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Tomatoes, turnips rule the roost: Seed companies seeing what’s most popular in gardens

Hakurei turnips sit in a field after being harvested on Andrew Dunham’s 80-acre organic farm in Grinnell, Iowa, in June 2019. (AP photo/Charlie Neibergall, file)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. d– In the year of the new coronavirus, when new gardeners came out in droves to try growing their own vegetables, tomatoes were still king. And in a twist, the respect-seeking turnip actually turned some heads.

Seed companies taking stock of what went well and what came out of the woodwork proclaimed the tomato as their top seller this year.

Specifically, at Burpee, the Bodacious Tomato was the best-selling vegetable seed. The company calls the large, disease-resistant but pricey hybrid indeterminate tomato, which is good with sandwiches, burgers, salads and more, “our new superstar.”

The Park’s Whopper tomato has been an annual centerpiece for Park Seeds, “and 2020 was no different!” said Kelly Funk, president of parent J&P Park Acquisitions.

At Ferry Morse, the Large-Fruited Red Cherry Tomato that fills out on tall, indeterminate vines was crowned its No. 1 seller. “It’s an easy-to-grow variety that produces prolifically all summer long,” said Ferry Morse chief marketing officer Rebecca Sears.

DiMare farm manager Jim Husk holds a ripe tomato in Homestead, Fla., on March 28. (AP photo/Lynne Sladky, file)

Obviously, tomatoes aren’t the only veggies that gardeners grow from seed. Cucumbers, peppers and beans also are near the top of consumer retail sales.

At Burpee, the biggest surprise was the Silky Sweet Turnip, which chairman George Ball said was “kind of mind-blowing.”

Yes, a turnip. That easy to grow but hard-to-figure-out-what-to-do-with root vegetable.

“It’s the butt of many jokes and the bane of many appetites,” Ball said.

Burpee’s website compares the the Silky Sweet Turnip to a reinvented apple, whose sweetness “makes it seductively snacky.”

Suzan Ferreira is shown at her home in rural New Hampshire in 2019. Ferreira grows up to 150 tomato plants every year in her garden and saves the seeds for future use. She grows mostly heirloom varieties, with Brandywine being among her favorites. (Brianna Ferreira/Suzan Ferreira via AP)

Ball said Burpee bought the entire supply of the turnip variety from a breeder in Japan.

“If you think you’ve ever had a turnip before, this is going to change your mind,” he said. In retrospect, “this thing was everything we had hoped for.”

As far as flower seeds go, the eye-catching Zesty Zinnia Mix was Burpee’s top seller.

At Ferry Morse, Sears said that while the most popular vegetable and flower seeds have remained consistent every year, sales of wildflowers and lettuce increased more quickly than other seed types, a reflection of “gardeners trying their hands with easy and fast-growing plants.”

Lettuce, she pointed out, can be grown in a windowsill container, so it works well in apartments as well as yards.

Dozens of pots of tomato seedlings and other plants are shown at Susan Ferreira's home in rural New Hampshire. Ferreira grows up to 150 tomato plants every year in her garden and saves seeds for future use. (Suzan Ferreira via AP)

“There’s no doubt that gardening surged in popularity this year,” said Sears. “People have sought out an escape and productive activities during quarantine, and have found both in DIY gardening projects that connect them with nature while providing food and beauty.”

Park Seed saw an influx of new customers across all age groups. Supplies that get the family involved in gardening, such as seed starting kits, were a hit, Funk said.

“These customers are most excited about heirloom varieties and our salad bowl mix, which includes a blend of mustard greens, arugulas and lettuces,” Funk said.

Susan Elliot, a spokeswoman for the Burlington, Vermont-based Gardener’s Supply Co., said that in more than 35 years of business, “it has never been this busy.”

Elliot said the employee-owned company’s best sellers were functional items such as raised beds, tomato cages and water irrigation systems. She also said a folding bench that saves gardeners’ knees sold surprisingly well.

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