The most popular crop grown in home gardens these days isn't neatly ornamental or even very pretty. It certainly is not handsomely fancy or frilly. It's the sun-ripened tomato, America's favorite vegetable.
Americans love tomatoes so much that more than 75 percent of the millions of backyard gardens last year were planted with some of the many varieties available.
Here are some of them: Big Boy, Better Boy, Big Girl, Early Girl, Big Early, Earlirouge, Marglobe, Supersteak, Beefsteak, Beefmaster, Ace, Maralucie, Ponderosa Pink, Whopper, Bragger, Fantastic, Terrific, Homestead, Jubilee, Delicious, Heinz 1350, New Yorker, Rutgers, Roma, Red Cherry, Patio Prize, Sugar Lump, Sweet 100, Small Fry, Tiny Tim, and Toy Boy. It's a very long list.
Many of the gardeners are looking only for better tomato flavor, but another incentive in these times of high food prices is a desire to save money by growing your own.
Tomatoes require relatively little space for large to huge production, and they often grow well under widely varying conditions, usually with a minimum of tender loving care. So once established, tomatoes are pretty tough and can take it, but they're only one of many marvelous vegetables worth growing.
Why plant a vegetable garden? The incredibly delicious flavor of just-picked vegetables is a blessing that's the home gardener's alone.
Then there's the immense satisfaction of sowing many rows of seeds or setting out dozens of seedlings and fighting the worms and bugs and the mysterious foliage diseases, all the time producing a bumper crop of vegetables that would win prizes at any county fair.
But one of the most important reasons for planting a vegetable garden today is the high cost of fresh vegetables at the supermarket. Fight back. Learn to sow.
Supermarkets sell vegetables that look beautiful, but sometimes taste rather like the cardboard boxes in which they're packed.
Many commercial crops, such as tomatoes, are picked when immature, so they never develop fine color or flavor. Good greens, including lettuce, cabbage, spinach, chard, mustard, collards, and kale are sometimes picked when fully grown and well past their flavorful prime.
Too, it never improves the quality of fresh vegetables to be hauled 500 miles or more from the growing grounds.
Some of the world's finest asparagus, for example, is grown in southern California, but much of the best of the crop goes to other parts of the United States. The truly prime asparagus is deeply chilled and shipped by air to France , West Germany, and other lucrative European markets.
Good taste is the name of the garden game. Many home gardeners like to harvest every day or every other day, catching the vegetables when they're young and tender - at the very peak of flavor.
Putting in a vegetable garden gives the gardener power, too. The home gardener has complete and absolute control over just what new-and-vastly-improved or old-fashioned-but-reliable varieties of each vegetable to plant.
The best way - the only way, really - to start a successful vegetable garden is to order a few choice seed catalogs long before it's time to plant. When the first catalog arrives in the mail, to the gardener - new or old-timer - it's almost as good as Christmas morning.
Never mind the asters, bells of Ireland, columbines, four-o'clocks, helianthemums, larkspurs, or sweet williams. Turn to the vegetables first.
Here in somewhat-flattering color are pages and pages of supervegetables apparently grown in some wonderful never-never land. No matter, it's still great fun to turn the pages, reading about the marvelous pedigrees of the beets, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, cantaloupe, sweet corn, squash, snap beans, turnips , peas, peppers, and tomatoes.
Your decisions made, fill out the order blank and mail.
Mail-order seed firms sell vegetable seeds by the packet, ounce, or sometimes the pound, and some offer preplanted seeds in a growing medium, seed tapes that only need to be covered with a layer of soil, root stock, and garden-ready plants.
One of the biggest and best of the seed companies, with a handsomely illustrated catalog that usually runs to about 180 pages, is W. Atlee Burpee Company, Warminster, Pa. 18991; Clinton, Iowa 52732; and Riverside, Calif. 92502 .
Gurney Seed & Nursery Company, Yankton, S.D. 57079, supplies an oversized color catalog of vegetables; flowers; root stock; fruit, nut, and ornamental trees; bushes; bulbs; and garden supplies. It's free. Some varieties of tomatoes are available here only.
Another informative, well-illustrated color catalog, aimed primarily at southern gardeners, although many of the vegetable and flower seeds will do equally well in other parts of the US as well, is put out by Hastings, 434 Marietta St., N.W., PO Box 4274, Atlanta, Ga. 30302.
A seed company doing business since 1876, Herbst Seedsmen Inc., offers an attractive 66-page color catalog of vegetable and garden seeds and garden supplies. All varieties of vegetables are backed up with a handy planting guide, the most all-inclusive listed in any seed catalog. Write to 1000 North Main Street, Brewster, N.Y. 10509.
A large 88-page color catalog listing many vegetables, including several unusual varieties; herbs; flowers; berries; plus fruit and ornamental trees is available from the Earl May Seed & Nursery Company, Shenandoah, Iowa 51603.
A fine selection of vegetables, flowers, prairie grasses and wildflowers, flowering grasses, strawflowers, and everlastings, as well as garden equipment is listed in a large color catalog by the Geo. W. Park Seed Company Inc., Greenwood, S.C. 29647.
One of the best-organized, most handsomely designed, and comprehensive seed catalogs around is offered by R. H. Shumway Seedsman Inc., 628 Cedar Street, PO Box 777, Rockford, Ill. 61105. Illustrations range from color photographs of nicely arranged vegetables to fascinating old black-and-white etchings of vegetables from catalogs dating back to the early 1900s.
Actually all of the illustrations are quite apropos. In the large 76-page catalog, a compendium of good plant information, are vegetable and flower seeds, bulbs, nursery stock, field seeds, and gardening supplies.
Another thick 160-page catalog with an impressive listing of vegetable and flower seeds, as well as garden equipment, is put out by Stokes Seeds Inc., 737 Main Street, Box 548, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Much of the catalog's helpful planting, growing, and harvesting information is invaluable to home gardeners, new or experienced.
While there are many other mail-order gardening firms in the US, these are some of the largest and the best.