Container gardening: A variety of vegetables can thrive in the smallest of spaces

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Winter may not be the most aerobic season for a gardener, but the index finger gets a good workout as the catalogues arrive in the mail. They're irresistible to flip through, with their bright colors and extravagant claims of flavor and bounty.

There are always several vegetable varieties that crop up as novelties in one catalogue after another. One I noticed this year was Naked Bear Pumpkin (from Territorial Seed and elsewhere). Stealing the show from the older Lady Godiva, it's a nice little baking pumpkin with naked seeds — that is, without the fibrous hull — so that you can roast them with salt and oil for a tender, tasty snack.

Another was Depurple cauliflower, which confused me a bit. I'd guessed the name was a pun on "deep purple," but Syngenta, the biotech giant that bred it, presented it as pink, to commemorate breast-cancer awareness. Burpee and others claim that it "holds color when cooked" — unlike other purple cauliflowers. We'll see. The florets have very white stems, so it would be pretty when served raw.

One new variety I'd hoped to find was a melon called Magenta, a hybrid of the classic French Charentais melon, with much-touted flavor, aroma and a blazing color somewhere between cantaloupe orange and watermelon red. Osborne Seed in Washington state sells it, but — too bad for me — only to the western United States.

I also look for trends. Vegetables designed for patio gardens seem more abundant than ever. Whether you cultivate the urban jungle, have a shady yard with one tiny, sunny spot, or are just too busy to grow big, there's quite a bit you can do with a garden of pots, planters and whiskey barrels.

One business that has always looked out for space-challenged folk is Renee's Garden, the seed company of legendary business executive, gardener and cook Renee Shepherd. You'll probably find her seeds on their own rack at your local independent nursery or garden center, with handsome watercolors of each variety on their packets. Ones labeled "container" include Little Prince eggplant, Bush Slicer cucumber, Garden Babies Butterhead lettuce, Pot of Gold chard and Pizza My Heart peppers — all bred for restrained, compact growth.

Sometimes a catalogue will group together several such varieties in a collection, such as Burpee's Patio Container Garden, which offers Spacemaster cucumber, Salad Bowl leaf lettuce, Patio Princess tomato and a productive dwarf bean called Mascotte. Look for interesting mixtures too, such as the gorgeous lettuces in Wild Garden Seed's Jewel Box Mix, with "small-leaf, densely heading plants with hearts of ruby, emerald, bloodstone and topaz." Or Park Seed's compact Mini Romaine Blend.

When choosing plant varieties, it pays to read the fine print. A squash with "baby" or "personal-size" fruits may grow on compact plants— or on the normal, sprawling, wandering, garden-engulfing kind.

Park Seed offers Patio Pride Pea, with each vine growing to just 24 inches and bearing as many as 30 pods. Park's dwarf Red Robin cherry tomato will grow in something as small as a six-inch pot or share a hanging basket with a few others. Stokes Seeds has a hybrid grape tomato called Tidy Treats that bears "tons of amazing cherry-sized fruit on a very compact plant."

Both Stokes and Harris Seeds sell an ornamental popcorn called Cherry Berry that grows on five- to six-foot stalks. It's an improved version of the popular heirloom Strawberry, with beautiful dark-red ears and red-streaked husks. I can imagine a row of them in a long planter, either free-standing or backed up by the wall of the house.

It may seem odd to contemplate even a well-behaved corn crop on a patio. But there is another way to approach this container-gardening business, and that's to sow a few standard-size favorites and see what happens. I once had a squash plant that scaled a seven-foot lattice fence, crept stealthily through a shrub border on the other side and then arrived unannounced on the lawn. I got much more fun out of it than I did from its better-behaved neighbors.

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