January 22, 2020

‘Bright Lights’ Made a Splashy Debut

Bright Lights chard

Janine Pineo Photo | Bright Lights chard

• By Janine Pineo •

Give me land, lots of land.

After finishing my seed orders, I’ll need it.

I’ve scoured nearly a dozen seed catalogs and found promising newcomers along with a few previously overlooked offerings that tickled my fancy. Now my garden visions are filled with enough vegetables to satisfy any winter-induced hunger.

From Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion comes this year’s big winner: Bright Lights chard, a 1998 All-America Selections winner. This Swiss chard is as good as its name, delivering stalk colors that include deep and pastel shades of gold, pink, orange, purple and red.

Developed by an amateur breeder in New Zealand, Bright Lights is maintained by Johnny’s, which selects the colors and produces the seeds. The seed was tested throughout the country, with judges giving it high marks for color, taste and productivity. (For a recipe on Garden Maine featuring chard, click here.)

If Swiss chard isn’t your favorite vegetable, then you might consider Bright Lights as an ornamental. Johnny’s says it will put on a stunning display when it’s fully grown. (We featured Bright Lights in The Daily Plant last year; read the plant profile here.)

For more intense color — this time in the lettuce bed and salad bowl — Impuls from Johnny’s is a vibrant red Lollo Rossa variety. The burgundy-tipped leaves form an eye-catching mound and make snazzy garnishes.

My love of salads and pickles has forced a rapid expansion in my cucumber list. My favorites for the past couple of seasons are the Middle Eastern cucumbers, also known as Beit-Alpha types. These cukes have smooth and shiny skin, crisp flesh, and an unbeatable flavor that is never bitter.

Amira is a light green hybrid offered this season from Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester and Vesey’s Seeds Ltd. in York, Prince Edward Island. One of the best things about Amira is that it’s an early cucumber (maturing at about 55 days) with an impressive yield, up to three times as much as the usual slicers.

Shepherd’s Gardens Seeds of Torrington, Conn., has its own Beit-Alpha cucumber, Tamra. This variety has a medium green skin and is resistant to watermelon and cucumber mosaic viruses and powdery and downy mildew.

A couple of heirloom cucumbers will grace the patch this summer. Shepherd’s has the exotic-sounding Painted Serpent cucumber, a slim fruit that grows up to 18 inches long in a serpentine way. The skin is light green with dark green ribs that make scalloped slices. On top of that, Shepherd’s says Painted Serpent is mild and sweet.

Seeds of Change in Santa Fe, N.M., has one of the earliest cucumbers around — plus it’s an heirloom. First offered in 1888, Early Russian matures in 50 days, producing lots of 3- to 5-inch picklers. With such quick growth, Early Russian is perfect for Maine’s short season.

Another pickler is Cool Breeze, a French cornichon variety without the bumpy skins. Pinetree says Cool Breeze is bred to set fruit without pollination, a neat trick that means it can mature in 47 days with or without the bees.

In my ever-expanding trials of summer and winter squash, I’ve found three more tempting varieties. Last year’s bountiful harvest of Sunburst, a yellow patty pan or scalloped squash, has raised my expectations for Vesey’s new patty pan, Starship. Just consider it the little green Martian version of Sunburst.

A squash that has intrigued me for a few years finally got me when I read once again about its curvy fruits. Zucchetta Rampicante from Shepherd’s is an Italian heirloom that does best rambling up bean poles or a trellis, “where the glossy lime-colored squashes look like ornaments against the vertical canopy of deep green leaves.” The flavor is said to be mild with a hint of artichoke.

“Maximum harvest flexibility” is Vesey’s phrase for Table Gold, a golden acorn squash. When the fruits are a sunny yellow (after 65 days), Table Gold can be harvested for immediate use. Waiting until fall when Table Gold turns dark orange will mean a squash ready for winter storage. Tack on a compact bush habit and a sweet flavor, and you may have a winning winter squash.

One successful crop of cantaloupe has me yearning for more. I like the sound of Fastbreak, a hybrid from Pinetree that works well when directly seeded even for Maine’s short season. Fastbreak matures in 67 days with 7-inch fruits and a sweet melon flavor.

For a plant that’s as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate, try a packet of Painted Lady runner beans. Nichols Garden Nursery of Albany, Ore., has a showy scarlet-hooded white flower variety that has vigorous vines with edible blossoms and beans. Burpee Heirlooms of Warminster, Pa., has a salmon and white variety, which the catalog says is irresistible to hummingbirds.

That’s marvelous. I give the birds flowers, and they give me beans.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in February 1998.

2013 update: Given that this was published 15 years ago, some of the seeds may not be sold by the company listed. Although the variety, as you see, did exist 15 years ago. Some, however, such as Bright Lights, are now a standard variety.