Reading between the lines in the seed catalogs

 

Having fun popping garlic and talking about next year’s planned crops.
Photo Bell Oaks

 Understanding Seed Catalogs

 Are you already snuggling by your woodstove browsing seed catalogs?  Remember the huge demand for seeds the past two years, and get your orders in early. The seed companies are doing their part by getting their catalogs out earlier. This winter don’t get sucked in by catalog superlatives! Reading between the lines of the variety descriptions will ensure you don’t miss some basic fact that would tell you this variety is not for your farm. I last wrote about this in detail in October 2013. Here are 24 phrases to watch for:

  1. Who are you buying from? See the Safe Seed Pledge list for companies that do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants. You may want to buy from local small seed companies who specialize in locally adapted varieties. Crops that overwinter in zone 7 could die in zone 5.
  2. “Adaptable” “easy to grow” are good phrases to look for. Naturally, your climate will affect what grows well. Here it’s too hot for us to grow runner beans, Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower. We don’t buy our okra seed from companies in the north – they are focused on varieties which will produce a decent crop in their climates. Our worries are different.

    Cow Horn okra flower and pod. What works in our climate might not work in yours.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  3. “Requires an attentive grower” is a helpful warning. The size and skill of your labor force matter.
  4. “Best for organic production” means it doesn’t require lots of pesticides to keep it producing. It can also mean that results are variable, less suited to the kind of production where everything needs to ready on the same day, at about the same size.
  5. “Early zucchini, 47 days from direct sowing” sounds impressive. But even the slow Costata Romanesco is only 52 days. How important is it to have zucchini 5 days earlier? And after your first sowing, is it still important to have a 47-day variety? “Early maturing” isn’t so useful if the seed rots in cold soil, so check both points.
  6. Save $8 on slow and spiny? Spineless Perfection zucchini (45 days) and Tigress (50 days) offer the same disease-resistance package. Both are medium green, high yielding, cylindrical. Spineless Perfection has an open plant, Tigress is also an open plant, but has moderate spines. Would you trade a five-day delay and spines to save 8 dollars on 1000 seeds?
  7. Disease resistance and tolerance. Do read the codes about disease tolerance. Don’t be a vegetable hypochondriac– your plants won’t get everything listed. Raven zucchini has no listed disease-resistance, while Dunja withstands four diseases. Both have open plants with high yields of dark green zucchini. Dunja has only small spines. Raven’s spines are “moderate”. Dunja is organically grown, Raven is not. Dunja costs twice as much as Raven at the 100 or 250 seeds level! What price organic seed, disease-resistance and short spines?

    Golden Glory zucchini. Open, disease-resistant plants
    Photo Pam Dawling
  8. Is “mild” flavor better than “rich” or “robust”, or not? Your call.
  9. “Heirlooms taste best” But some old varieties are rare for a reason! People didn’t like them much! Others are fantastic and easy to grow in quantity. Finding which are which is the challenge. The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit by Amy Goldman is not just a beautiful book, but a very useful one. The author spills the beans on which varieties are worth growing. She has books on squash and melons too, but I haven’t had the joy of reading those yet.
  10. “Attractive purple pods” – Do they turn green when cooked? Purple carrots, striped eggplant, white beets – will they sell easily or will it be an uphill struggle?
  11. “Compact”, “Mini” = small. Do you want small or full-size crops? It can be hard to compare weights with measurements. (Small cabbage = 2-4lbs, 4-6”.) “Mini-broccolis” Santee, De Cicco won’t produce a big head, ever, just florets. Mache (corn salad) is a very small vegetable. Even if the variety description says “long leaves” it’s all relative – maybe they’ll be 4” rather than 3”. At the other end of the Rampancy Rating are these key phrases: “needs room to roam,” “vigorous vines”. You can’t sell vines! Is the yield and flavor worth the extra space? “Needs sturdy trellis”: is it worth the time?

