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What if Versace Did Vegetables?

As spring approaches, the seed companies begin clamoring to provide new and fascinating things. Like fashion designers, they send their latest creations down the catalog runways. And like the annual parades of haute couture, these new fruits and vegetables are designed to stir excitement and desire in the hearts of consumers.

This year, the catalogs are going to be hard to resist. They have gone over the top with color, from red-flecked romaine and deep-purple cauliflower to ivory-white cherry tomatoes. And petite is the size to be, whether it's a thumb-size carrot or bonsai apple tree. True, they are outrageous bids for attention, the vegetable equivalent of a Versace neckline. But sometimes, even the outrageous can be functional.

Take the purple cauliflower. The gardener does not have to cover the head to protect it and keep it white; it needs sun to develop the most vivid hue. And the cook does not have to watch it turn an ordinary green on the stove top, a typical disappointment with colored vegetables. This cauliflower keeps its color, though it will be a little more blue after steaming.

Developed in Europe, the purple cauliflower, called Graffiti, was chosen for the Johnny's Selected Seeds catalog through the company's vegetable trial program. Each year Johnny's plants 2,000 to 3,000 different new flowers, herbs and vegetables from around the world in its experimental gardens. Steve Bellavia of Johnny's research department said the company looked for the most interesting or flavorful varieties, and those that will thrive in the Northeast. About 50 varieties make the cut each year.

Some of the selections - the new Diva cucumber, for instance, an all-female variety that needs no pollination and is seedless - are developed through crossbreeding. It took eight generations and truckloads of cucumbers to produce the Diva, which is the All- America Selection featured in this year's catalog.

Shaping new crops can be a serendipitous venture, too. A superproductive miniature apple tree from Miller Nurseries began with a trip to British Columbia, where John Miller, a third-generation plantsman from Canandaigua, N.Y., spotted a columnar apple tree with a profusion of spurs, the parts of the tree where the fruit forms. By grafting this variety onto New York State-grown dwarfing rootstock, his company developed a tree that grows a mere 6 to 8 feet tall and 2 feet wide.

This summer Mr. Miller expects to harvest a basketful of apples from just one diminutive 6-year-old tree in his backyard. Last year's crop would have been just as bountiful, but deer did the harvesting.

Shepherd Ogden of the Cook's Garden first saw the startling white cherry tomato at Maggie's Tomato Patch, a grower in Burlington, Vt. He got a couple of plants from Maggie Randolph, a tomato fanatic. She had bought her seeds from Marianna's Heirloom Seeds in Dickson, Tenn., a small family business specializing in rare Italian cooking tomatoes, which, in turn, had gotten its seeds from yet another collector.

And so over five or six years the Mirabelle Blanche made its way from one enthusiast's garden to another's and finally to the Broadway of catalogs, the Cook's Garden. Mirabelle would make a striking salad in late summer, when the predominant harvest colors are red, green and yellow.

Small is the operative word on today's gardening and culinary scene, where there is increasing interest in bite-sized vegetables. Thumbelina is - what else? - a thumb-size carrot from Shepherd's Garden Seeds. This round sweet carrot is easy to grow, since it does not require the deep spadework essential for traditional varieties like Nevis, which need 12 to 14 inches of loosened, turned-over soil to yield properly formed straight roots. Thumbelina is smooth-skinned and supposedly needs no peeling. It would make a clever addition to a pickling repertory.

The salad greens are the Bill Blass section of the garden, rows of classics with a novel twist. One of the most eye-catching is the Freckles romaine lettuce introduced this year by R. H. Shumway. The bright green leaves are splashed with dark red, and would make a truly standout Caesar.

For some novelty on the veggie dip platter, the Yellowstone hybrid carrots from the J. W. Jung Seed Company are a true lemon yellow. They are full-size Imperator types, meaning that they are long and pointed, shaped like the traditional image of what a carrot should look like. Well, after a dip in a paint bucket.

For terrace gardeners, Burpee has a new leafy green, Zen Oriental. It resembles collards but, the company says, surpasses them with larger, milder, more tender leaves and less stem.

The short, compact plant, which does not reach 12 inches in height, produces a bounty of harvestable leaves in 30 days. Another bonus is its resistance to flowering in summer heat, a distinct advantage when plants like lettuce and spinach grown for their greenery are no longer producing new leaves and the old ones are turning to leather as they flower under the midsummer sun.

As a final suggestion, you might consider a new accessory, the Paper PotMaker from Shepherd's. Then, when you are finished with this article, you could cut the page into strips, roll them around the PotMaker's mandrel, fold the ends under, press them into the base of the PotMaker, and thereby acquire simple, serviceable starter pots.

The little pots stand up surprisingly well to watering, but you will need to set them in a plastic tray once they are filled with soil and you have planted your seeds, because some liquid will seep out at the bottom.

Most people plant their seeds six weeks before the last expected frost date in their area. Mr. Ogden of the Cook's Garden goes a step further and suggests that plants started a week or two later will be stronger and more compact. "Wait a little longer, it's not going to hurt you," is his advice.

When the seedlings are ready for transferring to the garden, just stick each whole pot in a hole, and the plants will keep growing without the roots ever being disturbed. Your veggies will be off to a remarkably good start. Talk about recycling.

My estimate is that, not using the magazine section, whose paper doesn't dissolve properly in the garden, you could get 300 to 500 pots out of one Sunday Times.

Seed Sources
Here are some good sources for unusual seeds:

Burpee, Warminster, Pa , Warminster, Pa.; (800) 888-1447.

The Cook's Garden Order Center , Hodges, S.C.; (800) 457-9703.

Johnny's Selected Seeds , Albion, Me.; (207) 437-4301.

J. W. Jung Seed Company , Randolph, Wis.; (800) 247- 5864.

J. E. Miller Nurseries, Canandaigua, N.Y.; (800) 836- 9630.

Marianna's Heirloom Seeds, Dickson, Tenn.; (615) 446- 9191.

Shepherd's Garden Seeds , Torrington, Conn.; (800) 503- 9624.

R. H. Shumway Seedsman , Graniteville, S.C.; (803) 663- 9771.

The New York Times
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