Selecting Seeds

A spread of seed catalogs
This is one of a series of posts for new gardeners. Click here for the complete list of related posts.

Did you know that carrots come in red, yellow, and white?

Or that you can grow a bell pepper the color of milk chocolate?

Or that there’s a radish that is jet black on the outside, and creamy white on the inside? And another radish that looks like a teeny tiny watermelon when sliced open? Hang on, I think I’ve got one of those lying around…

a small sliver of a watermelon radish

Cute, isn’t it? And to answer the question we always get at the farmers market, it still tastes like radish. Not watermelon.

Over the years, we’ve grown white cucumbers, purple basil (and purple “green beans,” purple lettuce, and purple kale.) We’ve  had chocolate mint, brown and red striped tomatoes, and white acorn squash. We’ve picked hot peppers in every color under the sun (okay…maybe not blue…) and summer squash in all sorts of weird shapes and sizes. Vegetables that some folks have only vaguely heard of (if at all) have become part of our regular vocabulary. We discuss things like kohlrabi, bok choy, and komatsuna the way some people discuss the latest binge-watching shows on Netflix.

And all of this variety of vegetables, the unexpected colors, odd shapes, and delicious experimentation are thanks to one priceless tool for farmers and gardeners alike:

The seed catalog.

Every gardener I know speaks of seed catalogs in the same reverent hush usually reserved for religious experiences or life-changing events. In our world, seed catalogs are the cause of religious experiences and life-changing events. You simply cannot be the same person you were after seeing a teeny-tiny carrot seed grow into a full-size root, with it’s big, green bushy head above ground. Watching little pea tendrils shoot out and grab a trellis much like babies latch on to fingers never ceases to amaze me. Nature is stunning in its abundance and variety and if, until now, most of your knowledge of vegetables has been limited to what is sold in grocery stores, well, then, you haven’t any idea of all that’s out there. Go grab the nearest seed catalog and you’ll open the door to a whole new world of very strange plants. And very strange plant names. But be forewarned – varietal names are not for the faint of heart, the easily offended,or anyone who seeks straightforward logic.

Take, for example, the asparagus pea. You didn’t know such a thing existed? Me neither. But it does. And (naturally) it’s not related to asparagus or peas.

The Guatemalan Blue Banana is a squash, not a banana.

The Hillbilly Potato Leaf is a tomato, not a potato. Or a leaf.

Actually, the tomato sections of the catalogs are worth a deeper dig, as they frequently don’t make a lick of sense. Hartman’s Yellow Pear is a tomato. So is the Black Cherry.  Chestnut Chocolate? It’s a tomato.  Blue Berries? Tomatoes. The Pork Chop? Also a tomato.   The Missouri Pink Love Apple? A tomato. That  made me laugh out loud.

Things quickly go downhill from there. The Mexico Midget made me cringe and wonder if perhaps it wasn’t time for a re-branding.  The Black Sea Man made my cringe cringe on multiple levels. But the most questionable tomato name in my book (or seed catalog, rather,) has to go to the tomato with the dubious distinction of being called…Cream Sausage.

That is an unfortunate name choice.

Gross.

There’s the Lazy Wife Stringbean. (They’re stringless, thus easier to prepare in the kitchen. Sigh.)And there’s the Collective Farm Woman. (Yeah! Raise your fist in leftist, liberal, back-to-the-earth-farm-woman solidarity!) Oh, wait. It’s a melon. It’s the Collective Farm Woman…Melon. (Insert irony here.)

There’s a Sweet Passion Cantaloupe and a Winter Luxury Squash. Those sound sexy. The Purple Dragon Carrot and the Yellow Oxcart Carrot make me think that if I ate them, I might suddenly be endowed with super powers and know all the martial arts. The Tennessee Dancing Gourds make me think of banjos and whiskey, and the Fast Lady Northern Southern Pea, well…that’s just confusing.