    Pablo Batavian lettuce. The Batavians are our most bolt-resistant heat-tolerant non-bitter lettuces. Photo Nina Gentle
  12. “Will be bitter in hot weather.” “Prefers warm days and nights – expect reduced yields in cooler areas” – you have been warned! If your spring heats up quickly, as ours does, you’ll want greens that are bolt-resistant as well as cold-tolerant, so you can set them out early.
  13. Packet sizes: grams, ounces and seed counts. Seeds are measured out in many ways. Take a steady look at seed specs (seeds/ounce or seeds/gram). Alas, this country has not yet fully metricated. Print yourself some conversion tables, or use the online calculators. Or just type “Convert 4” to cm” into the search box and get the answer right away.
  14. “Concentrated fruit set” versus “long harvest season”: length of harvest season is best viewed as potential rather than promised. If Mexican bean beetles or downy mildew are likely to take down your crops, you might do better to sow successions more frequently and not worry about long harvest periods. “Uniform maturity” is definitely a plus if you are growing a drying bean, popcorn, edamame or other single harvest crop. Otherwise you might prefer to harvest from the same row for a while.
  15. “Easiest for hand harvest” (E-Z Pick beans) means they come off the vine easily; but “better for hand harvest” can mean unsuitable for machine harvest (plants sprawl). “Intended to be picked very slender” means tough when big, so be sure you get a high enough price to justify the lower yield and extra harvest time. And be sure you can harvest every 36-48 hours, or you won’t have anything edible.
  16. “Short-term storage only” – we usually read this as “not for storage.” Tendersweet is a fine cabbage for fresh use – its leaves are thin and sweet. Thin leaves dry out fast, so it’s not good for storage. Look for “Retains flavor when frozen or canned,” “Best for sauerkraut,” “Good for kimchee,” “Easy to shell”.

    Storage #4 green cabbage. The name says it all. Fedco Seeds
  17. “Good side-shoot production” (Gypsy, Amadeus, Belstar broccoli). If side-shoots aren’t mentioned, it’s likely that variety was bred for crown cuts.
  18. Onions and latitude Latitude makes a difference with onions. Happily, more catalogs now state which latitudes each variety is adapted for. We’re at 38°N. No use us growing Red Bull (43°-65°), as the days never get long enough to initiate bulbing. Nor do we have much hope for Desert Sunrise (30°-36°) – because after the spring equinox, our hours of daylight are more than further south – Desert Sunrise will start bulbing before having a chance to grow very big. A few small leaves cannot produce a big bulb.
  19. Pumpkins or squash? Some vegetables commonly thought of as winter squash are in catalogs as pumpkins. Many cans of pumpkin pie filling are not made from round orange-skinned pumpkins, but from squash. Choose squash varieties that grow well in your area and make all the pies you want. Or make no pies and serve the squash baked, or in soups. Research at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange showed that many Moschata squash varieties, the kind most resistant to bugs, are also tasty at the immature stage as “summer squash”. So ignore what you’re “supposed to do” and do what works!

    Gentry summer squash in our hoophouse.
    Photo Alexis Yamashita
  20. Incompatible sweet corn types. Don’t plant any Super Sweet varieties unless you isolate them from other kinds, or you make sure they don’t flower within 10 days of each other. Mistakes will lead to horrible starchy kernels in all your corn. Think about this also if you are growing popcorn, dent corn, flint corn. Those dry corns also need to be separated from all sweet corns. Ignore the small print on this at your peril.
  21. “Parthenocarpic” Plants can set fruit without pollination, so these are good for hoophouse growing or production under rowcover or insect netting. Some new varieties of cucumbers and squash are parthenocarpic, and higher-priced, but some old favorites also happen to be parthenocarpic, Little Leaf pickling cucumber, for example.
  22. “Gynoecious” Plants have only female flowers, so the yield can be higher. These plants still require pollination to set fruit, unless they are also parthenocarpic, so some seeds of another (pollinizer) variety are included in the packet. You’ll need to grow some of these, even though they won’t themselves give you the fruit you want. Sometimes the pollinizer seeds are colored, so you can be sure to sow some.
  23. “Monogerm” beets produce only one seedling from each seedball/fruit. Other varieties will need singling. Trade-off price versus time singling.

