It may be freezing and gray outside, but in my head, next spring’s garden is in full bloom. It’s that time of year again: the seed catalogs are arriving in the mail. A variety of shapes and sizes from all over the country stuff my postbox, each catalog boasts a dizzying, color-saturated cornucopia of fresh foods across its cover, tempting would-be buyers to open their pages with promises of vegetal nirvana. Some gals might go crazy over shoes or purses, but for me, it’s all about the seeds. I do believe that I actually swoon in my driveway as I collect the mail each day.
For over 100 years, seed catalogs have been pandering to gardeners with the promises of beautiful plants!
It’s the same thing every year. Inky-dark, indigo-colored tomatoes? Sure! Three different types of seed potatoes? Why not! Seven varieties each of pole beans and winter squash? Yes, yes, yes! I earmark pages and circle product listings and compare prices, taking careful notes in a book that, with all my chicken scratch and coded lists, soon become about as decipherable as hieroglyphics to anyone but myself. And in the end… well, let’s just say the dreams exceed the means, and thus begins the unavoidable and decidedly less-fun next process of scaling back my wish list to fit the realities of my budget and space limits.
Variety abounds! It is hard to pick just one to plant when there are so many good choices
I’ve learned a lot since I first started growing my garden from seed each year. From my (many) mistakes, I’ve been able to figure out how to have the diverse and productive garden I want without totally breaking the bank or losing my sanity. Maybe these tips can help you, too:
1. Know thy soil… and sun, and water, and space
With the abundance of choices laid out for you in such pretty, glossy photographs, it can be all too easy to get sucked-in to growing plants that really won’t work well in your garden. It is extremely important to plan your purchases around the garden you have, not the one you want. The vast amount of food plants want full sun- how much does your yard have to give? If your soil is heavy, waterlogged clay, what will you do to amend your soil into the “well-drained loam” plant roots prefer? Have you checked your pH or had a soil test lately? Like a petulant toddler, a vegetable garden sometimes feels like nothing but work and demands before you reap the rewards of your hard work, planning, and patience. It’s tempting to throw some seeds in the ground with minimal effort and wait to see what comes up, but this is generally a road to disappointment. Without giving thought to the conditions of your soil, sun, water, and space, plants tend to crowd, grow poorly, produce little or no fruit, and often succumb to disease and pests. Instead of going crazy seed-shopping and ending up with nothing to show for it, start small. Pick a couple things you have grown before, and try one or two new plants. Really get to know their preferences before you plant, and you will have much greater success in the garden.
2. Timing and temperature are the keys to success
Different plants’ seeds need different temperatures in order to germinate. If you plan on starting tomatoes or peppers from seed, for example, then you had better have some indoor grow lights and an incubating source of heat. These seeds need temperatures around 80 degrees Fahrenheit in order to begin growing, and they need weeks of indoor care before they are ready to transplant outside. On the other end of the spectrum are plants like peas and lettuce that love cold weather and can germinate at as low as 40 degrees, making it possible to directly plant their seeds in the garden when temperatures are still far from balmy and dangers of frosts remain. Be aware of germination temperatures for the seeds you buy, and consult a regional seed-starting chart to help you decide when to plant.
3. Know the regional preferences of the seeds you buy
If you can, try to select seeds that are sourced from your region, or at least from a region with similar climate. Just as certain breeds of dog have been bred for cold climates while others do better in the heat, heirloom plant varieties often carry in their genes preferences for day length, humidity, temperature, and more. As a general rule, try to pick varieties listed as “bred in” or “sourced from” the Midwest or Northeast, and stay away from seeds listed as “Southern favorites” or anything of that sort. Even hybrids will perform better when planted in a climate similar to the one they were engineered for.
4. There is something to be said for novelty... and against it
Part of the fun and motivation to grow your own food is the chance to grow truly unique, even bizarre, plants that you would never find at the grocery store. Our eyes are drawn to novel shapes and colors, and only the most Spartan home gardener plants only for utility without at least a nod to aesthetic. So go crazy- a little. Pick one or two seed varieties that you want to grow purely because they make you smile. Gardening should be fun! But beware: some of the varieties bred primarily for their looks are lacking in hardiness, flavor, or disease resistance, and they almost always cost more. Ask yourself: Am I growing this because it looks cool in the catalog, or do I actually want to eat it?
5. Choose strong varieties
We all meet certain caveats when working within the parameters of our gardens. For example, I have a fungal blight (I think) in my soil, and last year I discovered that while my eight beautiful varieties of tomato seedlings all looked good in May, by September it was only the lone, hearty hybrid variety I had planted that survived- and fruited- to the end of the season. While I tend to champion the ethics and integrity of the heirloom seed trade, the fact of the matter is that if I want to grow tomatoes, I’m going to need to stick with mostly hybrids in order to get the hundred or so pounds I need for canning. Hybrid varieties of plants exhibit a phenomenon called “hybrid vigor,” a genetic condition that makes them much more hardy and disease resistant than “open-pollinated” or heirloom varieties (hybrid plants are also unusable for saving seed and provide an impetus for a corporate food-scape, but that’s another blog post.) Now, even when choosing amongst heirloom seeds, I prioritize those varieties touted for their hardiness rather than buying based on how the plants look, and the result is a more productive, less labor-intensive garden.
6. Give yourself a reality check
Do yourself a favor and avoid the mental pitfall I inevitable fall in: when planning my garden, I see nothing but the end result in my head. I envision myself hauling a cartful of pristine, sun-kissed produce to my back door, wiping the sweat off my brow as I reach for a cool drink, smiling with satisfaction at Nature’s bestowment of benevolence and bounty. The reality, always, is something more akin to this: my back hurts from weeding that I cannot seem to keep up with, the flea beetles are driving me absolutely crazy, and my experiment in co-mingling my squash and bush beans has turned the back quarter of my garden into a jungle of vines straight out of Heart of Darkness that I’m more than a little scared to step foot in. Even with the best of planning, a garden is oh-so-much work and time. Forget just for a moment the allure of home-grown melons and straight-from-the-stalk corn, and just think a minute about the time and money it will require to successfully grow those plants. Do you have the extra money for a trellis? For fertilizer? Will you be able to remain Zen-like as you crouch on your knees in the mud thinning out a hundred row feet of carrot seedlings? Chances are- if you are like me- you will scoff at the sufferings your future-self will endure three months down the road and proceed to plant your dream garden anyways. But it doesn’t hurt to try to be a little more reasonable…
7. Use what you buy
Seeds tend to come in packs of hundreds, if not thousands, but they don’t last forever. Store the seeds you don’t use this year in a cool, dry place so that you can use them again next year. Pay attention to how long each plant variety’s seeds last; some can be kept stowed away for years, while others have a use-it-now-or-lose-it lifespan. Go in with a friend on some seed purchases so that you can spread the cost and both benefit. Starting your own plants from seed can save you quite a bit of money in the long haul- but only if you plan it right.
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