Forget winter by sunbathing in the splendor of fresh garden catalogs, where pages bloom with bright, blemish-free veggie beauties and gardens flaunt their riches.
This year's collection offers a wealth of hot, new colors, sizes that push the top and bottom out of ordinary and surgical grafting, so dive in and forget the sub-zero thing happening outside.
R.H. Shumway Seedsman, a Wisconsin seed company tracing back to 143 years, is among those offering 'Indigo Rose' tomato, touted as the healthiest in the world.
Bred at Oregon State University, 'Indigo Rose' is the first tomato with high levels of anthocyanin, a naturally-occurring pigment shown to fight disease in humans. The tomatoes are two-inches in diameter, purple and red on the outside depending on the light, and rich red on the inside.
Gardens Alive! offers grafted 'Indigo Rose' tomato plants, as well as grafted heirlooms including 'Mortgage Lifter', 'Brandywine' and 'San Marzano' paste.
Grafted vegetables, long popular in Asia and Europe, are finding favor with Wisconsin gardeners for their vigor, excellent root systems and disease resistance, which sets the stage for stronger plants and earlier, bigger harvests.
Jung offers a dozen grafted tomato varieties, two peppers and an eggplant named Dusky, while Gurneys has three grafted heirloom tomatoes. Territorial Seed Company lists six grafted tomato varieties, two peppers and an eggplant named Rosa Bianca.
Territorial has pushed the space-saving envelope with a set of double grafted tomatoes, wherein two tomato varieties are grafted onto a single rootstock.
Their bestselling combo, 'Brandywine/Grande Marzano', combines a heralded heirloom and a popular roma, while 'Sungold/Sweet Million' combines two of the company's most popular cherry tomatoes.
Happily, for folks who tried grafting their own tomatoes last year and got overly-exuberant vegetation and little fruit, Johnny's Seed Company has added two new grafting rootstocks.
Both 'Estamino' and 'DR0138TX' put a higher proportion of energy into the fruit over leaves and shoots, for less pruning and higher yields.
The world's largest sauce tomato, 'SuperSauce', is now available from Burpee. The hybrid "roma with aroma" plumps to more than five inches tall and wide and weighs in around two pounds. A single tomato reportedly fills an entire sauce jar.
Gurney is the source for 'Orange Whoppers'. Heralded for heirloom flavor and hybrid productivity, the vibrant orange beefsteaks will grow up to 1.5 pounds apiece. A counterpart could be 'Ruby Monster', a beefy, intensely red variety with old-fashioned, tangy flavor and fruit that tops a pound apiece.
Giant sunflowers are always happy punctuation marks in the garden. They make a terrific screen, impress children of all ages and have heads brimming with tasty, high protein seeds for folks and fowl. Try 'Giant Grey-Stripe' for a 78-day version that grows 8-12 feet tall with heads up to 20 inches across.
For a hedge of smiles, try Jung's "Waooh!" sunflowers. They grow three bushy feet tall and are covered with blooms for weeks, starting mid- to late summer when other sunflowers are beginning to fade. The blooming hedge will be covered with pollen-free, four-inch flowers of classic golden yellow with dark centers.
Stevia will surprise you with its sweetness, but it has been used in Asian cultures for decades, prized for its health benefits. The herb, zoned 5-8, is used to sweeten beverages and food.
Burpee has developed 'HoneyDip' stevia, labeled the "sweetest of the sweet". They suggest picking the short-stemmed leaves off the three-foot-tall plants, sun-drying and storing them powdered in an air-tight container for later use.
'Kossak Giant' kohlrabis are inspiring plants that perch atop the soil with their feathered hats and garner comments galore. The chubby bulbs bulk up to 10 inches across, double that of other varieties, yet keep their tender nature and delicate flavor.
We eat them raw, peeled and sliced with a bit of salt, but our neighbors love them cooked, mashed and buttered. Winter shouldn't come, they say, without tubs of peeled, sliced 'kohlies' waiting in the freezer.