    Young Cylindra beets in early May. Single promptly!
    Photo Pam Dawling
  24. Too good to be true? New fancy types are often riskier. They don’t have all the problems resolved. Romanesco broccoli – I don’t know anyone in Virginia who has successfully grown it. Flower Sprouts and Kalettes – hmmm, novel, but slow to grow and not a massive yield. Try brand new things on a small scale first. All the fanfare over Indigo Rose tomato, the excitingly evil Deadly Nightshade color of the immature fruit, and then – blah flavor when ripe. “Good” flavor in a catalog may be the lowest rating.

So, enjoy reading your catalogs and highlighting varieties that appeal to you. Mark the phrases that give you pause as well, so that when you compile your orders, you’ll do it with all the info you need to have a bountiful next season!

If you want step-by-step ideas to help you plan your order see Preparing to Order Seeds here.

Preparing to order seeds

Preparing to order seeds: 6 steps + 3 extra tips

Leeks grow slowly. Sow in March to have seedlings this size in May. Order seed soon! Photo Pam Dawling

There are lots of new gardeners now, as a result of the pandemic causing people to stay at home, cook more and want more food security without going inside grocery stores. Maybe last year you bought packets of seeds in a hurry, either online or off a rack in as store. Maybe you hope your garden will go more smoothly this year and I’m here with this blog post to help you.

Or perhaps you are a new professional grower, seeking to improve your game. Or an established one, looking to hang in there by farming smarter in these hard times.

‘Tis the season for garden planning. Inventory your seeds left from last year, peruse the catalogs and prepare your seed orders. The earlier you get them in, the more likely you are to get the varieties you want, before anything is sold out. Be prepared, note your second choice, and fend off disappointment!

Vates kale seedlings for bare-root transplanting.
Photo Pam Dawling

I have a course on garden planning for home gardeners, on the Mother Earth Fair Online. It consists of eight half-hour workshops, covering all aspects of garden planning from clarifying your goals, choosing crops, making maps of what will go where, planning when you want to harvest, determining how long your rows will be and how much seed to order, deciding when to plant and scheduling everything to make the year go smoothly. There are also workshops on ways to pack more in, and how to be prepared for things that don’t go according to plan!

Mother Earth News Fair

Commercial growers and energetic home growers will also be interested in the information on garden planning in my book Sustainable Market Farming.

I have a couple of slideshows on SlideShare.net,

See Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production 2019 Pam Dawling

To view it full screen, click the diagonal arrow in the lower right.

For long-term soil health and sustainability, think about crop rotations. See Crop rotations for vegetables and cover crops 2014, Pam Dawling

Buckwheat seedlings. Buckwheat is our quickest easiest summer cover crop.
Photo Pam Dawling

 First, a basic 6 steps of garden planning

  1. See How to Decide Which Crops to Grow.

Think about what you grew last year, and whether you want the same again. Think about what you wished you’d grown. Every year we try to introduce a new crop or two, on a small scale, to see if we can add it to our “portfolio.” Some-times we can successfully grow a crop that is said not to thrive in our climate. (Brussels sprouts really don’t). We like to find the varieties of each crop that do best for our conditions. Later we check how the new varieties do compared with our old varieties. We use heirloom varieties if they do well, hybrids if they are what works best for us. We don’t use treated seeds or GMOs, because of the wide damage we believe they do. For ideas of what you might grow, see our Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Crop.

Sowing Rainbow Chard. in a Winstrip tray
Photo Pam Dawling

2. Are any of your leftover seeds OK to keep?

See making an inventory, and Ordering seeds! Seed Viability Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook. Frank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.

