth gardening advice that it's almost a how-to gardening manual. Vermont Bean, Harris Seeds, Burpee, Parks, and Stokes are others that list far more than seed prices in their catalogs. Pinetree Seeds caters almost exclusively to the home gardener by packaging fewer seeds to a packet, so that few are priced above 45 cents.
Meanwhile, seedsmen in the United States and Canada are offering some 100 new vegetable varieties for the 1987 season. Here are just a few among the more popular vegetable varieties that you might want to try out in your garden:
Sweet Chelsea is being touted as an exciting breakthrough in tomatoes. Sakata, the Japanese breeders, have produced a fruit that is even sweeter and about a third larger than the famous Sweet 100. It also has greater disease tolerance and resistance to splitting. Sweet Chelsea is carried by Johnny's and Vermont Bean.
After two years of good results from trials in Nova Scotia, Veseys Seeds are offering Hybrid 31, a medium-sized, pleasingly flavored tomato that matures in just 48 days from transplanting.
Wolford's Wonder Giant, from Henry Fields, produces mammoth-sized fruit up to three pounds in weight. It is described as red-orange in color and very juicy.
Dr. Clinton E. Peterson, a Department of Agriculture plant breeder, began looking for certain special qualities in a cucumber 30 years ago. His research finally came together in County Fair 83, an all-female cucumber plant that, when away from other varieties, will produce full-sized fruit, totally free of seeds.
In addition, it has no bitter compounds, a fact that makes it unattractive to cucumber beetles. Available from Parks Seed, County Fair 83 will produce harvestable fruit in 48 days.
Peas and beans.
Parks Seed has produced a stringless snap pea that is ready to eat, pod and all, in just 60 days. Sugar Pop's sturdy 18-inch-tall vines tolerate dense plantings for a high yield from small spaces.
Le Marche, Nichols, and Vesey seed companies offer Delinel, a French green bean that received high praise from growers at the Rodale Organic Gardening trial grounds last season. These slender pods, one-quarter-inch in diameter, are best picked when they reach between seven- and 10-inches long.
Two new varieties of this popular vegetable are worth noting - Cruiser from Johnny's, and Sprinter from Vermont Bean. Cruiser has been impressive during four years of trials in Albion. It matures 60 days from transplanting. Sprinter, which takes 75 days to mature, has displayed an ability to produce well in hot summer temperatures.
The J.W. Jung Seed company has introduced Big Red from the University of Wisconsin's breeding program. It has an exceptionally smooth texture with good flavor.
Red lettuce is on the increase as people search for color as well as flavor in their salads. Stokes is offering Red Boston, a red version of the classic Boston green lettuce.
Squash and Pumpkin.
Swan White Table Queen is a patented acorn squash from Stokes with white skin and pale yellow flesh. Gardeners are advised to harvest mature squash from just two of the three runners each plant sends out. The third runner can be used to harvest numbers of immature fruits that can be eaten whole as ``summer squash.''
Autumn Gold pumpkin is an All America Selection winner for 1987. It has one notable advantage over all its relatives: it begins turning gold early in the season, long before it is mature.
Abundant yields of 10- to 12-pound pumpkins were commonplace in nationwide tests last year. Because it is an AAS winner, Autumn Gold is carried by most seed companies.
For $2, The Avant Gardener horticultural news service (PO Box 489, New York, NY 10028) will make available its list of 426 seed and nursery companies in the US.