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Trying different seed variety? `New' may not mean better

"Better" is a relative term. "New" is not. Caught up in the hype that accompanies a new gardening season, fueled by '98 - or 98 - seed catalogs, gardeners are apt to confuse the two.

New is not always better. Neither is "bigger." But seed companies invest heavily in research and development, keenly hoping to persuade us to try the new varieties being introduced that season.New varieties come and go, disappearing for several reasons: Crop failure, contamination of hybrid strains and production problems beyond our control.

I'm still moaning about the demise of the "County Fair" pickling cucumber, the only variety I ever tried (despite claims made by others) that was truly resistant to cucumber beetles and the bacterial wilt disease they spread. Park Seed Co. assures me that County Fair cannot be revived, although its traits may someday be reincarnated under another name.

Frequently, the marketplace determines the fate of a new variety. If something doesn't sell, regardless of its virtues, seed companies will drop it. The variety becomes a bit of germplasm in a seed bank somewhere.

Introductions are so numerous this year that an overview could fill an entire section of this newspaper. A note: Just because a variety is listed as "new" in a catalog doesn't necessarily mean it's new to the marketplace. Some seed companies put "new" next to a listing to draw attention to a variety they haven't offered before.

Here's how I'll decide whether or not to order a new variety or stick with the one I'm currently growing:

1. Does the new variety solve a real gardening problem?

For instance, from W. Atlee Burpee & Co. (300 Park Ave., Warminster, PA 18991; catalog free) comes a new cosmos that sounds like a distinct improvement over the standard "Sensation." Gardeners who grow Sensation know the colors are daz-zling, but tall bushy plants need staking, and they seem to take forever to start blooming.

Burpee's new "Gazebo" cosmos is a foot shorter, with stronger stems - no staking, they claim. Also, it blooms a full month earlier than its popular rival. Either of those, separately, would qualify it as "better" than Sensation.' Together, they could solve a real gardening problem. Gazebo is worth a try.

Johnny's Selected Seeds (Foss Hill Road, Albion, ME 04910; catalog free) offers two promising new radishes, both reported to be more heat tolerant than their predecessors. "Red Beret" is a large, round, red radish, "Spring Song" is a Japanese type with long tapered white roots.

In my raised beds, radishes grow well, but because the soil heats up quickly, they bolt at the first hint of hot weather. Red Beret keeps on going without getting pithy, and Spring Song is bolt resistant. We'll see.

Forced to choose a new variety of pole lima bean because "Prizetaker" is no longer offered in Burpee's catalog, I'm going with the new "Carolina" from Vermont Bean Seed Co. (Garden Lane, Fair Haven, VT 05743; catalog free). Listed as "78 days to harvest" (as opposed to 90 for Prizetaker), the earliness will be welcome. Prizetaker had excellent flavor, but it was often mid-September before I harvested the first pods.

2. Is the new variety more nutritious or easier to grow?

A few years ago, I switched from growing all-white cauliflower to planting some white and some purple. (The purple varieties may sound odd, but the curds turn an appetizing pale green when lightly steamed.) Because the purple varieties are more heat resistant than the white and don't require tying to protect the heads from sunlight, they're easier to grow.

This season I'll replace the white ones with "Orange Bouquet," a new hybrid cauliflower, also from Johnny's Selected Seeds. The orange heads contain more vitamin A (betacarotene) than white varieties, and sunlight actually enhances the color, so tying isn't recommended.

3. Does a new variety provide an interesting color choice or variation without reducing the vigor, productivity or flavor of the current type I'm growing?

All America Selections winner "Bright Lights" Swiss chard would seem to fit that bill. Taste and texture are reportedly superior to older varieties, but I'd grow Bright Lights for its beauty alone. Stems are multicolored: bright orange, yellow, pale pink, white, purple and crimson red. Leaves range from light to dark green.

So lovely is this new Swiss chard in the pictures that it could well double as an ornamental, either potted or as a companion to bedding flowers.

With a penchant for eggplant - I feature them in container gardens on our deck, mixed with herbs, vines and annuals - the new "Bandera" from Thompson & Morgan Inc. (P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527; catalog free) will be among my 1998 seed orders. Fruits are creamy white, striped with maroon and said to be free of bitterness (most varieties are, if picked early enough).

Unappealing to me is Burpee's new "Ruby Queen" sweet corn. It looks like bright red Indian corn in the catalog, and I'm skeptical of any new sweet corn variety whose description mentions color before flavor. Clearly, Burpee's priorities are different from mine on this one, although I'm sure some adventurous gardeners will try it, just to be first.