Seeds stored in glass jars
Photo courtesy of Monticello

A simplified version of how long to keep seeds is as follows:

  • Year of purchase only: Parsnips, Parsley, Salsify, and the rarer Sea Kale, Scorzonera
  • 2 years: Corn, Beans and Peas of all kinds, Chives, Dandelion, Martynia, Okra, Onions,
  • 3 years: Asparagus, Carrots, Leeks, Rutabagas, Turnips,
  • 4 years: Artichokes, Basil, Cardoons, Chard, Peppers, Pumpkins, Spinach, Squash, and Watermelons,
  • 5 years: Beets, most Brassicas, Celery, Celeriac, Chicory, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Endive, Lettuce, Muskmelons, Tomatoes,

Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce).

The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. Keep seed cool, dark, dry in airtight, mouseproof containers.

An old hand-drawn map of one of our garden areas.
Image Pam Dawling
  1. How Much of What to Grow?

Make a rough map of your garden space and see what will fit. Remember you can plant a later crop in the same space after an earlier one finishes. See below for more info on quantities of potatoes and garlic, two staples.

  • How Much Garlic to Plant

A yield ratio of 1:6 or 7 seems typical, and makes complete sense when you consider you are planting one clove to get a bulb of 6–7 cloves. Divide the amount you intend to produce by six to figure out how much to plant. For large areas 750–1,000 lbs/ac (842–1,122 kg/ha) are needed for plantings in double rows, 3″–4″ in-row (7.5–10 cm), beds 39″ (1 m) apart. For single rows, 8 lbs (3.6 kg) of hardneck or 4 lbs (1.8 kg) of softneck plants about 100′ (30 m). In the US, one person eats 3–9 lbs (1.4–4.2 kg) per year.

Music hardneck garlic.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
A row of potato seed pieces ready to cover.
Photo by Wren Vile
  1. How Much Seed to Order?

Hopefully you kept some kind of record on whether the amount you bought last year was enough. When we figure out how much seed to order we add in some extra for some things – crops that can be difficult to germinate, or we really don’t want to cut too close. We add 20 percent extra for most crops, but only 5 percent for kale, 10 percent for onions and collards and 30 percent for melons. These numbers are based on our experience – yours might be different. We also know which seed we can buy in bulk and use over several years. This gives us an additional security against poor germination, or plagues of grasshoppers or caterpillars. For me, a big bag of broccoli seed for each of our main varieties gives some kind of warm glow of horticultural security! Buying too much either leads to wasting money (if we throw it away) or wasting time and money (if we sow old seed that doesn’t come up well, then have a crop failure).

If you use spreadsheets, see my post Cooking Greens in December Special Topic: Ordering Seeds.

Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops. Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts – have your calculator at the ready, or easier still, just type “Convert ½ oz to grams”into your search engine.

 

  1. Choosing varieties.

See How to read seed catalogs for tips on getting what you really want by paying attention to what’s in the small print and what isn’t mentioned. We carefully look for varieties that offer the flavor, productivity and disease resistance we need. The catalogs are starting to appear in my mail box. The early bird catches the preferred varieties! The main companies we order from are Fedco Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and of course, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We like SESE for regionally adapted varieties, Fedco for great prices on bulk sizes, and Johnny’s for some varieties we really like that aren’t available from the other two.

 

  1. Formatting and placing seed orders

We grow lots of different crops, so we make a spreadsheet, and include columns for the name of the supplier we buy each variety from (we just use the initial), the item number in the catalog, the packet size and the price. (Be careful though, if you carry this information over from year to year – prices change.) Once we have composed our total seed order, we sort the orders by the name of the supplier. Then we can calculate the total price for each supplier. This also gives us the opportunity to look at price breaks for large orders and move an item from one supplier to another, if that makes sense. At this point we usually make a cup of tea and reward ourselves with an “impulse buy” or two, if that doesn’t push us up into a higher shipping cost bracket or blow the budget. We place our orders online these days, nice and early, to increase the chances of getting exactly what we want.

