If you’re like me, your local post office probably has to hire an extra mail carrier just to deliver all of the seed catalogs (and bee equipment catalogs, and hatchery catalogs, and farm equipment catalogs, etc.) that show up in your mailbox this time of year. I’ve thought about seeing if I could be taken off the mailing list of several companies since I can see the same thing on the internet, but for some reason I just can’t pull myself away from using the catalogs for everything up until the point I actually order seed. Sure, I’ll cruise through various websites looking at reviews of certain varieties, but when it comes down to determining what is going in the garden in a given year, I’m seated at the table surrounded by catalogs and a disheveled bin of leftover seeds that were hastily thrown into ziplock bags the prior year. Have I mentioned that my seed storage system is high on my priority list this year? I envision a nice shelving system, lined with glass canning jars filled with the hope of a bountiful harvest. My very own seed bank entrusted with preserving the genetic bio-diversity necessary to sustain the global food system. Or a haphazard menagerie of ziplocks, strewn about a 25 quart Sterlite tub. It has served me well, no need to reinvent the wheel, right? I’ll feed the world another day.
This year, as the seed catalogs began rolling in, I decided I would start by going through all of the seed I had retained through the years. I assume many of you are learning as you go as well and may not realize that seeds have a sort of expiration date. If you look on your seed packet it will have some information around the year it was packed and by when it should be used. I don’t look at this date like some people look at a milk expiration date. The repercussions of using an “expired” seed will, at worst, be poor or no germination. You will not want to scrape your tongue and taste buds out of your mouth with your garden hoe as you might with sour milk. Now, if you are a serious market gardener/farmer you will not have the same flexibility as a home gardener when it comes to getting seeds germinated at the proper time and getting your produce to market, but if you are in a situation that grants some wiggle-room with planting and harvesting dates, by all means, use some of your older seed. Certain seed types will keep better than others, but I’ve had luck getting pretty good germination out of some tomato and jalapeno seed that had been poorly stored for the better part of a decade. If you decide to roll the dice with seed that is over 2 or 3 years old, you might be well-served to toss a couple extra seeds in each cell when you start your seeds. I’m always a little sad to thin my seedlings, but I would rather have a pile of micro-greens or chicken scraps than no germination at all.
Once I inventoried my seed and made the executive decision to toss anything that was over 3 years old (excluding one packet of sweet pea currant tomatoes that I’m convinced will never stop germinating and consistently produce roughly 47,000,000 of the tiniest tomatoes you’ve ever seen. If you have small children they will love harvesting the tomatoes for you!) I needed to start my search for replacements. I started by making a list of everything I want to grow this year. To do this, I used a list from last year along with the box of seeds sitting in front of me. I mean, if I have the seed already, I’m going to try to grow it whether I think it will perform or not. Which brings me to another point that is important for new growers. If you try a variety that doesn’t grow well or doesn’t produce like you’d hoped, don’t give up on it in one year. Sometimes weather events or soil conditions or a host of other issues can cause certain vegetables to not perform in a given year, but the next year they can perform quite well. Now, if you have a couple years of disappointment or if you’re trying to grow long season crops in short season climates, certainly don’t waste your time. I digress. Once I have my list made, I look at the holes I need to fill with my seed order and I put a number on each varietal indicating how many I want to grow this year. I have a pretty good stockpile of seed from the last two years, so my orders this year were relatively small. I needed some sweet corn, bok choi, a slicing cucumber, yellow squash, acorn squash, micro greens, eggplant, carrot, and one of our all-time favorite cherry tomatoes – the Sungold. What I actually ordered was all of that, plus sugar snap peas, tennis ball lettuce, a fourth variety of green bean, two yellow squashes, another variety of cherry tomato, another slicing tomato (because 11 tomato varieties wasn’t enough), a back up pack of jalapeno seeds in case my trusty old seed doesn’t germinate well enough, and another variety of onion. If you keep chickens you’ve probably heard the term “chicken math” which basically means that once you start with chickens, your flock will just keep multiplying. Well, I think “seed math” must be a thing, too.