We spend hours in front of the fireplace reading through multiple seeds catalogs each year, and each year we have to talk ourselves off the ledge so we don’t end up buying hundreds of varieties of vegetables just because we like the name. To that point, while the names and accompanying descriptions are quite entertaining, I recommend against buying your seed vegetables like we buy our wine (Oh! Look it has a neat label!) as getting things to grow can be a little tricky. So for that reason, it’s worthwhile to cover a few basics of seed terminology so that you know exactly what you’re getting – and choose according to what you want.

Open pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid seeds: what’s the difference?

Open-pollinated:

Open pollinated seeds have a couple of working definitions. First of all, this term is used for seeds that are pollinated by insects, birds (or other animals), wind or other natural means. This is in contrast to plants pollinated intentionally by humans (we’ll get to that in a minute) or plants that self-pollinate (like beans.) Additionally, open-pollination is often used to refer to seeds that “breed true” meaning that they produce offspring that look and taste like the parents. Not all plants do this. If you take the seeds of an apple you just ate and plant them, they will not produce a single apple like the one you just ate. Chances are, in fact, every seed that you plant from the same apple will produce an entirely different apple from the original apple as well as the other seeds from the apple. Mind. Blown. And, just because apples are obnoxious, chances are that all of your new apple varieties will likely be “spitters,” apples so sour you spit them out after one bite.

A good apple is a rare thing. But – as usual – we’ve digressed. Sorry ’bout that. Back to seeds.

Heirloom:

Heirloom seeds are ones that have a trackable history of being passed down from generation to generation within a family or another community. There is no end-all-be-all definition or certification of heirloom seeds. Some seeds companies may consider a seed with a 50 year history heirloom, some companies may say it’s 75 years. Other groups, such as Seed Savers Exchange actually track and record the history of the seeds and the families who passed them on.

Here’s one additional important point: All heirlooms must be open pollinated, but not all open pollinated plants are heirloom. In terms of purchasing heirloom seeds, that designation will be in the seed description or on the seed packet.

Hybrid:

Hybridization is when humans intentionally cross two different species or varieties of plants. This is usually done to foster a desired trait, like a tomato less prone to cracking. Hybrids also tend to grow more vigorously and produce more fruit than the parent plants. But (and it’s a big but) hybrid seeds can’t be saved to plant more of the same plant. Like apples above, the seeds are genetically unstable and won’t produce true-to-type offspring. Additionally, with hybrids the offspring will be notably less vigorous and productive than the parent plant. Still, if you’re not looking to save seeds, hybrids can produce some really fantastic vegetables.

The open-pollinated/heirloom/hybrid decision is only one of several you’ll have to make when picking your seeds. The second takes on the organic vs conventional debate.

Organic vs conventional seed: what’s the difference?

Organic seed:

Organic seed, as the name indicates, is seed that has been grown on an organic seed farm. The concept of organic certification is a big one, but essentially organic farms commit to not using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers and strive to grow produce in a more natural setting. Be aware – this does not mean that chemicals are not used in organic farming. Organic farmers have a smaller arsenal of chemicals they are allowed to use, and all of them (with a few exceptions) need to come from a nature-based source. In our own personal opinion, based on the research we’ve done into organics and organic certification, we view organic as better than conventional, but not the end-all-be-all solution to everything that it is sometimes regarded as.

conventional seed:

Conventional seed is seed produced on any seed farm that is not organic. Note that there is no official “conventional” designation like there is organic. Conventional is simply a catch-all term for anyone who is not organic. While, in the huge majority of cases, that does mean big farms that may spray whatever they wish, it also encompasses small family farms or even individuals who may save seeds using organic (or better) processes, but who don’t want to mess with organic designation. If we were to save and sell seed, ours would be designated as conventional, even though we have committed to using organic-or-better practices in everything we do. It’s worth doing your research on who is selling your seed if that is something that matters to you.

As for the organic versus conventional debate we, personally, try to buy organic where we can – in part because we simply want to support organic farmers – but we’ll readily buy conventional if organic of a variety isn’t available. We’re much more concerned with how we’ll actually be raising and growing the plant that comes from the seed, than the seed itself.

