The University of Maine is making a bit of a splash, with two new potatoes it developed for sale in catalogs this year. As an alumnus, it gave me a quick jolt of pride.

While spending the winter’s first snowy day perusing our 6-inch stack of gardening catalogs, I noticed Caribou Russet first in the Pinetree Garden Seeds catalog. Johnny’s Selected Seeds had both Caribou Russet and Pinto Gold.

Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said that both varieties are in catalogs for the first time this year – although the russet is further along in its development.

“Pinto Gold is still sort of in the trial stage,” Flannery said, “and they haven’t quite decided what to do with it.”

Caribou Russet is designed as an improvement to the widely used Russet Burbank. Caribou matures about 10 days earlier than Burbank, Flannery said. It has a more uniform shape, gets a big yield and has shown good disease resistance in initial tests. It tastes good both baked and mashed, and has done very well in its initial frying tests, which is important if only because Russet Burbank is McDonald’s favorite French fry potato. There are more tests to do, Flannery said, including tests on how it stores.

Pinto Gold is a specialty/gourmet potato, for a niche market. It has red skin and splashy yellow eyes that look unusual and attractive when the potato is baked and served whole. The flesh is light yellow and has a creamy texture.

White Flower Farm, an upscale Connecticut company, is offering Pinto Gold not only as regular seed potatoes but also as an option to buy with potato bags, which are used to grow potatoes on a patio or deck.

Although Flannery sees a future for these introductions, they won’t show up in his own garden. He is a traditionalist, who prefers the flavor of Superior, Katahdin and Dark Red Norland.

While I spent quite a bit of time looking at the catalog for Fedco, a seed cooperative based in Waterville, I am nowhere near finished reading its 160 pages of small type. Every page carries a surprise – in the form of groan-worthy puns, delightful drawings, and treatises on open source seeds and the failure to win approval for GMO labeling around the country. The catalog also contains an essay and other snippets on microbes, including how to battle late blight.

In a letter to readers, CR Lawn, the founder of Fedco, said that the only new seed that rated multiple mentions in a survey he and two top staffers fill out as they begin to plan the catalog was Baltisk Rod Purpurkal kale. Fedco received seed from a supplier in Sweden in 2008, before kale was as trendy is it is now, and this is the first year it had enough to sell.

The catalog praises the “deep psychedelic dark green and purple-red shades these frilly curled leaves take on as the autumnal chill deepens.” Order quickly if you want it, because it will run out.

Trials supervisor Heron (Like Madonna, he seems to have only one name, at least in the catalog) praised Top Hat, an open-pollinated sweet corn that an Oregon breeder developed with a grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation. At a time when supersweet corns have taken over, this has “full corny flavor with enough sweetness.”

One of my wife Nancy’s favorite phrases is “I’d rather be lucky than smart,” and I had some luck this year. Last year I grew black coco beans, but not enough for any serious eating. After interviewing seed-saving guru Will Bonsall, I saved the entire production. Well, the black coco is not available this year – and I have quite a bit of it saved for our own garden. The Mitla bean that I grew before Fedco stopped carrying it about five years ago – and replaced with the black coco – is back, however.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds – I wrote about their peppers last week – has a couple of interesting introductions that weren’t All America Selections. Cherry Bomb is a cherry tomato that is resistant to late blight and is ideal for organic growers. Albion is a disease-resistant strawberry that will produce fruit its first year.

Pinetree carried the flower seed that excited me most – for compact 24-inch cannas in yellow, rose and red that you can seed at home, starting indoors and putting outside once the danger of frost is past. They are supposed to blossom 90 days after sowing and continue blooming all summer.

Wood Prairie Farm, an organic grower in Aroostook County that has expanded its offerings well beyond potatoes, listed no new varieties. But it did feature a study by North Dakota State University that said Wood Prairie Farm’s seed potatoes produced the best yield and quality of any grower.

I found two interesting seeds from out-of-state catalogs. For gardeners who want sugar snap peas without having to deal with vines that grow 8 feet tall, Burpee and Vermont Bean Seed Company list Little SnapPea Crunch. It grows only 32 inches tall, is self supporting, and can be grown in containers. Burpee also is introducing Meatball Hybrid eggplant as its best substitute for meat – dense, moist, flavorful and large.

Anyway, these are the things I liked. You might like other things better. So, free up a few hours to read the catalogs. Spring will be here before you know it.

ABOUT THE WRITER

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected].writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]

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