shopping the seed catalogs, with chanticleer’s david mattern

WHICH LETTUCE (or green bean, or winter squash, or cauliflower…) should I grow? I keep asking the same question to each guest on my annual winter seed series, but really: Can someone please tell us how to narrow our choices to a list of edibles that will fit in the allotted sunny space called the vegetable garden?

David Mattern, who oversees the vegetable garden at the splendid public space called Chanticleer in Pennsylvania, is my latest target. You may recall that last fall, David helped us take a critical eye to our vegetable gardens as we took them apart during cleanup, and challenged us also to consider tilling less in the year to come for improved soil health and fewer weeds.

David is a graduate of Longwood’s Professional Gardeners Training Program, and after that interned in England at some prestigious spots including West Dean Gardens in West Sussex, with its famed walled vegetable garden.

He rejoined me on the January 9, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast to help steer us through the tempting but daunting catalog listings, crop by crop. Read along as you listen using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

shopping the seed catalogs:

a q&a with chanticleer’s david mattern



Q. When I asked you by email not long ago how in the world you choose what to grow, you told me you have a three-part mandate for each choice. Will you share that with everyone else, because I kind of loved it.

A. That’s right; there has to be some way that you can kind of pare things down. Your eyes can be bigger than your stomach in some cases with seed catalogs.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. I sort of corral all these different cultivar options of different vegetables down into three groups—that’s how I organize them in my head. I look for something fun, something new, and something tried and true.

Q. It’s like a bride: something borrowed, something blue…[laughter]. So it’s fun, new tried and true—that’s the system?

A. Yes. I look for things I have used in the past that have really worked for me—so I start with that. And then I think about what else on these lists it new this year—what else is out there? Are there any improved cultivars, or any new vegetable that I haven’t really grown before that I’d like to try?

And then my last group is because vegetable gardening should be fun—so what fun things are out there? What intriguing, different things? Being at a public garden, at Chanticleer, it’s certainly fun to have something kind of different to show the whole different range of vegetable choices that are out there.

Q. You said, “being at Chanticleer” and I was going to ask you about that: Do you experience, being at a public garden, an extra degree of difficulty say versus your own backyard if you were gardening there, in selecting just which things to grow? Chanticleer is also a display garden—not just a production facility. So if the description of a vegetable or other plant you’re considering touts its extra ornamentality, it that a factor?

For instance I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it but at Wild Garden Seeds, Frank Morton’s catalog, he developed this broccoli that’s more like a broccolini called ‘Purple Peacock.’ It’s just infused with purple and blue and it’s fabulous looking. Do you get excited about catalog entries like that?

A. I definitely don’t rule things like that out [laughter]. I think those can be a lot of fun. But for me, I am a firm believer that if it’s grown well, it will taste good. I think as far as cultivar choices go, the possibilities are wide open, and it comes down to you. If it’s grown well, it will taste good and it will look good as well. So you have that benefit as well.

To answer your question about public gardens, I certainly try to keep a range of different things in that regard—to try more of a variety.

Q. And we should maybe describe the Chanticleer vegetable garden. It has an orderliness to it. I might in my raised beds in my yard say, “Ooh, there’s an extra square foot over there, I’m going to tuck in this extra thing.” I might do it higgeldy-piggeldy—but that’s not how you’re doing it. [Laughter.] Yours is more orderly and more beautiful.

A. Even just for cleanliness purposes and disease resistance, I try to keep things sort of in line with one another. My vegetable garden at Chanticleer is roughly about 50 feet by 40 feet; it’s relatively small, but not too small.

I try to keep things in nice rows and lines.  That will do several things for me: One, it will help give my vegetables enough light space and air space. And also I find the contrast between the lines of different vegetables is somewhat more emphasized as a result, and you can really enjoy the plant for what it is. I think that gives another layer to these plants as well.

