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Seed catalogs help gardeners daydream of months ahead

Planting season in much of the country is still more than three months away. And if you're a garden enthusiast, you're probably hoping for spring even more because you're looking through all the mail-order seed catalogs, planning your garden.

One of the more popular trends to emerge this year is interest in vegetable gardening. There has been a huge response to The Cook's Garden catalog, says Kristin Grilli, spokesperson for W. Atlee Burpee & Co., parent company of Burpee Seeds, Heronswood and Cook's Garden.

The interest in vegetable gardening has a lot to do with the renewed interest in home cooking and is spurred on by the recession, she says.

At Harris Seeds in Chili, N.Y., the 130-year-old company had one of its best years ever in 2009, as more people take on gardening as a hobby.

"When the economy goes down, the interest in gardening goes up," says Harris horticulturalist Mark Greene.

There have been reports of a possible shortage of vegetable seeds in 2010 because of a poor growing season in much of the country in 2009. But George Ball, chief executive of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., one of the country's oldest and largest seed companies based in Pennsylvania, doesn't think any shortages will impact home gardeners.

Seed companies stock more than they think they need, he says. For example, Burpee sales increased by 30 percent in 2009. To sell out of seed, sales would need to increase by 80 percent this year.

Supplies are not an issue at Harris Seeds either, Greene says. "I don't think there's going to be much of a problem."

Among the new varieties is a hybrid tomato that promises all the bold flavors of heirloom varieties and a new twist on the tried-and-true Echinacea that promises more blooms. Here's a rundown of what's proving to be popular and what's new in the seed catalogs, according to company officials.

Vegetables

-- Tye-Dye hybrid tomato from Burpee. This tomato is a great choice for gardeners who enjoy heirloom tomatoes but want the ease of growing a hybrid for the disease resistance. It is a vibrant bi-color gold and red and it is supposed to deliver all the tastes of heirloom tomatoes such as the Pineapple and Georgia Steak.

-- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers a number of delicious-looking heirloom tomato seeds, but the Tomato Mushroom Basket really stands out. The large tomato has a watermelon pink color with speckles and should have a mild and sweet taste.

-- Revolution F1 Pepper from Harris Seeds of Chili. This is the No. 1 sweet bell pepper variety at Harris Seeds, says Greene. The peppers from the seeds will be large and will ripen from a glossy dark green to a brilliant red. Revolution is perfect for stuffing, roasting, freezing and fresh in salads. And, it has great disease tolerance, which helps to ensure big yields.

-- Beans are a staple in many vegetable gardens and the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog offers a Purple Queen Bush bean that gives string beans a different twist. Not only is it edible, but the plant also produces pretty mauve flowers. The burgundy bean changes to green when it is cooked.

Flowers

-- From High Country Gardens comes a new dwarf English lavender called Thumbelina Leigh. It's compact and would make a great landscape plant.

-- For something unusual, try the Helleborus x hybridus or Onyx Odyssey from Heronswood. The catalog always surprises gardeners with plants that are out of the ordinary. This hellebore has double blooms and downward-facing flowers. Best of all for this region, it is deer-resistant.

-- Just about every gardener has the popular easy-care Echinacea or coneflowers in their garden. From Harris Seeds, the Echinacea PowWow Wild Berry differs from others with its vibrant, deep rose-purple flowers that border on iridescent. Harris' trial notes indicated that it produced more blooms per plant.

If you're interested in starting from seed, Harris Seeds offers a 50-minute tutorial on its Web site at www.HarrisSeeds.com. The presentation shows the basics of seed starting for beginners.