By Chris Cohan

Okay, enough already about the bitter cold. Let’s shake off the dull gray of winter for the bright allure of seed catalogues. They are lush, sensual gardener eye-candy. Filled with page after page of mouth-watering photographs and compelling descriptions. Each variety seems the best until you read about the next. The big question is, how many of each to grow? 

Don’t forget beets! Just the mention of them make most kids stick out their tongues and utter, “yuk.” However, after reading about Chioggia beets, you will want some. It’s an Italian heirloom variety known for its red-and-white striped interior. They are sweet, mild tasting, mature early, help in weight loss, and lower blood pressure. For the best in classic red beets, plant Detroit dark red, an heirloom that matures in only 58 days. The tops are vitamin-rich and have more iron than spinach. They can be cut repeatedly and enjoyed on their own, in salads or wilted. 

Corn has a significant place in history. Some of the ancient varieties were cultivated over 2,000 years ago. Chapalote corn may be the oldest variety grown in North America. Carbon dating estimates it could be 4,000 years old. It can be popped or used in polenta, as the meal is delightfully sweet. In the 1950s, Chapalote was rediscovered in remote, northwestern Mexico. Since that time its superior qualities have captured the imagination and affections of archaeologists, gardeners, and chefs alike.

The fascinating stories behind many corns make one yearn for a wide-open field to plant a series of squares of sweet and popping corns. If you can plant but one, consider Stowell’s Evergreen sweet corn, the “King.”. This delicious white variety has been popular since 1848 when it was developed by Nathaniel Newman Stowell of Burlington, New Jersey. 

Farmer Stowell spent years refining it. Then in the fall of 1855, he sold just two ears of seed corn to a close friend for four dollars, with the proviso that the seed was for personal use only. Stowell’s “friend” then re-sold the same seed for a whopping $20,000 to Thoburn and Company, which released it commercially in late 1856.

Amish Butter Popcorn, a pre-1885 heirloom popcorn continues to be grown by the Pennsylvania Dutch. It is revered for its popping ability and natural buttery flavor. (But take it from our popcorn-loving family: the best butter flavor is ensured by smothering popcorn in melted butter. To counteract the guilt of enjoying the pleasure, use a hot-air popper. No oil, no muss, no fuss, and no clean-up.)

Burro Mountain is an ancient white popcorn, which was considered extinct until it was discovered in a pottery container dating back 600 to 1,000 years. The pot was found in the Burro Mountains of Grant County, New Mexico. Amazing how seeds can keep their DNA vital for all those centuries. (Guys, concerned about your virility? More heirloom corn could be the answer…)

If you’re thinking of planting a second corn, go for Golden Bantam. This outstanding sweet, all-yellow variety was first offered in 1902. It has the advantage of sprouting in cool soil, maturing early in 80 days with stalks only 5 feet tall for great stability. It often bears two long ears apiece. 

The annual question which plagues all gardeners is which tomatoes to plant. To help narrow this query I have decided that they must fruit early and often, be big or small, and, of course, possess delicious flavor. Here are two worth growing.

Matina is an heirloom variety, originally from Germany, that produces many bright red, golf-ball or larger sized fruits. It contains the kind of perfect sweet and acidic balance that you normally find in larger, late-season tomatoes. Maturing in just 55 days after transplant, it continues to bear high yields of superb tasting fruit throughout the growing season.

Sun Gold Hybrid ripens in about the same amount of time. One taste and you’ll know why it’s becoming the most popular cherry tomato. The golden-orange fruits are borne in large clusters. The flavor develops early, so this little variety is great for snacking a week before full maturity, when it becomes extraordinarily sweet and delicious.

Spring is just around the corner, so don’t delay. Mark up those catalogues, narrow down your choices, and buy to your heart’s content.