Friday, November 14, 2014

Early Season Garden Planning: Reading Seed Catalogs

Seed catalogs are a love language of their own, filled with tiny time capsules promising me purple speckled pole beans and peppers that will make my husband finally admit their is a hot sauce too hot. In a perfect world I would buy one of everything and find out what I like through trial and error. Alas! Budgets, time, and my small apartment scheme against me. While I still buy a large amount of seeds every year, I have learned some of what to look for.

     Between the pictures of purple carrots and multicolored tomatoes its easy to look for the strangest and most stunning pictures and skip the print, but there are a few things to know.

Open Pollination
 These seeds are pollenated by anything, the wind, bees, and people. They are able to develop characteristics that fit their environment better and adapt over time into a unique heirloom.  

Open pollinators give you a little more control over pollination and are what you need for seed saving. Left to themselves different varieties of the same species will cross polinate, but there are different ways to manage this without having to buy seeds every year.  For example, there are four species of squash and if you’re letting nature take its course you can only plant one of each. The Pepo species has many of my favorites from Patty Pan to Black Beauty Zuchinni. If you want to save the seeds, it is easy to rub the male flowers of each plant into the female ones and cover them with a brown bag until the fruit forms. 

An heirloom variety is an open pollenated plant that has developed particular traits which makes it unique and desirable. All heirlooms are open pollinators, but not all open pollinators are heirloom varieties. 

One of  my goals is to develop varieties particularly suited to my area. All of the heirlooms I love were bred especially for their area whether it was planned or accidental. We are losing varieties all across the nation as corporations plant mono crops  that slowly ween out the unique attributes of local seed. 

These are different variety of a species that have been bred together to develop a particular trait like higher yields or larger plants. In a catalog it will be described as F1 Hybrid. The seed from hybrids will not grow true to the original product. Gardeners who use them have to buy seed every year. 

There is no one size fits all form for choosing varieties. When you are reading the catalog, think about what problems you usually have. In my parent’s garden, they don’t get enough sunlight to fully ripen tomatoes, so my mom looked for varieties known for early maturity. The most commonly known variety is Early Girl which is an F1 Hybrid. The patent for the genetic strains behind this beautiful fruit are owned by Seminis, a seed house purchased by Monsanto. According to farmers who work with Seminis they were unable to provide untreated organic seed to the farmers which means we will have to start looking at other varieties to get tomatoes in June. Baker Creek and Seed Savers earliest varieties are beautiful and tasty. I am growing Black Cherry Tomatoes which mature at 65 - 70 days from their transplanting date.  
Other characteristics are dwarf, long season varieties, and great producers. 
Another good option is to look for varieties that come from your area or an area similar. I live in a wide valley that has long hot summers with full sunlight for twelve to seventeen hours in the summer. I have chosen varieties from Iraq and the south west. There are micro climates in every area, so get to know the extremes and use them as assets. I am so excited about my Iraqi variety!

I bargain shop for everything, but when it came to seeds I was ready to just buy from the place that had what I wanted. The thought of trying to do anything else gave me a headache. 
I researched all my varieties individually to look for reviews and more information about growing them in my area. While some were only sold by one company, most websites had a close variety. This year I have planned my garden from two companies, Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Seeds. For the most part their prices were comparable, but each seed house had a vegetable that they grew more and sold for less. 
I am still checking out local seed companies for late season crops and can’t wait to discover new favorites. Exploring new catalogs is exciting and familiar and the first step of a year of adventure!

     In a previous post, we talked about gardening like your life depended on it. While many of us have option of buying from the store, it is not one I like to use. Whether the reasons are ethical, nutritional, or economic, the most important thing is to do as much as you can. I love to grow things and watch life spring up under my care. My goal is to have a continuous garden next year and grow enough to provide for my family.

Even though I hope to save my seed, I will never be done with catalogs. There will always be a new variety to try or back up seeds to buy. Seed catalogs are full of potential and challenge; they inspire me to try new things and keep trying until I find the plant that works the best for me. Producing pitch black tomatoes and turnips the size of an ostrich egg doesn't hurt. 

Next time we will look at where we plant our gardens. 


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