12/12/13

How to Select Garden Seeds

Early spring lettuce, planted from thinning the original seed bed
Seed catalogs are showing up in my mail these days, and it is really tempting to make a big purchase! Just as many of my quilting friends have more fabric than they will ever use, some of us gardeners get overzealous buying seeds. Before you fill out your garden seed order, there are many factors to consider. Here are a few for you to think about:
  • Do you want to start some plants from seed indoors, before it's warm enough to plant outside (like tomatoes, peppers, basil, etc.)? If yes, you'll need sunny, warm indoor spaces. You'll need to care for the seedlings, transplanting as they grow, watching for mold, fungus, insects, etc. You'll need to time when to start your plantings to your locale, vegetable by vegetable, and you'll need to "harden off" the plants before they go permanently into the garden soil.
  • Would you be better off buying small plants for those warm weather crops from a local nursery? Many vendors now carry heirloom varieties, even big stores like Lowes and Home Depot.
  • Are you going to grow organically, and is it important to you that the seeds are also organically produced?
  • Will your garden grow only annual plants, or a mix of annuals, reseeding biennials, perennials?
  • Do you want to plant a cold weather garden (with cool crops like lettuce, spinach, peas), followed by warm weather veggies after the early ones are harvested, and perhaps even a fall planting of cool crops again?
  • Do you want to plant some crops from seeds directly in the garden (beans, carrots)? Some vegetables do not take well to transplanting, so keep this in mind.
  • Are you concerned about planting heirlooms vs hybrids? Are you going to save seeds? (if so, you may need to limit the variety of certain vegetables that cross pollinate - read up on seed saving.)
  • Do you want a big harvest of one item all at once (good when canning or pickling) or do you want to stagger the harvest over the growing season?
  • Do you have room for veggies that need space to spread, like squash, melons, sweet potatoes?
  • Do you want to set up strong supports to grow plants vertically, as with trellises needed for pole beans, or would you prefer "bush" and/or dwarf varieties which grow more compactly and without supports? I grow bush beans and midget okra, with no lack of flavor compared with taller varieties.
  • Do you want to experiment with new veggies or stick with "tried and true" proven winners? I've tried a few different types of jalapenos, but the old standard is my favorite.
  • Do you have a place to store extra seeds, where it is dry and cool?
  • Do you have gardening friends, neighbors, local garden clubs, and/or farmers markets which sell or exchange seeds? These choices might be especially well suited for your area, and already ear-marked as favorites by others.
  • What gardening zone are you in, and what are the best plants for your location? Dry vs. humid, long hot summer vs. short growing season… all considerations for what veggies and what varieties you select to grow.
  • What type of soil is in your garden - clay, sandy, rocky? How does your garden area drain?
  • How much sun does your garden location get?
  • Do you want to stick to vegetables exclusively, or mix in herbs and/or flowers?
  • And, perhaps most important, how much time do you want to spend gardening: prepping the beds, planting, thinning, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, treating for pests and diseases, and preserving? It's quick and easy (and inexpensive) to buy and plant seeds, so it can be very tempting to over-plant. I've seen new gardeners get overwhelmed and frustrated because they can't keep up with the gardening chores after planting loads of seeds, often surrendering to weeds and or pest infestations without getting much harvest.
I grow lots of basil so I can freeze many bags of pesto.
Seminole squash proved resistant to squash bugs.
Have I confused you? My quick recommendation, particularly if this is the first year you are gardening in a certain location, is to start small and keep it simple. Put your energy into making sure your soil is healthy and nourished - get a soil test kit from your local extension office and get the best analysis they offer, then amend the soil as needed. Set up a compost bin and learn how to use it, along with compost tea.

Once that's done, decide what are your favorite veggies and which of those are easy to grow and taste better when homegrown. Also determine what you are going to do with each vegetable crop your harvest - eat everything fresh, OR preserve by canning or freezing or dehydrating or pickling...?

I try to look for varieties of seeds which are recommended and suitable for my area, particularly if I buy from a seed catalog which is selling seeds for a big range of gardening zones. I know my soil is primarily clay, so that might influence the variety or type of veggies I grow (like growing carrots, for example). I look for seeds with resistance to problems I know I have in my garden, like squash bugs or tomato blight. Seminole squash was described as being naturally resistant to squash bugs, and I grew it successful last year. Ask local gardeners who match your gardening style (organic? heirloom seeds? permaculture?) what varieties they like best and have the most success with.
Heirloom chioggia beets grow well, and are tasty and pretty!

Just for fun, I usually try a few new and different crops each gardening year. Last year I tried growing small patches of a few grains - buckwheat, sorghum, oats, and amaranth - with mixed success. Roselle hibiscus was an experiment last season, and it will surely have a place in my garden again next year. I grew two different varieties of beans, and really liked one called Vermont Red Cranberry. However, dried beans are so inexpensive, I probably won't grow them again. One year I tried growing garbanzo beans, but each pod had only one or two beans, so I never bothered with those again.

Have fun planning your garden and let me know your successes and failures!