This is the time of year when I love to cuddle up in a warm blanket on the couch with a cup of hot tea, a highlighter, and my favorite source of pleasure reading, seed catalogs, and create a shopping list of seeds for this year’s garden.
Starting plants from seed is a most rewarding experience. All it takes is a little time and effort. The most difficult part, for me, is deciding what not to plant!
This year, I’ve come up with a list of qualifications for choosing seed that will make narrowing down the field a bit easier for me. If you’re looking to start a glorious vegetable garden from seed, perhaps these tips will help you, too.
1. Choose seed for foods that you are familiar with and know you are going to consume. Although I have a soft spot for growing exotically-named heirloom veggies, and one’s that we’ve never eaten before, this year’s garden is going to be full of veggies that will end up in our tummies (lots of melons, tomatoes, and beans), not on the compost heap (mustard, huckleberries, and spaghetti squash). When choosing seed, it’s good to ask yourself first, “Are we really going to eat this?”
2. Choose seed for foods that are based on the amount of room you have for growing. I’ve got a large garden, so I don’t have to worry about this too much, but if you’ve got a smaller garden, you should. Even if you love fresh broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and corn, you’ll probably be better off buying it from the store or farmer’s market, since these plants take up a huge amount of space for the amount of food they produce. In small gardens, you’ll get a much better bang for your buck when you choose seeds like lettuce, beans, peas, onions, and garlic, where you’ll use up the entire pack and can plant a lot in a small area. In a larger garden, like mine, it’s good to be selective about the varieties you’re going to grow. You may want to grow three different types of corn, but do you really have the room? It’s wise to plan ahead, and put your garden down on paper, plotting out the growing area so that you don’t order an over-abundance of seed, or try to grow foods that won’t be accommodated in the space…ask yourself, “Am I going to have room for this?”
3. Choose seed for foods based on the number of days to harvest, or particular growing season. This year, I’m paying particularly close attention to these two items, which can be found on most seed packets, or listed in catalog descriptions. In the past, I haven’t, and have been overwhelmed by harvests coming in all at once. It is a good idea to choose seed for plants that will produce early, mid, and late season harvests, so that you have things coming into season at different times. For example, select one tomato that ripens in 50 days, another at 70, and still another at 90. (You can also start seedlings at different times and get a similar effect, but early and late season varieties are usually particularly suited to that time of year for growing, and will probably produce better when grown at the right time). Growing season is also important. Is your growing season short or long? If it’s short, you do not want to select seed for plants that are going to take a long time to produce. If it’s long, you can be more choosy…ask yourself, “When am I going to be harvesting this plant, and do I have enough time to grow it?”
5. Choose seeds based on the climate of your growing area. Do you live near the coast, where there is not much fluctuation in temperature, or in a desert, where temperatures skyrocket during the summer? It’s important to select seed according to how well it is going to perform under your climate’s particular conditions. Here, in the Central Valley of California, it’s rather hot and dry, so I look for seed packets that boast words like, “slow-to-bolt”, or “holds up well in hot weather”, and tend to stay away from ones that say, “does best in cool weather”, or “doesn’t tolerate the heat”. Since the places I purchase my seeds from sell seed from all around the world, I hone in on seeds that come from places with similar climates to mine — places like Asia and the middle east, rather than Russia, or Scandinavian countries. That does not mean that I won’t try to grow something that isn’t particularly suited to my climate, but the majority of my seeds are chosen for climate compatibility. When choosing seed, ask yourself, “Is this plant well-suited to my climate?”
6. Choose seeds based on last year’s production and quality. It’s a good idea to keep a garden journal so that you can keep track of all of the different plant varieties that you grow and chart successes and failures. I purchase a lot of seed each year, and have high hopes that each will produce and abundance of fruit and look and taste great, but the reality is, not all plants are created equal — some produce well, but leave something to be desired in the taste category, and others taste amazing, but have relatively low production. I almost always choose taste over production, so once I come across something I don’t like, I make a note of it and make sure not to order that particular seed the following year. If you’ve got a small garden, you might prefer quantity over quality, and choose your seeds accordingly. When choosing seed, pull out your handy garden journal from the previous year and ask, “Is this one worth re-purchasing or, if you’ve saved seed, worth re-growing?”
7. Choose seeds based on their ease of germinating, growing, and harvesting. When it comes to these qualities, not all plants are created equal, either. Some plants require cold stratification before they will germinate, others need soil temperatures to be above seventy-five degrees. Some plants like dry conditions, others like perpetually wet feet. Some grow neat and tidy, while other sprawl and take over the garden worse than an out-of-control weed. Most veggies are easy to harvest, while others grow spikes, and itchy hairs, or need machines to take their hulls off. If you’re a beginner, you want to look for words like, “easy to grow”, “compact”, and “bush habit”, so that you will experience success in your gardening. Even if you’re an experienced gardener, it’s a good idea to be familiar with the plant before you get started. Last year, I grew hull-less varieties of barley, oats, and french lentil beans. They were the easiest seeds to sow, and grew wonderfully with hardly any attention being paid to them, but when it came time to harvest, they were the most difficult plants I’ve ever had to deal with. Although I cherish the experience, I will not be growing any more of these plants until I find an efficient and inexpensive way to harvest them. Lesson learned: when choosing seed ask, “Is it easy to sow, grow, and harvest?”
9. Choose a few seeds for their novelty, or to try something new. This may seem like it’s a contradiction to point number one, but I think a small portion of the garden should be devoted to growing something purely for experimentation and/or fun – you never know what great and wonderful things you’ll love to keep in your garden until you give them a try! This year, I’m introducing pineapple ground cherries and dinosaur kale into my garden. I chose the ground cherries (a relative of the tomato) because they look pretty, and I’m curious to know what they taste like. The dinosaur kale I selected just because I love the name! So, when choosing seed ask yourself, “What do I want to grow just for fun?”
10. Choose seeds that will allow you to reproduce the plant. First, this means that you’ll only want to select seeds that are heirloom, open-pollinated, non-GMO (genetically modified), and non-hybrid. While I don’t have time to go into all the details here, suffice it to say that these types of seeds are far more likely to allow you to reproduce “true” offspring year after year than hybrids, which may contain a “terminator” gene that will not allow the plant to reproduce at all, or will not breed true, and you’ll end up with unpredictable results. My favorite sources for heirloom, open-pollinated seeds are: Baker Creek (which I sell, and you can purchase by visiting my What’s For Sale page), Bountiful Gardens, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. While seed saving from all fruits and vegetables is possible, some are easier to save than others. Self-pollinating plants are the easiest to save seed from and include peas, peppers, tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, lettuce, and grains. Saving seed means saving money and makes a lot of sense. To learn more about it, check out the book Seed to Seed, the gold standard for learning how to save and store seed. After you do, when choosing seed ask, “Will I be able to save this seed?”
These are the criteria I’ve decided to use, this year, to help me create a more focused shopping list of fruit and vegetable seeds for my garden. If you decide to start a garden from seed, I hope you’ll find these tips helpful, too.