Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Living large in the vegetable garden

Meatball eggplant could revolutionize the way gardeners think about eggplant, says George Ball of Burpee. The 2016 introduction could be an ideal meat substitute.
Meatball eggplant could revolutionize the way gardeners think about eggplant, says George Ball of Burpee. The 2016 introduction could be an ideal meat substitute. Burpee

George Ball knows what gets gardeners’ pulses racing.

When it comes to envisioning summer’s garden, bigger sells better, said Ball, president of Pennsylvania-based seed catalog giant W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Want a tomato larger than a softball? An eggplant that can feed a family of four? An ear of corn that’s hard to wrap your teeth around? That’s what Ball is talking about.

“People love big,” he said. “But they also want the real thing. They want real taste. We breed all our vegetables the old-fashioned way because that’s what people want.”

“Gardening is an active hobby,” Ball added. “People don’t want anemic heirlooms without yield that are susceptible to disease. We’ve seen a return to an old-fashioned approach to gardening. No. 1, people want results from all their work.”

In its 2016 catalog, Burpee aims to please with more than 100 introductions, aimed at the backyard farmer.

Burpee’s overall best-seller lives up to its big billing: SteakHouse tomato. This recent hybrid yields tomatoes that average 2 to 3 pounds each.

“It’s not only impressive looking, it’s incredibly delicious,” Ball said. “When you slice into it, it’s like carving prime rib – all pure flesh.”

Ball is particularly excited over two introductions: Meatball eggplant and Jaws yellow corn.

“Meatball eggplant has a truly revolutionary quality,” Ball said. “I know it sounds like a bit of a joke, but this eggplant is a real game changer. It’s the whole concept of meat substitutes. No other eggplant can do what Meatball can do. It has the versatility, the density and tremendous flavor to be turned into cutlets, meatloaf and of course meatballs. It’s a meal maker.

“We saw this thing coming along about 10 years ago, emerging in our test fields, but the timing wasn’t quite right (for introduction),” he added. “Now with more interest in meat substitutes, this eggplant is amazing.”

More stunning is Jaws, Burpee’s first 12-inch sweet corn. Supply of this seed is limited, so it’s available only at

“It’s unbelievable,” Ball said. “It’s the most exciting introduction I’ve ever done in 25 years.”

A naturally occurring variation, Jaws is gigantic. It’s as big around – more than 7 inches – than most ears are long.

“When you bite into it,” Ball said, “you’ve got to double clutch your teeth, take a double bite to get through it.

“When I first saw it, it was freaky, really unbelievable looking,” he added. “We scraped fresh picked ears and found it yielded about three times as many kernels as a normal ear.”

Typically, corn yields a half cup of kernels per ear; Jaws yields 1 1/2 cups.

“People want more yield, and varieties like Jaws will be at the forefront of that,” Ball said. “You get more corn in the same space.”

The plants grow “extraordinarily tall – 6 or 7 feet,” he noted. “The corn is beautiful, golden, with good corn flavor. It’s not super-sweet, but tastes corny without being chewy.”

Another bestselling corn variety was recently introduced: On Deck, the first full-size corn meant to grow in containers. That reflects another trend; gardeners want big veggies in less space.

“They want more value,” he said. “They want things that are beautiful with vivid color and a lot of yield. They want a lot.”

Despite all the experimentation, Ball said he keeps in mind that gardeners tend to stick to the basics.

They grow what they like to eat, in particular, peas, carrots, onions and lots of parsley.

“Behind SteakHouse, our No. 2 seller is Italian parsley,” he said. “Everybody seems to add it to their order. Once you grow fresh parsley, you’ll never buy it at the supermarket again.”