Q: What green beans do you like best?
A: I have become a fan of filet beans, those long, skinny beans that originated in France. Growing to 6 or 7 inches long, they are usually picked when about as big around as a pencil, although they are still tender and stringless if forgotten for a day or two longer. I find the flavor delectable.
For several years I have been growing the filet pole bean called Emerite. It was some days earlier than other pole bean varieties, with superior flavor, production, and tenderness. I determined never to grow any other pole bean.
Then, as so often happens with seeds, Emerite vanished from the catalogs this year. After I finished my tantrum of frustration, I gritted my teeth and looked over the available kinds of pole bean seed. I decided that Fortex, which is available on several lists, should be similar to what I had been growing. I will be planting Fortex this year.
Last year Venture, the bush bean that I had grown for years, disappeared from the seed lists. So I tried out the first bush type filet bean that I had seen. It is called Maxibel. The seed is available from several sources, and I liked it so well last year that I will grow it again and not experiment further.
For gardeners interested in yellow or purple beans, the first filet beans in those colors are now on the market.
While I am still on the subject of frustration about seeds, my experiment with growing a full-sized head of lettuce as a winter house plant was a failure. I have given up that idea and have returned to growing pots of microgreens instead. They are dependably quick and successful even in midwinter.
Q: I have some seeds left over from last year. Is it okay to plant them for this year's garden?
A: Like so many questions, the answer to this one begins with "that depends." Since all seeds are alive, all of them are aging, but they age at different rates. Vegetable seeds with the shortest lifespans include corn, lettuce, onion, parsley, and parsnip. My experience has taught me not to keep corn or onion seeds for even a second year. Some will germinate, but the percentage drops dramatically. What is worse, in my opinion, is that the surviving plants may not be as healthy as expected. I do plant lettuce and parsley seeds a second year without noticeable problems.
Seeds that live as long as five years in storage include members of the cabbage family, carrots, and cucumbers. Vegetable seeds with the longest lifespans - up to ten years -are radishes and tomatoes. Throughout the years of gardening, I have established a conservative rule for my own garden: save no seed more than two years. There are too many variables affecting the health of seeds besides their chronological age. For example, I grow hybrid bell peppers and have learned not to save their seed for a second year. I think that hybrid seeds have shorter lifespans than open-pollinated ones.
Seeds live longest if they are cold and dry. The world's most complete seed bank for agricultural seeds keeps them buried in tunnels carved in the permafrost of northern Norway. Some years ago a U.S. Navy experiment found that seeds aged slowly when stored at a base in Antarctica. To achieve the best storage conditions I can manage in my home, I store seed packets in closed containers in the freezer.
I probably could save some kinds of seed longer, but I know from experience that some varieties deteriorate faster than the longevity lists predict. I get only one chance a year to grow each vegetable from seed. I do not want to lose that chance by gambling on old seed. The stakes are high and I do not want to risk losing any vegetable for a whole season.
Q: What are the advantages of growing vegetables with colored leaves, like red lettuce and purple cabbage? More flavor? More nutrients?
A: There is only one advantage to plants with red or purple leaves, whether they are vegetables or flowers. People like to look at them; therefore gardeners like to grow them. These leaves are rich in the chemicals called anthocyanins.
Red or purple leaves have no known advantage to a plant; on the contrary, extra energy is required to produce those leaf colors. The plants grow more slowly because they are spending some of their energy in making anthocyanins. If you look around at a wild landscape, there is almost never a red or purple leafed plant visible. They occur only when gardeners have perpetuated the color that first appeared in a natural mutation. In any uncultivated area the plants with colored leaves die out, unable to compete with the stronger green leaves.
Q: A seed list labels cucumbers as monoecious and gynoecious. Does it matter which kind of seed I plant?
A: Both kinds will produce good cucumbers, but by trying them out you will develop a preference. Monoecious (pronounced ma-KNEE-shuss) cucumbers are the old standard varieties. They have male flowers with pollen and female flowers that each develop a cucumber. The plants need bees to carry pollen from the male flowers to the female ones, and that occurs only when the weather is good enough for bees to be flying.
Gynoecious (pronounced guy-KNEE-shuss) cucumbers are hybrids, which have only female flowers but still need pollinating. Seed packets contain a few seeds with male flowers to guarantee pollen. Gynoecious cucumbers often bear earlier fruit than monoecious types. They also are less susceptible to bitterness.
A third kind of cucumber - parthenocarpic - is now widely grown. These cucumbers are thin-skinned, nearly seedless, hardy in cool weather, and never bitter. They need not be pollinated at all, and they are my favorites.
A group of gardeners in the Bitterroot, members of the O'Hara Sustainability Center, are building a seed exchange. They are collecting seeds for vegetables grown in this area for many years. These strains are often called landraces, since they have developed to be particularly successful in a particular landscape.
The seed exchange has about 50 vegetable varieties so far, including three strains of carrot seed carefully grown in isolation from other strains. The seeds are not for sale, but are free to members of the O'Hara Center. Individual memberships are $20 annually.
The group has created an information sheet for gardeners interested in growing pure seed strains for the seed exchange. The sheet explains how to grow seeds without allowing accidental cross-pollination with other varieties of the same vegetable.
The website is www.theoharacommons.org.