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Mesclun, Petunias Coming Up Winners in Field

March 15, 1997|From Associated Press

Mesclun and petunias are the National Garden Bureau's choice for 1997 vegetable and flower of the year.

Mesclun, sometimes known as designer greens, are the rage for health-conscious Americans, says the bureau. It is a term for mixes of tender young lettuces and other greens, with lettuce the most common among eight to 16 plants.

"Although the ingredients in mesclun are varied, all mescluns are noted for their tasty combinations of flavors, colors and textures," says the bureau.

"Lettuce has been cultivated and used as a herbal medicine as well as an edible since as early as 500 B.C. when it was known to be cultivated in the royal gardens of Persian monarchs. Thus it is one of the oldest of our vegetables."

The four types of lettuce are looseleaf, cos (romaine), butterhead and crisphead. Lettuce (Lactuca satica) is an annual or biennial member of the Chicorum tribe of the Compositae family.

Mesclun is best-suited for cool weather but can be kept growing during hot summer weather by frequent planting and prompt harvest. The hotter the weather, the more shade is needed.

"Many gardeners choose to pick mesclun just before they eat, serving it simply with only a bit of light vinaigrette dressing," the bureau reports.

"Harvested while still very young, the small leaves combine with simple salad dressing to make scrumptious summer salads. When stir-fried or wilted in a bit of butter or hot oil, mesclun makes a delicious addition to fresh vegetable dishes or pastas."

The bureau also suggests making successive plantings and harvesting when the plants are 2 inches tall. It says wide-row planting and sowing in small areas will reduce tendencies to bolt.

Lettuce is loaded with vitamin A and also is high in potassium, yet contains a negligible amount of calories.

The bureau describes the petunia as "without a doubt one of the most popular flowers ever to grace our gardens. Whether edging a flower bed, covering a bare area like a ground cover, spilling out of a container or trailing from a hanging basket, petunias keep the gardening season at its most colorful from late spring to fall."

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At the beginning of this century, breeders in Japan began researching petunias and in 1934 the Sakata Seed Corp. is credited with breeding the first consistently fully double petunia.

Petunias are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes relatives such as tomatoes, peppers and nicotiana. Many have a light, sweet fragrance. Types include multiflora, grandiflora, floribunda and miliflora.

Petunias do best in a light, rich soil that has good drainage. The bureau recommends amending the soil by digging in compost or peat moss before planting.

"Plan to sow the seed indoors 8 to 12 weeks before the average frost date. Fill a shallow container with a commercial seed starting mix. Moisten the mix and let it drain. Tap the seeds out of the packet gently, trying to get even distribution. Do not cover the seeds. They need light to germinate. Cover the flat with a sheet of clear plastic-wrap. Set the flat in a warm, bright location or under grow lights," the bureau says.

Seedlings emerge in 10 to 14 days. Keep the mix evenly moist by watering from the bottom.

Seedlings are large enough to handle when they have two sets of leaves.

They can be planted outdoors when the weather and soil have warmed up -- about the time you plant impatiens and peppers.

The bureau recommends fertilizing the plants monthly with a balanced fertilizer.

"Because they're quite drought tolerant, petunias seldom need daily watering other than what they receive in rain. In prolonged periods of drought, however, watch that the soil doesn't get too dry."

Founded 76 years ago, the bureau describes itself as a nonprofit educational service of the home-garden seed industry. Most major retail and wholesale seed companies are members.

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