This is a dangerous time of year for the home gardener. A time when you can gamble untold fortunes on the lure of glossy ideals thrust upon you on a daily basis by the US mail. The seed catalogs are piling up. It’s that time of year. Despite my commitment to canceling every possible catalog this year (catalogchoice.org – great site!), I’m still being tempted by the possibilities.
One of my annual rituals used to be curling up with a hot mug of tea, sharp pencils, graph paper, and a stack of glossy seed catalogs to sketch out the gardens for the coming year. I loved the powerful, albeit delusional, feeling of control as I assigned each square foot its allotted vegetables for the year. My plans were usually grand, and I was ridiculously proud of my neat little diagrams, confident the fantasy would play out come June. It never did. Really. Never. I’m not a very anal gardener. As much as I would like to be organized and as much as I would like my garden to replicate those neat graph paper creations. Just didn’t happen. Oh, the seeds wasted, the money gone, the hope denied. But now I’m much smarter and my gardens, while still pretty much a free-for-all-plant-on-today’s-whim-or-whichever-seed-packet-I-remembered-to-bring-with-me kind of thing, are bounteous.
So if you are marking up the seed catalogs and planning the garden of your dreams, let me share a few lessons learned.
1. Plant what you eat. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the purple radishes look in the glossy catalog, no one in my house will eat them. Waste of space. Think about what you actually eat and plant that. Plant more of what your family actually eats and less of what you are the only person who will appreciate.
2. Buy seeds strategically to save money. Plant the vegetables that cost the most when you buy them at the store. Fancy red peppers cost an arm and a leg at the store – plant lots of them. Many heirloom tomatoes can’t be purchased at the store – plant them. As much as I love homegrown potatoes, I won’t be devoting half my garden to them this year, since there are five or six local farms that offer organic potatoes at reasonable prices that taste amazing.
3. If it doesn’t freeze well, only plant what you can eat. I love sugar snap peas. Love them. So I devote ridiculous amounts of garden space to them. But this is silly because a) we can never eat all of them and b) they don’t freeze or can well. Much is wasted. Maybe this year I will heed my own advice. Same goes for carrots. I always plant several big rows and they are a HUGE pain to weed. And in the end a good number of them rot in the ground before we can eat them. The horses are the beneficiaries of this mistake each year.
4. Check the seeds you have before placing your order. The seeds you used last year are probably fine for this year. Just sow them a bit heavier. If they are stored properly, seeds keep for years. A lot of seed companies sell seed packets with hundreds of seeds in them – more than you can possibly use. Save them for the next year or split your order with a friend.
A few definitions that may be helpful:
“Hybrid” - this is a seed that has been developed by cross-breeding several plants in the interest of developing things like “disease resistance”, “early harvest”, “high yield” which are all good things. However, when commercial seed companies do this they are focused on performance features sometimes at the expense of taste. Also, you can’t save seeds from hybrids – they can’t reproduce themselves, what you wind up with is a shadow of the former plant or basically one of the strains used to create it.
“GMO or GE” – These are genetically modified or genetically engineered seeds which means they were altered using molecular genetics techniques. For example, corn is developed with a pesticide engineered in to it to help it kill certain pests. When you are planting hundreds of thousands of acres this can be financially beneficial. It is a little frightening though, as seeds become more and more genetically identical we put ourselves at risk for disaster should some type of challenge prove too much for that particular seed. Never mind that technically you are eating pesticide.
“heirloom” – I wrote last January about how much I love heirlooms. Heirlooms are seeds that have been saved and passed down by individual gardeners. These seeds must be “open pollinated” meaning they can reproduce themselves. They provide the most variety and security. That said, heirlooms will vary in their ability to thrive in certain climates, so choose heirlooms that grow in your area. If you plant heirlooms and select seeds from only your best plants, you’re doing your own genetic modification on a much smaller scale. I think this is cool as you are developing your own heirloom seeds!
“organic” – Most seed companies carry a line of organic seeds these days. Regulation can be spotty, so if you’re serious about organics, you may want to look for the USDA seal. You’ll pay dearly though. Organic seeds are produced entirely through organic practices by a certified organic operation.
Here are a few of my favorite seed companies:
Landreth Seed (these guys are local, so they’re almost always my first choice)
Pinetree Seed (these guys have great environmentally friendly attitudes and they sell seeds in more realistic sized packets for the home gardener)
Johnny’s Select Seed (going to try these guys for the first time this year, but I’ve heard good things)
High-Mowing Seeds (these are all-organic guys and the seeds are sold at my local natural food store. There’s something to be said for not having to pay shipping and being able to buy your seeds NOW)
There are lots of seed companies out there. When selecting yours, pay attention to where the seeds are coming from. If you’re growing in upstate New York, you might not do so well with seeds developed in southern California. If you’re buying non-local seeds pay attention to the zones specified for each seed. You can find your zone at the National Gardening Association’s site: www.garden.org/zipzone.
Also, if you’ve never ordered from a company before, I wouldn’t order EVERYTHING from them. Be sure you can trust them before you trust them with your entire garden. Seeds are relatively cheap, so it’s fun to try out a few newfangled plants and a new company or two each year. Keeps the gardening exciting. (of course excitement is relative)
Winter fantasy gardening is still one of my favorite ways to pass the time. Don’t let my “be realistic” nonsense squash your happiness. If you think that orange turnip looks amazing, you buy that seed. To heck with eating, sometimes we garden just because we can.
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I'm a reluctantly busy mother of three children, one large partially educated horse, two bossy mares, 12 chickens, 2 cats, and 2 hound dogs. I am blessed with an incredibly patient husband who is almost always a good sport. We live on 6 acres on a hill side in South Central Pennsylvania. I'm a compulsive writer, constant thinker, and passionate believer in organic living. I'm available to lead workshops on any of the topics covered in this blog. As a freelance writer always looking for work, I welcome your suggestions, connections, and sympathy!