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Exciting new varieties are part of every gardening year, and 1997 is no exception. The All-America Selections committee is announcing three new vegetable varieties, two new flower varieties and one new bedding plant variety as winners for this year. This number of introductions shows the tremendous interest and progress in plant breeding.

Home gardeners in all areas of the country are the beneficiaries of this program. For more than 50 years, this organization has tested and evaluated seeds for many different companies. To receive this prestigious award, the varieties are grown in selected gardens across North America. They must show in these tests that they are superior to varieties on the market and must meet certain standards for quality and vigor. Enough seed must be available for normal expected market requirements.There have not been three vegetable varieties introduced at once for many years. This year's choices include cabbage, okra and basil. Some would say that basil is an herb, not a vegetable, but all edible crops fall into the vegetable category.

The cabbage f1 hybrid "Dynamo" produces a small head that is perfect for one meal without leftovers. The plants mature from transplants in about 70 days. They are resistant to stress and grow well even in hot weather. They have a mild flavor and resist splitting, even though the heads are very dense with small cores. Cabbage is a low-fat, low-calorie food high in calcium and vitamin C.

I must confess I have difficulty becoming excited about the next winner because I never developed an appreciation for okra. The okra f1 hybrid "Cajun Delight" is an interesting new variety. I have great confidence that the judges are completely competent to select the okra choices. "Cajun Delight" produces tender pods that mature over an extended period of time. It will produce well in northern gardens. This garden annual has deeply lobed leaves and grows 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Pods are mature about seven to eight weeks after transplants are placed in warm garden soil. Pick the pods when they get 3 to 5 inches long. Harvest at least twice per week for best quality. "Cajun Delight" has a distinctive okra flavor and a mucilaginous texture that makes the gumbo when added to soup.

Thai basil "Siam Queen" is an improved tropical basil. It has larger leaves and thicker stems. It flowers later, which gives a higher yield of the herb, and has an intense licorice basil aroma. Young shoots are ready for harvest 45 to 50 days after transplanting. This handsome annual shows bright green foliage and pink-with-purple flowers. The plants grow 3 feet high with a 2-foot spread.

Zinnia angustifolia "Crystal White" produces a white single flower with a daisy-like center. These start blooming soon after planting and do so throughout the season. It gets 10 inches tall with a spread about the same. This variety grows well even under stressful conditions and does not require pinching or dead-heading. It has the added advantage of high tolerance to the powdery mildew that destroys most other zinnias.

Gypsophilia muralis "Gypsy" is the first baby's breath to earn the AAS designation. It flowers abundantly the first year and has a light, airy habit similar to the perennial flower. The plant stays compact at 10 to 14 inches, so it blends well with small gardens and in containers. It grows well in sunny locations and transplants readily.

Celosia crista "Prestige Scarlet" is a new type of multiflora flower with many more flowers than other varieties. The velvety cockscomb blooms are 3 inches with deep scarlet color. They make excellent cut flowers and dry well for everlastings. The plants grow 15 to 20 inches high and are self-supporting, so staking is not needed. They show good heat tolerance and bloom throughout the summer.

Seeds of all these varieties are available through various mail-order and local sources. Local growers will offer some varieties as bedding plants. Mountain Valley Seed Co. will offer "Dynamo" cabbage and "Cajun Delight" through its packet seed line, widely available at most garden outlets. If you would like a listing of all the companies offering these selections, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to me in care of the Deseret News at P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.