Downloading the Garden

Master gardener Paul James explains the benefits of shopping online.
Purple Spring Flower

Purple Spring Flower

Online shopping is a great way to find just the right spring-flowering bulbs for your garden.

Online shopping is a great way to find just the right spring-flowering bulbs for your garden.

The internet has opened up a whole new world for gardeners. With just a few clicks, you can plan something as simple as how to plant a tree, to something as esoteric as how many months the seeds of most maple trees must be stored at 40 degrees F to ensure proper germination (three months).

"But the internet offers gardeners much more than mere information. It's also a dynamite source of cool products, which is why it's one of my favorite places to shop," says master gardener Paul James. "In fact, websites often features products long before they reach retail shelves and plants that you simply won't find at most conventional retail outlets, whether nurseries or home and garden centers. As a result, I figure that as many as 30 percent of the plants in my landscape came from internet sites. Most are evergreens, because that happens to be one of my favorite plant groups and because local retailers simply don't stock enough choices of choice evergreens." The same is true of spring-flowering bulbs and heirloom vegetable seeds because there are so many more choices available.

The Best Heirloom Veggies

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Lemon Cucumber

Introduced in 1894, lemon cucumber is a taste treat worth trying. The yellow skin with green stripes is smooth, not bitter. Flesh has an almost sweet crunch and makes wonderful pickles. Pick fruits just as they’re turning yellow and lemon-sized for fresh eating, or wait until they reach tennis ball size to use them in the salad bowl.

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'Mortgage Lifter' Tomato

This bruiser hails from 1940s West Virginia, where auto mechanic Radiator Charlie Byles started breeding tomatoes in a bid to create a large-fruited plant he could sell. 'Mortgage Lifter' was the result. By selling tomato seedlings for $1, Charlie paid off his $6,000 mortgage. These large, indeterminate plants need hefty stakes to support the fruit-laden vines. Tomatoes are pink with a sweet taste, perfect for fresh eating, sandwiches and canning. Expect up to a bushel of tomatoes per plant.

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'Blue Hubbard' Squash

For fans of winter squash, 'Blue Hubbard' is one of the standards. The teardrop-shaped fruits typically weigh 15 to 40 pounds and keep well into winter. Flesh is golden and fine-grained (no strings). The sweet flavor enhances pies, baked goods and savory dishes like soup or chili. A sea captain delivered seeds for this squash to Massachusetts gardener Elizabeth Hubbard in 1798. In 1842, she shared seeds with a local seedsman. 'Blue Hubbard' first appeared in seed catalogs in 1909.

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'Jimmy Nardello' Sweet Pepper

A Southern Italian coastal town, Ruoti, gave rise to this sweet frying pepper when immigrant Giuseppe Nardiello brought seeds to America with him in 1887. His son Jimmy followed in his father’s gardening footsteps and proliferated the seedline. 'Jimmy Nardello' peppers are red, up to 10 inches long and thin-walled, which makes them ideal for frying. They also taste great raw or pickled.

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'Forellenschluss' ('Trout Back') Lettuce

Toss a colorful salad by adding Forellenschluss lettuce to your garden. This pretty, maroon-speckled romaine is also known as 'Freckles' or 'Trout Back lettuce' (Forellenschluss means “speckled like a trout” in German). Plants grow best in cool weather and yield the luxuriously delicate texture and flavor of a butterhead. 'Trout Back' lettuce dates to 1660 in Holland; the seeds hit American shores in the 1790s.

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'Padron' Pepper

'Padron' pepper has a long history in Galicia, Sprain, where the fruits headline in tapas (appetizer) bars. Locals saute peppers in olive oil with a sprinkle of sea salt. This simple preparation lets the smoky flavor shine. Pick fruits at 1 to 1.5 inches long. Heat occurs erratically in 'Padron' peppers, but you’ll increase the fire if you let fruits grow to 2 to 3 inches long, ripen from green to red, or allow plants to experience stress such as drought or high temperatures.

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'Trionfo Violetto' Bean

Trionfo Violetto translates from Italian as “purple triumph,” which aptly describes this pole bean. Vines bear lavender flowers, green leaves with purple veins and stems and 7- to 10-inch purple bean pods. Plants bear heavily. Vines are ornamental and easily fit into non-food production areas. Whether you’re feeding a family or putting up for winter eating, you’ll have more than enough beans when you plant 'Trionfo Violetto'. Beans turn green when cooked.