Q. I asked you in advance for a list of crops you grow so I could grill you to tell us your picks–and maybe you can share some cultural tips, too, for growing them to perfection.  I put the list in the very rough order from cool-ish season to warm season, so here we go:

For instance spinach—did you sow it in early spring, or did you sow it in fall and have it under cover?

A. I love spinach because it’s so versatile. So I do a combination of both. I sow some in the fall, and keep it in the coldframes, and I actually harvest it in the wintertime because it’s very cold-tolerant. Come springtime, I’ll start a new batch. I’ll start some indoors, in our greenhouse facility, and then plant that out, and also some direct-sown.

That’s the beauty of spinach for me. There are a lot of great cultivars that are very cold hardy, and in that way I can get away with a lot of versatility—I can start some indoors, and outside. In a way it’s a bit of an insurance policy, because if one doesn’t really work, I have a backup.

Q. I think if you want to talk about a piece of vegetable-gardening wisdom, that would be it, with every crop: Don’t just stick one seed I the ground and say, “OK, I’ve planted my squash now.” [Laughter.] Have Plan B, and even Plan C.

A. More is always better. [Laughter.]

Q. Do you have some favorite spinach varieties in your three-part rule? Are you more a crinkly kind of guy, like ‘Bloomsdale,’ or more modern like ‘Corvair’ or ‘Space’?

A. I definitely tend to favor some of the smooth-leaf spinach over the others. My favorite is still ‘Gazelle.’ It has proven to me to be very winter-hardy, and very slow to bolt.

I’ve also grown ‘Corvair’ in the past, which is a newer one. My new one this year is ‘Seaside,’ which is from Johnny’s and said to be small-leaved and very slow to bolt. I’m hoping to use that in the late spring to try to extend the season a bit more.

Q. I don’t know that one. Tell us some favorite lettuces.

A. My two favorite lettuces I had in 2016 have been ‘Speckled Trout Back’ [‘Forellenschluss’] as well as ‘Grandpa Admire’s’.

Q. I don’t know ‘Grandpa Admire’s.’ [Left to right, above: ‘Speckled Trout Back’ from catalog of Seed Savers Exchange, and ‘Grandpa Admire’s’ from Uprising Seeds.]

A. It has a wonderful sort of chartreusey foliage with a little red rosette around the tips of the leaves; it’s really beautiful. It has proven to be very heat-tolerant for me, so I have been able to grow it for a long season, both early spring and all the way through. It was one of the last ones to kind of go down for me in summertime.

Q. What about beets—I’m insane for beets, and I love the tops and I love the roots. I tend to like red beets more than the golden or whatever, and I know that’s very unfashionable and very unsophisticated of me, but I do. [Laughter.]

A. I actually find myself in the same group—I’m a bit more of a traditionalist, and like the dark colors as well. ‘Detroit Dark Red’ and ‘Red Ace’ are two of my favorites, and then for beet greens, I certainly love ‘Bull’s Blood.’

Q. And that’s certainly an ornamental—isn’t it just a beautiful plant [above, baby leaves in Margaret’s garden]? You could use it for so many things, it’s so gorgeous with its reddish-purple leaves. And then the one called ‘Lutz’—that has incredible, prolific greens, and it’s a good beet, too—you can cut multiple greens.

A. What I love about beet greens is being able to harvest the leaf and then continue some on. I’ll thin my row for the greens and then leave some for beets—a kind of 2-for-1 deal, so I quite love them.

Q. Any favorite kales?

A. ‘Toscano’ is still my favorite.

Q. Me, too; I have to say I am still loving it.

A. I am trying a new one this year, ‘Starbor,’ which was bred for more production harvesting, where you can harvest the whole plant at one time—as opposed to picking a few leaves. My idea there is that if I harvest a whole row at one time, that opens up all that space for me to put in a succession of something else. Maybe I can have better space efficiency that way.