As I mentioned, I get a lot of seed catalogs. Over the years I have started to really pare down the companies I get my seed from for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve had success with certain varieties from certain companies and I trust I can count on those seeds. Two, shipping costs can start to add up when you start ordering from multiple companies. Some companies offer free shipping over a certain price or will send promo codes out, but I usually end up getting those offers after I need to start my seed anyway. If you have a friend or two that garden, see if they want to go in on seeds together. And if you don’t have any gardening friends, get them started with your extra seed and split future seed orders! This year I limited my orders to Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange . That said, the bulk of my current seed is Franchi seed from Seeds from Italy with a smattering of Renee’s Garden seeds. Seeds from Italy is a company that imports Italian seed and distributes it from right here in Lawrence, KS! We have a fantastic local hardware store (what’s up Cottin’s?) that carries a pretty good selection of their seed and I just order any of my desired varieties that they don’t stock. They also carry Renee’s seeds, which is why I have some of those. The Franchi seeds are unlike any seeds I’ve gotten from other suppliers. They come in huge envelopes and, depending on varietal, include a ton of seeds. If you are used to getting like 10-40 seeds per packet, you’ll be blown away if you buy some of their seed. The only downside to the Franchi seed is that it isn’t as beginner-friendly as say Johnny’s simply from a packaging and instructional standpoint. If you look at a seed packet from Johnny’s you will be directed exactly what the germination times, planting specs, days to harvest, etc., but if you look at a Franchi packet you will see an odd little chart on the back with colored dots, a plethora of verbiage in other languages, and no real instruction. You can gather most of the requisite info from the Seeds from Italy website or catalog, but it’s an extra step. That said, some of the Italian varieties are unique and out-of-this world delicious (Striato D’Italia zucchini, Charentais melon (which I believe is actually a French melon), Verde da Taglio chard, and on and on).
When I select seed I don’t get too hung up on whether the seed is certified organic or not. We garden without the use of chemical inputs and will typically buy organic seed if it’s available, but I don’t sweat it if I can only get a varietal I want in non-organic form. When I started gardening I was insistent that all of my seed be organic and heirloom. My gardens failed a lot. While many of the heirloom varieties produce vegetables with outstanding flavor qualities, they don’t always produce in sufficient quantity or with the hardiness to withstand transport. I’m not saying tomatoes should be of the quality I can get in the supermarket in Kansas in January, but it would be nice to have something that can make it across town to a market or customer. Sometimes I’m not sure why they even call those pale orange, crunchy, South American, winter imports tomatoes. What I’ve begun doing is implementing a mix of heirloom and hybrid vegetables to kind of hedge my bets. Often times certain varieties will have resistance to certain diseases or pests and it’s nice if your entire crop of something isn’t wiped out if that problem presents itself. Hybrids get a bad rap in the local/sustainable food movement because people associate them with things like GMOs when really they’re just an F1 cross with no genetic manipulation. This same discussion comes up when people talk about Cornish X meat chickens, but I will talk more about that when I talk about our meat birds. The only downside to hybrids in your garden comes if you want to save seed since the seed of an F1 hybrid won’t breed true. Meaning you can’t save the seed and expect the plant grown from that seed to exhibit the proven traits of the parent plant. So, if you aren’t saving seed it would probably serve you well to include some hybrid plants in your garden. The heirloom varieties typically have superior flavor qualities, but lets face it, a garden-fresh tomato picked at peak ripeness is going to taste a hundred times better than any store-bought tomato could, regardless of what variety it is.
A lot of people suggest starting small when it comes to gardening, but I was never good at deciding on just a few things to grow, so I say start however you want. One thing I will urge you not to do, though, is grow stuff you don’t like to eat (unless you want to grow it for someone else). Notice I never mentioned beets in my garden. No matter what size your garden is, you’ll learn and get better as you go. If you feel smothered in town like I did, plant some patio containers or just till up your whole damn yard and realize that even a 1/16th of an acre garden will produce a lot of food.