“Last year I just planted and prayed, stuff worked or didn’t. Now I have seed catalogs and am so overwhelmed I don’t know what to order. Should I be picking stuff based on the shortest growing rate and that’s all? This is crazy!” -Reader Question
Feeling Seed Catalog Crazy?
Right now, like most gardeners, you probably have a half-dozen seed catalogs dog-eared around the house. If you are new to the January seed catalog binge, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by the options before you. The website of one of my favorite seed houses returns nearly 200 results on a search for lettuce. How do you pick the right seeds?
The bad news is that the inspirational temptation of seed catalogs can be extremely hard on the frugal gardener’s pocketbook. How in the world a few packets of $3.50 seed can turn into a $125 seed order I’ll never know, but there you are. How someone with a pair of 4’x4′ beds plans to grow nine different varieties of summer squash and a dozen different tomatoes, I’ll also never know. But I understand, because I’ve been there.
The good news is that the longer you garden, the better you’ll get at knowing exactly what seeds work for you, your soil and your climate. You should see my neighbors, who are in their 70s and have forgotten more than I’ll ever know about vegetable culture. They grow the same all-purpose tomato every year (Pik Red) and the same all-purpose carrot (Danvers). They seem immune to the call of the new and novel. Flashy magenta-tipped kale? No thanks. Short season okra? Pass. Too many summers burned by seed catalog descriptions that over-promised and under-delivered, I suppose.
I’m leaning more and more towards calcified old gardener myself. I already have a pretty established greatest hits list I grow every year. Striped Roman and Sun Gold Tomatoes, Lemon Cukes, Music Garlic, Waltham Butternut Squash, Cavalo Nero Kale and Northeaster Romano Beans top my list. All these varieties routinely produce for me with a minimum of coddling and taste like vegetal ambrosia.
Having a framework of what already works makes it a bit easier to beat down the temptations of the January seed catalogs. But if you don’t yet have your tried-and-true favorites sorted out – if you are new to edible gardening, or new to an area – how do you pick out seeds? Here’s a few tips for getting through those seed catalogs without feeling too overwhelmed.
How To Navigate A Seed Catalog
Location, location, location – In general, go local. Start with a seed house close to where you live. At a minimum, you want a company in a similar climatic zone as you, focused on selling to your area. Even better is a company that trials their seed in the same conditions you’ll be growing yours. This means that when the seed catalog says a tomato “tolerates cool nights” they are basing their definition of “cool nights” on your town, not Atlanta. (Unless Atlanta is your town, in which case, hey! you just found a seed company!). If a seed house grows some or all of their seed near you, so much the better.
Organic vs. Conventional Seeds – A seed passes on the adaptations and genetics of the plants it came from (think heirlooms adapting to a certain climate) – so if the parent plants of your seeds did well under organic culture, chances are better that the plants you grow with those seeds will also do well when grown organically. Most crops grown for seeds are grown with a lot of help from chemical fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides. What sprays can be applied to seed crops aren’t as strongly regulated as what can be applied to food crops, so the various things that get dumped on conventionally grown seed crops can be pretty nasty. When I have the choice, I strongly prefer to grow with organic seeds.
Disease Resistance – A good seed catalog will list the disease resistance of the varieties they sell. If you plan to grow organically – and of course you do – pay attention to this stuff. Various blights and fungal diseases can really ruin your harvest and your day, so stack the deck in your favor with varietals that tend to grow healthy and robust without a lot of chemical help.
Open Pollinated vs Hybrid Seeds – More on this later, but for now I’ll try to stay brief. OP are necessary for seed saving, tend to mature over a longer harvest window and are cheaper. Hybrids (often called F1 in seed catalogs) tend to give you a very consistent, uniform crop (very important for mechanical harvesting of 5,000 heads of broccoli in a day, but possibly less critical for the backyard grower), may show better vigor than OP varieties, are more expensive and cannot reliably be used for seed saving. Hybrid seeds are not the same as GMO, and are totally fine for the organic gardener.
Some seeds are almost always OP, like beans and lettuce, and some are more frequently F1, like cauliflower. Some, like tomatoes and corn, can be found easily in both OP and F1 versions. I grow both kinds of seed, and unless you have seed saving or seed diversity reasons to eschew F1, I think you should use the right tool for the job. I tend to pick F1 for more particular veggies like caulis and sprouts that are going to occupy their space for a long time and really, really need to mature as I expect, but otherwise I prefer the typically lower price point of OP seeds.
Heirloom – Okay, this isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but be careful getting too swept away by heirloom varieties. First, the good news: heirlooms have proven their worth by being extremely good, tasty, or reliable in someone’s backyard for a very long time. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything for your backyard. Seed adaptation, like politics, is local. The romantic history of a varietal from Amish country means little when you live in moss and slug country, like I do. Exception: if, like me, you live in a cool growing area, any heirloom that sounds like it was bred in Northern Siberia is probably a good bet. This is why I love tomatoes like called things like Moskvich.
Key Words – Beware of phrases like, “does best in a warm, sheltered microclimate,” or “with a little extra effort,” or “well worth the extra time,” or “harvest promptly for best quality.” Look for phrases like “consistently high producer,” or “quick, vigorous germination,” or “particularly resistant to bolting,” or “excellent quality even at larger sizes.” Basically, at any hint that a seed might be a pain-in-the-ass prima dona, drop that varietal like a bad habit.
