Purple beans and frizzy lettuce

Forget green beans and red tomatoes. This year the colorful possibilities include patriotic corn and striped tomatoes.

It was mid-May and right after I picked up my morning paper, I noticed something in the air I hadn't noticed for months – the air had the smell of spring. It was still cold and dark – this is Maine, after all – but I could actually smell the dirt. After enjoying the aroma of the morning for a few more seconds, I came to the realization that it was time to start thinking about my garden.

This year my neighbor had suggested that I grow my vegetable plants from seed. He has a large picture window in his house that gets many hours of heat and sun during spring. It's a perfect spot for starting seedlings. So I took him up on his offer and had the thought that at 56 years old, I was going to become a tenement farmer.

Then I borrowed his 2007 Burpee seed catalog. At first I told him that I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to grow, but he suggested I take a look at this year's catalog so that I could order the exact seeds I needed.

I thought it would be easy. Then I opened the catalog and was astounded by what's available.

Am I the only one who doesn't know that there are at least 24 different types of beans? I always thought that there were only two types – green ones and yellow ones. Looking through the 103-page catalog, I discovered Kentucky King bush beans, called a favorite bean to freeze and can.

Since I grow a garden to have fresh vegetables, I'm not sure why anyone would buy a specific type of bean to freeze. I always thought those types of beans were found all year long at the local grocery store.

Other types of beans ranged from Blue Lake (it's supposed to be virtually fiber free, although I thought one was supposed to have fiber) to Tenderpick green beans, which are said to be packed with flavor and have curved edges. Are there sharp-edged beans? Triumph de Farcy beans were called the classic filet bean. I didn't know beans had bones. There were even beans that were dual purpose, which means they could be used like regular green beans or like lima beans. I know of no one who enjoys lima beans.

I was also wrong about beans coming in only two colors. There are not only green and yellow beans, but white beans, and even purple beans. The seed book said that the Sequoia purple bean was attractive. I thought it looked dead.

After reading about the different types of beans, I turned the page only to see that there are 10 types of carrots. These had names like Sweet Treat, Sweet Rocket, Nantes Half Long, Viva La France, Orange Rocket, and Toudo II. I wonder what happened to Toudo I?

There was also a yellow carrot that had the name Sweet Sunshine. The book said it was all-new – and was sweet and crunchy like celery. I doubt that I could eat a yellow piece of celery because I assume that when it becomes that color, it's time to throw it away.

I again quickly turned the page.

Did you know that there is corn that's red or purple? Now I am not talking about a pale or pastel color here. I am describing a deep-red Ruby Queen corn that retains its gorgeous color boiled, steamed, or even microwaved. The Dwarf Blue Jade corn has sapphire-blue kernels that turn jade green when cooked. The catalog also had Silver Queen corn that was white.

I snickered to myself that I could grow a patriotic garden this year. Then I noticed that they advertised a red, white, and blue corn collection on the following page. Comedy turned into reality.

Cucumbers were something I have never been able to grow in the past. But with 20 different varieties that range from 12-inch-long Big Burpless to two-inch Picklebush cucumbers, I felt sure I could find something between those lengths. The catalog also displayed a Palace King variety that is Oriental and supposed to be tolerant of powdery mildew. I didn't know there was such a thing as granular mildew.

Did you know that there are a minimum of 22 different varieties of lettuce? I had just gotten used to the concept that iceberg was not the only kind of lettuce that existed. There was mesclun lettuce, which was said to be the French approach to salad greens. The description went on to state that the lettuce was premixed. How does one premix a head of lettuce?

The catalog also displayed pictures of lettuce that had the appearance of seaweed. But the oddest looking one was a variety called Frizz E. It looked like something that grew on old meat and should be thrown away as soon as possible. This was called "a fine French endive." My suspicions of anything French grew to new proportions.

I spent most of one weekend reading about all the different varieties of vegetables that one could choose from in order to produce the perfect garden.

Did you know there are 15 different varieties of peas? And there are 35 varieties of peppers that range in color from a translucent white to a deep chocolate. At least it's called a chocolate pepper, but the description did not say that it would taste like a Hershey bar.

My biggest shock occurred when I turned the page and found the various types of tomatoes – 53 different varieties of them. I was happy to see that most of them are red, but there are a few orange ones and one variety of green. I wonder how one can tell when the green ones become ripe?

There was also one odd tomato variety called the Big Rainbow. It looked like a big round piece of cheese. The catalog said that it produces bright yellow fruits with scarlet red stripes. Thinking back to the corn varieties I'd seen earlier, I was pleased not to find any varieties that were blue and had white star shapes in them. Thank goodness there's no possibility of patriotic tomato gardens!

I spent another half day looking through the 2007 Burpee seed catalog. I didn't organize an order that weekend, though, because I had little idea of how to start. I thought that maybe the easiest thing would be to just wait until I was sure the weather was warm – and going to stay that way – and go out to our local nursery to look over already started varieties of vegetables that I can both pronounce and enjoy eating.

The next morning as I picked up my morning paper, I noticed that on the front page was a picture of a genetically engineered tomato. Or at least I think it was a tomato. After my catalog reading, I was no longer sure.

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