A COOK'S GARDEN

A Few Good Ideas Take Seed

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 14, 2006

It's raining seed catalogues, and the forecast is for the downpour to continue well into January. They arrive in the mail bursting with potential, like seeds themselves. I look forward to a peaceful, post-holiday weekend in which sifting though descriptions of peas, beans and cauliflower seems like the most important thing I could possibly do with my day.

It's a little like Christmas all over again. Each year the seed-breeding elves have been hard at work coming up with new varieties that might be tastier or prettier than others I have grown, better able to meet the garden's climatic challenges, more forgiving of lapses in my expertise or work ethic. But I'd love to write a letter to Santa explaining exactly what improvements I'd like to see in this year's offerings.

One thing I'd be sure to put on my list is a mildly hot pepper. I like to cook with a pepper that has some zing to it, but not so much that I can add only a few timid choppings. To get enough pepper flavor I end up using lots of sweet peppers and a smidgen of hot. The closest thing I've found to the ideal is the ancho, but most advertised as mildly or medium hot are either hot, or not. No middle ground.

A red radish that held well in the ground would be welcome. Radishes must be sown often and harvested promptly before they get strong and pithy. You never have these worries with a carrot. Why can't a radish be like that?

I love cylindrical beets -- so right for slicing -- but how about one whose shoulders stay a smooth maroon rather than a rough brown even if pushed up out of the soil? And a golden beet that germinated better. A potato that formed all its tubers well below ground so it didn't need to be covered in more earth to prevent greening.

Some years I get just what I ask for. Park Seed Co. ( http://www.parkseed.com) now has a little spaghetti squash, Small Wonder Hybrid, that makes a single serving. You could bake it, loosen the strands and serve a "bowl of pasta" right in the shell. Now if they can do that, why can't they make a delicious winter squash with hull-less seeds, so I can eat it all? Edible seed pumpkins exist, but their inedible flesh goes to waste.

The bright red eggplant I've seen advertised is eye-catching on the page and in the garden, but it doesn't taste good at colorful maturity. Let's work on that. And while you're at it, a tasty round turnip, good for harvest at golf-ball size, with golden, carotene-rich flesh.

I'd like a variety of mache that germinates more dependably and at warmer temperatures. If it also held its leaves more upright -- so when I cut the little heads at ground level they wouldn't be so gritty -- that would make my Christmas. Bring me more of those lovely Euro-style chards with narrow stems and ribs, a more frost-hardy escarole, and an arugula with broader, less deeply lobed leaves so I'd get more weight per foot of row.

An okra that will grow in cooler temperatures! How hard would that be? Northern gardeners would finally grow it and have to admit what a delicious vegetable it is.

There are lots of good onion seed varieties, but the ones you buy as sets are usually flat-shaped rather than round, and awkward to slice. Could we have some round ones? Peas bred for stronger tendrils would be a boon, too, able to hold tight to a trellis even if planted closely for higher yields.

More work will surely be done on artichokes, to produce varieties that bear in one year without a cool period, or last through the winter even outside of California. I'd also love a shorter pole bean with nodes closer together for better production and easier picking. And a bulb fennel that gave tight, round bulbs at a smaller size.

Some items on my wish list are varieties that are now hard to find, such as the beautiful chartreuse open-headed Chinese cabbage called Santou Bekana. Many are heirlooms I only read about in books -- wonderful old corns from before the days of super-sweets, with tightly wrapped husks that keep the ear worms out.

Since Christmas is a time of fantasy, I'd throw in a few wild hopes -- such as a broccoli, crossed with a turnip, whose root you could store in the cellar, bring up and force in a pot and get a broccoli-like head. Or a bush cherry tomato with a stout, strong stem that would support itself and hold the fruits off the ground as if it were a little tree.

I'll bet all these things are possible through traditional methods of selection and hybridization well-known to any elf worth his salt at the North Pole Experiment Station. One day I will open a catalogue in December and there they all will be.


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