AAS Winner – I pronounce this “Aye-us” like a southern belle dabbling into booty talk. I’m classy like that. If you see “AAS Winner” it means that variety was recognized by the basically independent non-profit, All American Selections. For 80 years, their mission has been to find the best new, not-yet-for-sale flower and veg varieties and tell everyone about them. I think AAS does a great job, and while you have to keep in mind the national (not regional) nature of their assessments, AAS winners tend to be the real deal. Past winners include Honey Bear squash (an adorable acorn I grew last year and really liked), Siam Queen Thai Basil (an every-year herb for me), the now standard Bright Lights Swiss Chard and (way back in 1937) a spinach you might have heard of called Bloomsdale.
Days to Maturity – If your seed company trials their varietals in a climate similar to yours, days to maturity is a very useful way to judge which seeds might do well for you. If they don’t, the information means nothing. It is a sad fact for us cool climate gardeners that longer maturing varieties of the fruiting veggies – tomatoes, peppers, etc. – tend to be fuller flavored. But don’t let that discourage you too much – shorter season and fully ripe is always better than long season but still green. If you are a cool climate gardener, shorter maturation varieties of the fruiting crops are a good idea.
Small fruits typically take less time to get really ripe, which is one reason why cherry tomatoes, baby bell peppers and the petite eggplants tend to do far better in the Maritime NW than their full size kin. I’d imagine that gardeners in hot climates need very efficient cool season crops to size up in the off season, before the sun gets too strong.
Limit Your Options, And A Few Favorites
If you are new to growing, limit yourself to two or three varieties at a time. Ideally two. I know this sounds impossibly harsh, but you’re going to be growing for a long time, so pace yourself. If you grow two varieties, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to legitimately compare them. Keep the best one and try a new one next year. The year after, keep the best of those and try a new one. This means you always have a reliable favorite, and you have a little room for experimentation.
For beans and peas, pick one early bush variety and one climber. The bush variety will yield earlier, and the climber will fill in later and keep going.
For tomatoes, pick one determinate roma/canning type, one indeterminate cherry type and one slicer type. If you have fallen in love with the idea of heirlooms, your slicer is where you should roll the dice. Try Black Pineapple or any of the Brandywine type tomatoes.
If you have room for a vining winter squash, grow Waltham’s Butternut. As far as I know every gardener everywhere agrees that this one is a winner. If you don’t have room for a vining squash, grow a bush delicata or bush buttercup.
Summer squash: do you eat it? No really, be honest. Do you actually like zucchini? Okay, since you eat it, grow no more than one summer squash plant per adult member of your family. If you are running out of zucchini in August (hah!), next year you can grow more. I like zucchini, patty pans and Cousa-type squashes.
For leafy things, like spinach and lettuce, get one variety for cooler weather and one variety for summer harvest. Throw in a packet of mixed greens while you are at it. Don’t bother with iceberg type lettuce. Butterhead is a very elegant – I like Victoria – and Romaine is a crowd pleaser. Try Little Gem for adorable baby romaines that reach maturity a bit faster than full sized Romaines, or Winter Density for a variety that does very well in all seasons.
If you like kale, Nero di Toscana (aka Lacinato, Black Palm, Dino Kale or Cavalo Nero) is the culinary darling du jour and equally excellent in soups or winter slaws. If you like chard, Bright Lights or similar is like the Benetton catalog: a color for everyone.
Don’t grow corn or giant pumpkins unless you measure your property in square acres instead of square feet or square meters. Yes, you can try to grow corn in a pot later, but if you are still at the “figuring out what to grow” stage, leave corn and carving pumpkins for another year.
Rooty things like beets, carrots and parsnips are either terribly easy to grow, or a source of perpetual frustration, based almost entirely on the texture of your soil. Commercially, carrots are basically grown in fertilized sand. Beets have a little more ability to shoulder their way through heavy soils. Early Wonder Tall Top is a canonical beet that always does well for both root and greens, but I am recently enamored of the squat, dark little beet called Flat of Egypt. Golden and candycane-type striped beets are lovely, white types don’t have enough earth flavor for my taste. The variety called ‘Bull’s Blood’ should be spectacular but has never done much of anything for me.
Favorite carrot varieties are Mokum and Yaya. The best way to grow parsnip is to let a parsnip go to seed all over your yard. Baring that, whatever the variety, seed should be bought fresh every year or (at most) two.
Potatoes are very fun and rewarding. Don’t make life too complicated. Order some seed potatoes (something described as “like Yukon Gold” is your best bet) and plant them 5 or 6 inches down. Top them with something very loose and fluffy, like compost or chopped straw. Harvest when the vines die back.
Broccoli and Cauliflower might be the place to try a hybrid seed. Territorial sells a good hybrid blend which will give you an extended harvest from a single sowing. Belstar is a great Broccoli that tends to do well from spring to fall in my area. In my mild winter climate, I’ve had far more luck with overwintering cauliflower like Aalsmeer, Purple Cape and Galleon than main season Caulis. For main crop, I like Snow Crown or Snowball.
What would a garden be without cabbage? Grow one early and one main season variety, or one green and one red if that’s easier. If your climate allows, try winter cabbage. It’s the best flavored of them all. I like the Golden Acre/Derby Day strains for earliest harvest, Danish Ballhead types like Copenhagen for maincrop cabbages, any of the Ruby varieties of red cabbage for fall, and savoy-types (January King is the standard barer) for winter harvest.
Or, Ignore All This and Go For Pretty
Seriously, as long as you are ordering from a quality seed house and not buying crap no-name seed off the rack at the Big Orange Box, you’re probably going to be just fine from a seed-quality perspective. Luxuriate, if you want, in the possibilities that are seed catalogs.
Enjoy basing your decisions on nothing more than whim and fancy. That’s ok too. Just write down anything that turns out to be particularly amazing so you can find it again next season, and don’t attempt to grow the most challenging stuff for your area all in one season. Happy seed shopping!