Q. ‘Starbor.’ How about some its cousins that are on your list—like cauliflower, which I have to admit I have never grown. It’s funny because I have grown all the other cruciferous things, the Brassicas, or at least most of them, but not cauliflower. Which one, and is it easy to grow?

A. Cauliflower was a first for me last year, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I have discovered it’s like your broccoli—very similar in terms of its needs in the vegetable garden. I really found ‘Snow Crown’ to be my favorite coming out of that. It produced these beautiful white heads and it really was my standout grower.

Q. Nice name, too. What about cabbages? They’re so beautiful when they shape up in the garden.

A. I love them for their architecture.

Q. It really is architecture—well put. Any standouts?

A. ‘Capture’ was mine for this year. I also tried ‘Encore’ last year, which was a good performer for me.

Q. Are they full-sized heads or have you tried any of those oddball-looking smaller ones, for people who don’t need a whole head at a time?  Maybe you don’t want a giant bowling ball of a cabbage. Are ‘Capture’ and ‘Encore’ both green?

A. They are both a flat green, yes, with nice big dense heads to them. Along the line of the smaller heads you mentioned, I’m experimenting with that this year, because I thought maybe I could get better density or something different. I hadn’t tried any of the oddities.

I’m going with ‘Omero,’ [below photo right from Johnny’s Selected Seeds] which is supposed to be smaller heads and has a very dark purple cabbage look to it.

from Johnny's Selected SeedsQ. You grow potatoes—and I was actually surprised, because they take up a lot of space, and later in the season there is nothing there, or they can look a mess. [Laughter.] What kind, and in beds or a special area of their own?

A. Potatoes were another new one for me, and I wasn’t sure what to expect—but everybody loves potatoes. I found that to be one of the most common conversation pieces in the garden. Our guests couldn’t really identify it—they saw these lush green plants with these little white or purple flowers. When I told them what they were, they were very excited.

This year I will try them again. I usually break them down into early, midseason and late so I can get an extended harvest going. I’m starting with ‘Natascha’ as my early; ‘Adirondack Blue’ because I have never tried a blue before; and also ‘Lehigh’ will be my large, late-season potato—and it’s said to have good storage potential, which I am attracted to as well.

Q. There is another tip that you just said there for vegetable gardening in general—like when you talked about spinach, and having a backup crop, having crops at different stages of development. Then you just said, “early, middle and late varieties” and that’s another way to really stagger harvest, isn’t it—to not get all of one variety, but instead plant ones with different days to maturity.

A. Absolutely.

Q. Do you say “end-dive” or “on-deev”? [Laughter.]

A. When I’m trying to be fancy I use “on-deev.”

Q. Do we have our fancy outfits on today? [Laughter.] Endive is not something I usually grow, and I think it’s a little more bitter than lettuce?

A. It has a slightly more bitter taste to it, but that has never deterred me. I’ve found it’s a fantastic fall crop for me; I haven’t tried it in the spring, only exclusively in the fall. It’s a good, fresh green to have in the fall. My favorite has been ‘Rhodos’ [photo above left from Johnny’s Selected Seeds], which is a frisee type—with a very frilly, lacy look to it.

It’s done really well in the garden, and I’ve tried cloching it to blanch it out; it’s done really well for that. It’s a really strong grower for me getting into late fall when it’s cold.

Q. So you’ve covered it—you’ve put on a cover, like a cloche, to deprive it of light to blanch it?

A. There are certain ways of cloching endive to make it a bit more tender, and they say they’re a bit more flavorful. I’ve tried several ways: where you tie them up like a giant ponytail, and you blanch the inner leaves that way, and that worked very successfully.

I don’t have any proper terra cotta cloches of that size, so I literally just took a terra cotta pot, inverted it, and I stuck a wine cork in the hole to plug the hole and exclude the light.

Q. Upcycling a terra cotta pot into a cloche. [Laughter.] What about some beans—lima, and bush?

A. I’ve definitely found bush beans to be much handier for me space-wise. My standout favorite has been ‘Maxibel.’ It produced for so long, I even grew it in large containers and it produced really well for me—small, tender beans.