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'Glory of Enkhuizen' Cabbage

If you’re a sauerkraut fan, you should plant 'Glory of Enkhuizen' cabbage. Plants produce medium-large, hard, round heads that weigh upwards of 15 pounds at maturity. The solid heads don’t split easily and store well. This Dutch cabbage was introduced in 1899. After harvest, heap mulch over the cabbage stem left in the garden, and you might be rewarded with smaller heads.

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'Moon and Stars' Watermelon

Choose 'Moon and Stars' watermelon if you need to feed a crowd, because these fruits range from 20 to 50 pounds. The dark green skin has yellow mottling that calls to mind a nighttime sky. Leaves are also yellow-mottled. Flesh can be red, pink or yellow. This heirloom was introduced in 1924 and was believed to be extinct until a seedsaver shared seed in 1981.

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'Bull’s Blood' Beet

Discover one of the most versatile heirloom veggies: 'Bull’s Blood' beet. This beauty is prized for its deep red-purple leaves, which make a terrific spinach substitute. The roots are delicious when picked young (2 to 3 inches) and boast concentric pink rings inside. Baby leaves are ready for harvest 35 days from planting; roots, 55 days. This heirloom was introduced in 1840 by a Dutch seedsman.

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'Ronde de Nice' Squash

Generations of French have tended this heirloom squash, harvesting fruits when they have a 3-inch diameter (just larger than a golf ball). The flesh has a nutty flavor. Thin skins mean fruits bruise easily; handle with care. Plants yield heavily, and fruits freeze well. Stuff larger squash for an entrée that turns heads.

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'Dragon Tongue' Bush Bean

A Dutch heirloom, 'Dragon Tongue' bush bean boasts many uses. To enjoy it as a fresh snap bean, pick the flat pods when they shift from lime green to yellow with purple stripes. The colorful hues fade during cooking. To harvest as a shell bean, let pods fully mature then remove the dark mottled light brown beans. Pods grow to 7 inches long.

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'Amish Paste' Tomato

Many gardeners view 'Amish Paste' tomato as the best tomato for making tomato sauce. Fruit are blocky and vary in shape from oval to oxheart. They’re larger than a typical Roma and juicier, too. You can slice 'Amish Paste' onto sandwiches or use the crop for canning. This heirloom tomato hails from an Amish community in Wisconsin.

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'French Breakfast' Radish

The 'French Breakfast' radish first appeared in American seed catalogs in the late 1800s. Roots boast an oblong shape, 1.5 to 2 inches long. Scarlet tops contrast with white root tips. Plants grow fast, ripening in 20 to 30 days. Pick some of the leaves to enhance salads. This French radish lacks the bite common to its radish cousins.

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'Chantenay Red Core' Carrot

Select this 'Chantenay Red Core' carrot if you garden in the South or have heavy or rocky soil. This 1929 variety resists splitting and forking, even in rocky soil. Roots are 5 to 7 inches long with gold-orange flesh and a red center. Carrots store well and are a good choice for juicing or eating out of hand.

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'Yellow Pear' Tomato

You may grow 'Yellow Pear' tomato for the fun shape, but you’ll keep growing it because of the fantastic flavor. The pear-shaped tomatoes have a mild, sweet, fresh flavor that tastes great fresh, in preserves or in marmalade. Once plants start bearing, they don’t stop until frost. Tomatoes average 1.5 inches long and split with abundant moisture. Gather fruit if several days of rain are in the forecast. 'Yellow Pear' appeared in a 1916 Burpee catalog.

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In many cases, the internet companies are catalog companies as well. It's sometimes nice to view a printed catalog before placing an order. "While some sites may offer beautiful pictures and lengthy detailed plant descriptions, others, especially those that deal in rare and unusual or hard to find plants, may offer only a brief description and no pretty pictures at all. So you want to make sure you do your homework on any pretty plants you plan on buying from them."

Another great thing about websites is that many of them offer fairly large plants, unlike most catalog companies, which rarely ship anything larger than say, a 4-inch to one-gallon pot. "However, realize that large plants — unless shipped bare-root — can cost you a small fortune," he says. "In fact, the shipping costs can exceed the cost of the plant itself. Still, it may be worth it if it's the only way to acquire a prized plant."

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