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This is the third in our biweekly series from Amy Pennington – urban farmer, founder of GoGo Green Garden, and author of Urban Pantry and Apartment Gardening – on how to start growing your own food, no matter how tiny your garden-to-be is.
Today: Amy shows us how to give our fruits and vegetables a head start by buying good seeds.
Starting Small: Buying and Storing Seeds
Searching for and choosing which seeds to grow is definitely one of the best parts of gardening. Planting from seed gives the home gardener flexibility and offers a certain creative spirit to the garden. Just think: if you like spicy greens like arugula, there are twenty-something more plants you've probably never heard of that will round out your salad bowl! When purchasing seed, I suggest going with vegetables you love and those that you cannot otherwise find commercially. No sense in growing a market cucumber (that traditional green cuke you see everywhere) when you can grow a thin-skinned Israeli Striped Cucumber. Mix it up. Have fun with it.
Using your garden wish list from last week, you're armed with a shopping plan. And I probably shouldn't tell you this, but here's the truth: order as many seeds as you like. Go crazy. Those shiny plant pictures are enticing and even if you purchase more seeds than your garden can handle, that's ok! When it comes time to plant you will have an inventory to choose from, and that's never a bad situation. Just make sure you order somewhat evenly from every crop rotation — leaf, root, flower, and fruit. When my seeds arrive, I file them in old recipe boxes by crop rotation, which helps to keep things uber-organized.
There are many seed sources, from nurseries and hardware stores to mail-order catalogs and online companies. I have to admit that while I have my favorites, there is no ONE resource for seeds. There are, however, a few rules to follow that will help narrow down your options:
1. Always purchase organic seed. By purchasing organic seed, you are supporting growers who have carefully and naturally bred plants for the best production. Additionally, as big corporations continue to gain control over the vast majority of our seed options, purchasing organic helps keep diversity alive. Over the last several hundred years, we have lost a fair amount of genetic diversity in our seeds; as gardeners, we have the ability to play a key role in that selection.
2. Choose varieties adapted to your local conditions. By doing so you run the least risk of failure, as the plants are acclimated to your regional conditions. Plants evolve and change to accommodate their environment, so when you purchase seed that has been grown close to home (or grown in conditions similar to where you live), you're increasing your chances of success.
3. Sow dates and maturing times are important. Many seed packets read "Sow after last frost," which can be confusing. In my view, seeds fall into three categories of planting times: those that can be planted first thing in spring, those that do well in heat (considered "heat tolerant" or "heat lovers"), and those that are good cool-weather crops. Check out your local university extension for specific planting calendars — they are a great resource.
4. Check the life cycle of your plant: maturing times ("50 days," "85 days") are helpful, as they allow you to map your garden around your schedule and make plans based on when you will be harvesting. For example, if you're planting lettuce in May and traveling for the month of July, you should steer clear of varieties with a 60-day maturing time. Instead, opt for quick-maturing lettuces that have a 45-day turnaround.
5. Note whether the plant is open-pollinated, heirloom, or hybrid by looking on your seed packet. Open-pollinated and heirloom seeds produce mature plants that create seeds that, when replanted, stay true to the parent plant. Opt for these varieties if you would like to save your seed. Hybrid plants have been cross-bred (think of Mendeleev's crossed pea plants), and their seeds will not produce plants with the same qualities as the parent.
Ordering Strategy and First Planting
It is important to keep climate in mind when purchasing seeds. For example, the Pacific Northwest has mild winters that allow for year-round gardening (especially hardy greens and brassicas like kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli), but a short, cool summer season that makes melons, peppers, and corn (which need long, hot summers) challenging to grow. In contrast, Midwestern states have a hot summer season ideal for tomatoes and peppers, but winters that are generally too cold for unprotected outdoor crops. Size matters, too: if you are growing in small containers (which will limit a plant's growth) it is best to choose a smaller variety of plant. If dwarf varieties of your favorite vegetable are available, select those.
For your first planting this year, think lettuces, greens, and root vegetables. Spring planting begs for lettuces. Don't hold back — I purchase far more lettuce seeds than anything else because they are quick-growing and continue producing until your second crop rotation of flowers and fruits like tomatoes and broccoli is ready to harvest. (And because I'm addicted to salad.) Carrots, radishes, beets, and turnips are popular and easy-to-grow spring root vegetables.
Here are a few great sources for reading up on and buying seed.
Seeds of Change - This company has an awesome website with lots of great information. Even though they are located in the Pacific Northwest, they sell varieties that won't do well there. Pay attention to the growing cycle of each plant and make sure it doesn't require a long hot season (but if you're in hot New York like my family, plant some corn!)
Seed Savers Exchange - These folks are the bomb. They are more costly than others, so I order from there selectively, but they are a wonderful organization dedicated to saving and sharing rare and heirloom seeds. I picked up a packet of "Crisp Mint Lettuce" last year — a frilly Romaine-like lettuce — and it was awesome.
Fedco Seeds - This seed company is old school and dedicated to the craft of seed saving. They have many varieties and do well in Northern latitudes. The only downfall is there are no pictures in the catalog and not many online, so you have to go off of their whimsical descriptions.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - This company is totally rad, and they carry a lot of heat-loving plant varieties. They are my one-stop source for melons and peppers. Check them out for inspiration and rare seeds. They are small and wonderful.
Osborne Seeds - A Pacific Northwest seed company that sells varieties just right for our climate. Sorry, East coasters, but HURRAH for us!
Do you have any great seed resources? List them in the comments!
Photos by Della Chen