On the other end of the size spectrum are succulent baby leaf lettuces. One highlight of the 18 pages Johnny's has devoted to lettuce is three new 'Salanova' salad mixes.
The patented, pelleted seeds can be grown like head lettuce and prepared with one cut of the included free cutter. Expect 40 percent greater yield over traditional baby leaf blends, better flavor and shelf life, and less labor to grow and harvest, the company says.
There is also mini-head lettuces that mature early and produce lots. A 10-foot section of a 4.5-foot bed can reportedly produce 360 of the single-serving heads versus 40 full-size heads. Try 'Red Butterhead', 'Red' or 'Green Bibb', including a unique bibb-romaine.
'Lunch Box' peppers are also fresh from Johnny's breeding program. The colorful snack-size peppers are "remarkably sweet and flavorful", turning red, yellow or orange in less than 83 days. They grow 2.5 inches wide and between 1-3 inches long, the perfect size for lunch boxes.
Johnny also offers 21 different varieties of basil, ranging from pesto types and Sweet Thai to citrus, fine leaf and purple. 'Bouquet Mix' offers a range of specialty basils for vases, garnishes, salads and stir-fries, while 'Dark Opal' is an AAS winner touted for garnishes and cut flower use.
Burpee continues the purple theme with 'Masquerade', an eye-catching bicolor potato with purple and tan markings. The high-yielding variety, for home garden use only pending plant variety protection, is labeled perfect for baking, mashing or roasting.
Totally purple potatoes, inside and out, are the calling card for 'Purple Majesty', available from Gurney. The rich color signals very high levels of anthocyanins, which the company says makes the tubers as nutritious as they are delicious.
Gardens Alive! is among those offering seed especially for microgreens, such as organic mustard, arugala, cress, black chai and tat soi mustard. The seeds are sprouted and eaten as young seedlings before the first true leaves appear, usually in five to 14 days.
Microgreens offer intense flavor and high levels of concentrated active compounds, and studies show they contain up to four times more nutrients than found in mature plants. They can be used as garnish and to add zest to salads, sandwiches and soups.
Continue the little theme with Jung's unique "Baby Boom' zucchini, newly bred to pump out oodles of matching, mini-size 3-5 inch dark green fruits; or 'Sugar Cube', a four-inch personal size melon with deep orange flesh and a 14 percent Brix sweetness reading.
Fresh in the sweet corn category is 'On Deck Hybrid', a 61-day supersweet variety from Burpee bred specifically for containers. The plants stand less than five feet tall and produce two or three 7-8 inch bicolor ears per stalk.
'Patio Snacker' cucumber, available from Territorial, is also great for containers. It stays within a 24-36 inch radius, yet will produce as big a harvest as its larger brethren. The crunchy, flavorful cukes grow two inches wide and less than seven inches long.
Several companies feature space and labor-saving potato planters. Shumway lists woven polyethylene bags with webbed handles, porous seams for drainage, and room for 40 liters of compost or soil. The bags are tipped on their side to harvest, then wiped clean and folded flat for the next season.
Speaking of season, Burpee is the source for 'Sun King' broccoli, a new 71-day hybrid that promises a remarkably long, quality harvest that runs from spring right through fall. It reportedly has unrivaled heat tolerance, 6-8 inch diameter heads and abundant side shoots.
High-quality, homegrown table grapes can be a reality in Wisconsin with Somerset, bred by Elmer Swenson from Osceola, and newly offered by Jung. Zoned 4-8, the "earliest, sweetest, hardiest and highest quality red seedless grape available" has a strawberry-like flavor and is reportedly superb for fresh eating, juice and jelly.
Then, for sheer fun, consider the Drunken Botanist Cocktail Garden Starter Kit from Territorial. Inspired by Amy Stewart, best-selling author of Wicked Plants, Flower Confidential and The Earth Moved, the kit includes 'Cuban Mojito' mint, tiny Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers and "the ultimate swizzle stick", 'Redventure' celery.