So, now having covered types of seeds…where to get them?

where to purchase seed

Last year, Mike and I did this entire blog series in a two-hour Gardening 101 workshop. After our whole spiel and this section on seeds and seed catalogs, a wonderfully nice woman in the audience raised her hand and said, “Is there anything wrong with just buying seeds from the checkout lane of a home-improvement store?”

I laughed out loud and realized that, as we tend to do, we had gone a bit overboard with our information.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying seeds from any rack you see at your local stores. They will stock more seeds than you will have room to put in your garden, and those seeds are going to grow just like anything you would order out of a catalog.

There are a couple reasons, however, that we tend toward seed catalogs. First off, if you haven’t gathered this already, we love reading them.

Secondly, and on a more practical note, the seed catalogs are going to have much more variety and much more interesting options than what you find at the store. The store will tend to stock vegetables easily recognizable to the general public. You’ll have your standards of everything. But will you have your Chocolate Pear Tomato?

Unlikely.

Thirdly, by buying from carefully vetted seed catalogs, we can put our money where our values are. We try to avoid making purchases for our farm that in anyway support Monsanto. This is, admittedly, a politically charged issue, but Monsanto has gone a long way toward reducing the variety of vegetables that exist and putting society on track toward a food monoculture. A reduction in the variety o plants and food that is out there is a dangerous thing for a population and the rebellion against Monsanto is one of those weird issues that liberal hippie gardeners and conservative prepper types actually agree on. We’ll let you guess as to which end of that spectrum we fit on, but we do try and purchase seeds from companies with solid (or more solid than Monsanto’s) values.  Some of the places we get ours:

Seed Saver Exchange: A non-profit “committed to keeping heirloom seeds around for generations to come.” We like that they’re non-profit, as that takes the greed out of the equation (ahem-Monsanto) and we like their mission. Plus, they have some really cool varieties and also host lectures and workshops.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: All heirloom. Family owned. Very, very neat varieties.

High Mowing Organic Seeds: All the seeds they provide are organic, and they have free shipping on everything which is pretty great when you realize you ordered everything except one small packet of spinach seeds for which the shipping is usually the same (or more) than the seeds themselves.

Johnny’s – An employee-owned company that sells seed as well as gardening supplies like organic pesticides, covercrops, row cover and other things we frequently need here on the farm.

There are actually a many more good companies out there: Territorial, Southern Exposure, and Raintree Nursery are other favorites.

With so many quality options, we prefer to avoid the less-sustainable ones.

A quick word on growing time:

The final consideration in picking your seeds has to do with how long the fruit they produce takes to ripen. Depending on where you are in the country, you have shorter or longer growing seasons and for those of us with shorter seasons, certain vegetables may not have the time required to ripen before first frost. Where we are in Colorado, for example, our typical last frost in the spring is mid-May, and our first frost in the fall is usually around mid-October. Vegetables that like long, warm seasons might struggle here. We can grow watermelons and pumpkins but we know that they need a lot of time to ripen and have to go in early, be protected from any cold snaps, and then will only make it if we don’t have an early frost. Sweet potatoes only grow if we buy a short-season variety, and even then the results are only mediocre. If you live in a cooler climate, make sure and check that you aren’t growing vegetables or varieties for warm climates. Seed packets should indicate plants’ average date to ripeness and often note varieties that need exceptionally long growing season or have other special considerations.

That being said, though, you now have your seeds! It’s time to get them in the ground! But wait! Not so fast. Not everything goes in at once, and you’ll want to make sure that you plan your timing right, so that your warm weather plants don’t get stunted and your cool weather plants don’t bolt from the heat. (Bolting is a term that means “to go to seed” by the way. Your plants aren’t going to literally run away from warm weather.) Didn’t know there was such a thing as warm weather and cool weather crops? That’s okay. It’s why we’re here, and it’s what we’ll tackle next in Planting Times and Tips for Common Vegetables.

While we work on getting that post up, you just peruse those seed catalogs and tell me that Darkibor Kale doesn’t sound like the evil villan variety of the cabbage family. Darkibor…

evil kaleHappy seed selecting!

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