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.