The rise of the supermarket chains has been aided by a number of factors, not the least of which has been a predictable supply of food.
No more, Americans were promised, the seasonal scramble for fruits and vegetables. Summer, fall, winter or spring the shopper is meant to find fresh lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, green beans, apples, grapes, etc. Even asparagus and green peas, the arrival of which once were among the best reasons for spring and summer, can be found in deepest winter. The frozen foods freezer has become an encyclopedia of vegetables and fruits.
This development horrified romantics, who argued that one shouldn't fool with Mother Nature. (It horrified a good many others, too, when they realized science has stolen the tomato's flavor and texture in order to make it available 12 months a year). But a vision of progress and the apparent desires of an affluent urban society dependent on a small farming population brought about the current situation.
In the past few years, however, it has been Mother Nature's turn to fool around. There have been painful crop shortages, peaks and valleys of supply that have distorted prices and the market. And from current indications it is going to become worse. The recent cold snap in Florida and the continuing lack of snow in the West presage shortages meats and a variety of vegetables are affect.
What to do?
Some urbanities, driven by esthetic and economic considerations, have already taken a step that ameliorates the problem. They have been growing their own fruits, herbs, canning or freezing the excess production. Some elements within the food industry and even in the Department of Agriculture have pooh-poohed or even discouraged these amateurs, but home farmers have persisted. There are indications as well that more pick-your-own ventures are becoming available to urban dwellers who can't garden themselves.
One result has been a lively effort by seed companies and professional breeders to expand has been given to gardening in an urban setting and consequently there now is more information available to the novice. Planting vegetables among flowers (where hot peppers and onions also help control insects) is an idea that has caught on. Given enough sun, dwarf fruit trees will flourish in tubs on apartment house balconies. Once the stalks have been picked, asparagus still provides ferns that look attractive and may be used in flower arrangements.
The news of the disaster in the South and the growing crisis in the West has arrived just at the time seed catalog orders are being placed. Despite an understandable feeling hereabouts that the new Ice Age is with us already, there will be a spring in which to plant these seeds and, in all likelihood, a summer and fall in which to harvest their production. And the range of choices, from ordinary to exotic, is astonishing.
(Of course, there are a number of fine nurseries in the metropolitan area where one may buy seeds directly and, possibly, at a savings. For those who are interested in strawberries, Salisbury, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, is a national center for research and development. There are several companies there that sell seeds, including Rayner Brothers.)
As The Post's Tom Stevenson pointed out in his Gardens column last month, there are several promising new varieties of vegetables on the market. The Stokes Seeds catalog (7156 Stokes Bldg., Buffalo, N.Y. 14240) introduces a "super sweet" corn variety called Golden EH (everlasting heritage) that can be grown amid other varieties and is supposed to retain flavor unrefrigerated for five days or more after picking. The company also advertises another new corn called Northern Vee, petite pois peas, a lettuce called Portage M.I., Royal Burgundy Bush beans, Ice Queen cabbage and the Vee Pick paste tomato.
Another popular item this summer will be the Savoy Ace cabbage, an evident improvement on the Savoy King. Developed in Japan, it won the rarely awarded All-America Selections gold medal. Three other medal winners were Melody Hybrid spinach (which has more heat tolerance and matures earlier than standard spinach), Scallopini Hybrid squash (a cross between the scallop squash and the zucchini) and the Spirit Hybrid pumpkin, described as a "space saver" and of a perfect size for jack-o-lanterns. Seeds for these new vegetables will be widely sold.
Here are random selections from some other catalogs. For once it would not be overstating the case to indicate that what follows is merely the tip of an iceberg. There are literally hundreds of these publications. These are among the best.
Burpee's Catalog (available from W. Atlee Burpee Co., Warminster, Pa. 18974) touts a Sugar Bush watermelon, which is a compact plant useful to small-space gardeners, and a Triple-Treat pumpkin.
Thompson & Morgan (Box 24, Somerdale, N.J. 08083) has produced, according to Horticulture magazine, the "most amazing" new vegetable, its melon squash. It looks like a winter squash, but smells and tastes like a cantaloupe. The melon squash, which is normally 10 to 12 pounds but may reach 40, can be stored up to six months. It may be eaten raw or cooked like squash. The firm also has introduced a bright green cauliflower called Chartreuse; a giant cucumber, the Zeppelin, that grows to 10 to 12 pounds, and a low oxalic acid spinach called Monnopa.
Stern's Nurseries (Geneva, N.Y. 14456) is selling virus-free raspberry plants, "burpless" cucumbers, "jiffy" tomatoes, "inch-thick" asparagus, dwarf apple and pear trees and a number of other berries, including elder-berries and gooseberries.
White Flower Farm (Litchfield, Conn. 06759 - catalog free with $15 or more in orders; $4 for spring and fall editions) offers what one grower testifies are "the best" fraises des bois , the tiny French woodland strawberries that are the caviar of the fruit world. They offer a selection of herbs as well.
Spring Hill Seeds and Plants (Spring Hill Nurseries, 110 Elm St., Tipp City, Ohio 45366) will provide Roberts asparagus at a good price (and other varieties); green globe artichokes; a "chef's salad" blend of lettuce varieties, onions and garlic; a "postage stamp" orchard of six dwarf trees that will fit into a 20-by-10-feet plot, and giant blueberries.
Jackson & Perkins (Medford, Ore. 97501) sell dwarf fruit trees - peach, pear, apricot and apple. They offer a hybrid "supercuke," a hybrid "aristocrat" zucchini bush lima beans, "early wonder" beets, "champion" radishes, buttercrunch lettuce, Wando green peas, triple-curled parsley, a quintet of petters and melons, raspberries and boysenberries.
Park Seed (Geo. W. Park Seed Co., Greenwood, S.C. 29647) has the Scallopini squash, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet tomatoes, Bush Whopper cucumbers, Park's Chantenay carrots, sweet potato plants, midget vegetables and melons, and a hot pepper mixture.
Wayside Gardens (Hodges, S.C. 29695 - catalog $1 if orders are less than $10) sells excellent Alpine strawberries, asparagus, Crimson Red rhubarb, dwarf plum, apples, cherry, peach and nectarine trees, black raspberries and fig trees.
Seed catalogs have to be studied with care. The cheapest item in a line isn't always the best buy. Sometimes, at any price, the return won't measure up to the investment. Some plants aren't suited to the local climate.
While most catalogs are mailed free of charge, some do cost money or require a down payment that can be used against purchase of a minimum order. At least two of these, the White Flower Farm Garden Book and the Wayside Gardens book, are so full of information and so handsomely produced that it would be unfair to resent the charge.