My best gardening presents don't arrive at Christmastime. Instead, I start eagerly checking the mailbox six times a day in late February and early March, when I get my annual collection of test seeds from Organic Gardening Magazine.
Doug Hall, OG's research editor, selects the seeds each year, a mix of new varieties and old-fashioned heirlooms. As Carolina Test Gardener for the magazine, my job is to grow them to see how well they do here in the Southeast.
In November and December, I report my results back to Doug. I'm just sending in my reports now, so I can share a couple of tips (among them, two outstanding tomato varieties) with University City News readers.
Doug's full report, featuring the best of the best, will be published in a spring 2012 edition of Organic Gardening and on the magazine's website, www.organicgardening.com.
My test plots are located on the eastern edge of University City, at the Elma Lomax Farm Incubator. The N.C. Cooperative Extension and Cabarrus County sponsor this 37-acre organically certified project in Concord.
Meanwhile, a baker's dozen of my fellow test gardeners grow the same varieties each year at their own farms and gardens, scattered across the U.S. and Canada, from Florida to Ontario and from Pennsylvania to the Oregon coast.
Needless to say, we get vastly different results. As former House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said about politics, all gardening is local.
This year, I was pretty skeptical about one of the varieties Doug sent us: a Chinese bean named "Red Noodle." Now I'm a believer! "Red Noodle" is worth growing for its amazing looks, with purple-red beans two feet long hanging from the vines. But that's only half the story.
The beans are delicious, and they stay tender and yummy even when they get gigantic.
Like "Red Noodle" beans, many signature "Southern" landscape plants, such as crape myrtle, evergreen azaleas and camellias, are of Asian origin (not to neglect kudzu, another Asian import). Many vegetables from Asian kitchen gardens thrive in the Carolinas, opening the garden gate to delectable new dishes prepared with fresh, homegrown ingredients.
Case in point: Another 2011 winner is a mizuna, a Japanese relative of mustard greens with a lightly spicy flavor. The test variety, "Ethereal Red Veined," is beautiful and delicate as well as scrumptious. It's a cool-season-only crop that thrives here in the spring and fall.
Tomatoes traditionally have a central role in the trials. This year, two varieties were standouts.
"Defiant," a short-vine red tomato from Johnny's Select Seed, is just about the perfect tomato for gardeners looking for great taste, long production and disease resistance. The fruits are medium-sized slicers.
Though Johnny's is headquartered in Maine, about as far from Charlotte as you can get, it consistently offers excellent varieties for the Southeast. Central Piedmont Community College's Horticulture Technology spring and fall sales at the Cato Campus often feature Johnny's vegetable varieties.
"Sweet Seedless," another red, medium-sized slicer tomato, also topped the charts. The flavor is out of this world - it got the top score at this year's taste test. The result of years of breeding (without genetic modification), "Sweet Seedless," from Burpee Seed, combines lack of seeds with disease resistance and reliable, generous production. The only drawback is the astronomical cost of the hybrid parent seed.
My favorite test flower in 2011 was tassel flower (Emilia javanica).
The flowers are very modest in size, and the plants are merely sprawling, uninspiring clumps of green about 2 to 3 feet tall. What makes this special is the bloom's irresistible color, a unique orange-red so rich your eyes can taste it. The color makes tassel flower a standout for any mixed border.
Naturally, some varieties didn't work out. A soup bean from California, "Petaluma Gold Rush," took forever to finally form beans.
I got enough for one small pot of ho-hum soup. UNC Charlotte may have a gold miner as its mascot, but in University City gardens we're better off sticking to Kentucky Wonder string beans and good ol' blackeyed peas.
December is a quiet month in University City gardens. It's a good time to order catalogs and visit websites, review your garden journal and start planning for next year. Growing varieties best suited to local conditions will pay off in healthier plants and more bountiful harvests.
We also have one essential outdoor chore this month: Gather up those fall leaves, make some compost piles and stockpile additional leaves for mulch for 2012. No matter what you grow, or whether your garden is purely organic or chemically dependent, your vegetables will grow better in healthy soil that's rich in organic matter.
Those autumn leaves are about the best holiday present you can give your garden soil, one that will keep giving throughout the coming year.