Q. And limas you grow as well?

A. I grow a very special lima. [Laughter.]

Q. Not ‘Christmas Lima’?

A. I grow ‘Dr. Martin’ lima bean.

Q. I don’t know that one.

A. It’s special to me, anyway. They’re very large pods and very large beans. The lima beans themselves are about the size of a quarter. We’ve had these ‘Dr. Martin’ lima beans for several years now, and we just save the seed year after year—so I like it for its sort of heritage aspect.

The beans themselves are really delicious, and produce very well. Every time I harvest them they always get eaten fresh by the staff, before they make it home to cook with them.

Q. Rapid-fire questions before we run out of time: Favorite tomatoes?

A. ‘Sun Gold.’

Q. Of course!

A. I really enjoy ‘Juliet’—a really good producer.

Q. Me, too.

A. And ‘Valley Girl’ has been one of my favorite determinate types.

Q. Hilarious name. What about winter squash?

A. I’ve had some good success with Acorn-type squashes. And ‘Honey Bear’ is a good squash because it’s sort of a compact plant that I can fit in, and it plays well with other plants. But my favorite winter squash so far has been a Japanese variety called ‘Shishigatani’ from Kitazawa Seed.

It’s a beautiful, beautiful gourd, and dark, dark green, and as it matures it sort of takes this dusty look to it, and fades to a peachy-orange color. The vine itself was quite beautiful, with big orange flowers that look out at you. I grew mine along the fence, and up onto it—so I had these bright orange flowers facing into the sun in the mornings. [Immature fruit along the fence, above.]

Q. You grow of course basil and dill, cilantro, parsley, nasturtium, borage, calendula—for herbs, and for pollinator interest. But you’re also growing two new things this year, I think.

A. For the first time, I’m growing fennel, a bulbous fennel. I always have fennel seeding itself around, but I’m trying some bulb types.

My second is one that I have learned about, which is getting a lot of popularity—especially at PAS, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, a wonderful organization. I’m growing baby ginger.

Q. I’m seeing it here in the farmers’ markets, too, the last few years. How do you grow it?

A. The interesting thing about it is that you need to buy the starts. They need to be about two years old in order to be able to start them. You have to start them indoors, and germinate them, if you will, before planting them out into the garden. But once they’re out in the garden and get that heat of summer, they really do quite well. You can harvest them anytime, and just dig up what you need.

It’s called baby ginger, because it’s in its first year, and it’s small but the flavor is very pungent in a really wonderful way, and it’s really fragrant, and the texture is not as stringy as what you get with an older ginger.

more about chanticleer

CHANTICLEER GARDEN is about 30 minutes from Philadelphia, and not far from other prime horticultural attractions such as Longwood Gardens and Mt. Cuba Center. London’s “Financial Times” calls it “planted to perfection” and “Garden Design” magazine says it’s “America’s most inspiring garden.” Learn more about Chanticleer on the Chanticleer website, or in this interview with director Bill Thomas, or by browsing all my interviews with the highly expert and creative members of its team. In 2015, the Chanticleer team celebrated the publication of its book “The Art of Gardening.”

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 9, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


(Garden photos courtesy of Chanticleer, except as noted. Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)

  1. Marcia A Chambers says:

    My seed catalog pile is growing by the day. I’ve only looked into Johnny’s and found something I must have. A zucchini that is resistant to powdery mildew. Now I’ll order a few more things from there just to make the shipping cheaper.

    My criteria is different. Question # 1: Will anyone in this house eat it? # 2: is there room? I’m only planting zucchini, okra, Patty Pan squash and some sweet corn.

  2. Kathryn says:

    I’ve visited Chanticleer and was really impressed by the vegetable garden. It was exactly what you’d show someone to prove a vegetable garden can be beautiful.

    Thanks for all of the food (no pun intended) for thought.

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