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Gardening: From hybrids to heirlooms, today's plant varieties offer endless options

One thing I love, love, love about living in America today is that we have access to all sorts of plants and seeds from the entire world. In some ways, this is bad, because some of these plants become horridly invasive, taking over the natural areas in the region. But it also means we can grow fruits and vegetables that our parents never even knew existed.

My mother experimented with new vegetables each year, and I seem to have inherited that same sense of adventure. She grew Armenian cucumbers, tomatillos and South American tree tomatoes. I don’t even know where she found the seeds. She was allergic to cantaloupe but loved it. So, every year, she grew a different type of melon hoping to find one she could eat. She never did. But as a result, we kids had to eat them all instead. She didn’t mind if we didn’t like other vegetables as long as we tasted them first. But she considered it a personal insult if we turned up our noses at any kind of melon or cantaloupe.

But even she would be amazed at the seeds and plants I am able to order now. She had one type of hardy kiwi that she planted. We now have five or six varieties, and some are even red instead of the usual green. Growing up, we picked blueberries from the mountains. It obviously never occurred to her to actually plant a blueberry bush at home. But my husband and I have blueberry beds with varieties that fruit from early June through August. And honeyberries that look like an extra-long blueberry and taste the same. We also grow Goji berries, elderberries, gooseberries, and chokeberries as well.

Our orchard, when I was young, included sour cherries, peaches, pears and apples. We also had two sweet cherry trees and one apricot tree. Plums were available, but we didn’t have them in our orchard. I don’t know why. Now we grow those, but we also grow nectarines, Asian pears, Asian persimmons and pawpaws. I can grow papayas and bananas in a minimal-heat greenhouse and avocados inside our home. Mini pineapples will grow in pots in a summer, and I also can get a crop from ginger and turmeric.

Mom planted spinach, red and green lettuce, and kale. I plant spinach, five or six varieties of lettuce with different colors, shapes and sizes, and several kinds of kale as well. And I also plant komatsuna, mizuna, tatsoi, pac choi, upland cress, shiso, and amaranth. She grew collards, turnip greens and green mustard. Along with them, I grow red mustard and several varieties of Asian mustards in multiple colors. And I pick the leaves of baby beets and radishes to toss in the mix as well. We knew dandelion and chicory were edible; now I plant them on purpose.

Her garden had several pickling cucumbers and one variety of burpless slicing for salads. My garden has the normal green cucumbers for pickling and slicing. But in addition, I grow lemon and crystal apple cucumbers, which are small, round, and extra-crunchy. You also can find Armenians, white cucumbers, gherkins and a really ugly brown Russian variety that tastes great but looks horrid.

Growing up, we grew green string beans. Now I grow green, purple and yellow beans that have no strings. I have flat Italian beans. And I grow shelling beans of all shapes and colors to use in soups and for baking.

Mom’s winter squash consisted of acorn and butternut, and she was the first one I knew to grow spaghetti squash. Those are great, and I love them. But in addition to the normal-sized butternut, I grow honeynut, a variety that takes all the flavor and more of a normal butternut and packs it into a personal-sized version. And then I started branching out and found a few new favorites — Australian butter squash, Long Island cheese, and North Georgia candy roaster (a long narrow pink tubular-shaped squash that is sweet and nutty). I grow the normal blue and red Hubbard squash and also a smaller variety called red kuri. And the gargantuan green and golden Cushaws are attention-getters for sure.

Several pumpkins can be seen in my fields as well. I grow pumpkins based on their flavor, rather than carving traits. So I have Fairytale, Sugar Pie and Jarrahdale.

And I have added several Indian corn varieties for ground meal along with the oh-so-necessary sweet corn. I also grow baby corn for pickling and popcorn, too.

And as for those melons? I grow the normal orange cantaloupe. But I also grow honeydew, canary melons, casaba, Crenshaw, Israeli, and Spanish melons, just to be sure I cover all the bases.

The crazy thing is that so many of these plants are not new hybrids. They are heirlooms, grown for hundreds of years in different areas of the country or world. But now seed companies have collected them and made them accessible to the average grower anywhere. So, now, while you are ordering your seeds, take advantage of the availability and try some new things in your own garden this year.


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