Here are a few more thoughts on crops to consider:

  1. Insurance crops that are there when you need them

Young Bright Lights chard.
Photo Pam Dawling

For an overall sense of success, grow some “Insurance Crops”. These are reliable vegetable crops that grow without much attention and quietly wait until needed. Chard is one of those. We sow chard in April, after the early spring rush. We plan for it to provide us with leafy greens in the summer, after the brassicas have bolted. We prepare a bed, unroll hay mulch over it, then make “nests” in the hay for planting. Nests are holes in the hay down to soil level, at each spot where we want to plant. After transplanting. we water and tuck the hay tight around the plants to keep the weeds at bay. Some years there isn’t much demand for chard and we just leave it growing. If we need it, there it is with a generous supply of leaves. If we ignore it, nothing goes wrong. It’s worth having some crops like this in the garden, to help ensure there’s always something to eat.

Malabar spinach.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

One year we grew Malabar spinach and it played a similar role: hot weather leafy cooking greens. Malabar can be used when small for salads, or when larger for cooking. It wasn’t hugely popular in either role, but it was beautiful. To be fair, I don’t think we did the best by it. Because it was new, and because it had the word “spinach” in its name, some cooks served large leaves for salad. Alone. I don’t recommend that.

Purple Pod asparagus bean,
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Another insurance crop for us is asparagus beans, also known as yard long beans. Once trellised, the plants need no attention, other than regular picking. If not picked, the pods grow puffy and useless, so this is not a crop to ignore for too long. Asparagus beans are related to southern peas (cowpeas), and are more resistant to Mexican bean beetles than regular green beans are. They do need trellising, but once you’ve done that, the same plants will feed you all season. Very little seems to trouble them.

West Indian gherkins on a trellis.
Photo by Nina Gentle

While we’re on the topic of crops that do need trellising, but can then produce all season, I’ll add in the West Indian gherkins. I found I did need to tuck these plants into the netting, so they weren’t work free. But the plants were disease-free and very productive. If you have trouble with regular pickling cucumbers, you might sow some of these as well, to be sure of being able to have something to pickle.

Another insurance crop is Tokyo bekana, or its cousin Maruba Santoh in late summer as a substitute for lettuce. It can be hard to germinate lettuce in hot weather, but these tender brassicas germinate under hot conditions and produce fast-growing very tender leaves with crunchy stems. Some people don’t know they’re not eating lettuce!

Tokyo bekana and spinach in October.
Photo Wren Vile

Senposai is a cooking green that does well in spring and fall outdoors, and in our hoophouse in the winter. It’s fast-growing, productive, disease-resistant, easy to cook and delicious to eat.  In spring it needs an early start in our climate, so that it has time to be productive before it bolts. In fall it’s cold-hardy down to 12F.  Its Achilles Heel is that it can really attract Harlequin bugs! We did spend time every day for a while squashing the bugs on the senposai leaves, and we made a difference in the number of bugs.

Well, I hope this has given you some thoughts about ordering seeds of some insurance crops for next year, when you plan your seed order.

  1. VEGETABLE CROPS THAT OFFER FAST RETURNS

Because things can go wrong in agriculture, (we are, after all, not in control of the universe!) I like to have on hand seeds for fast-growing crops that can fill unexpected gaps.

Some Eat-All Greens in early November.
Photo Lori Katz
  1. Eat-All Greens

Carol Deppe, in her delightful book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening introduces us to the concept of Eat-All Greens. Carol grows these by broadcasting seed of one of her carefully chosen greens crops in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ tall, she cuts the top 9″ off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. I wanted to try this idea in Virginia, where the climate is fairly different from the Pacific Northwest where Carol lives. I decided fall was a promising time of year to try this scheme, as our spring planted greens only have a short season before they bolt. And summer is too hot, winter too cold. . . We sowed in mid-September.

These can also be insurance crops, in that, if you don’t need them, you can cut and compost them, to let fresh leaves grow. I wrote three posts on Eat-All Greens, because they were such fun and so productive