A blanket of snow in the garden, freezing temps, and a warm fire are all it takes to start the wheels of inspiration going for next years spring plantings. With a pile of seed catalogs, last years garden journal, and a lot of new ideas floating around in my head I begin the planning process.
While some are content with the seed rack at the local garden center, I am always fascinated with browsing every seed catalog, reading descriptions, and trying new crops and varieties. I think tomatoes, greens, and pumpkins are my weakness. Not to mention annuals and bulbs and a new interest in grains and cover crops. A little obsessive ---but it's a healthy obsession. So what ever your level of interest, knowing a few basics about seeds will result in more success in the garden.
"Bad seed is robbery of the worst kind: for your pocket-book not only suffers by it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved." George Washington
I think our Founding Father reveals a great goal when it comes to horticulture: each season should result in an improvement in your garden, landscape, orchard, etc. It all starts with selecting good seed.
What is a Seed?
Seeds are an amazing miracle consider this:
"In every viable seed, nature has packed an embryo and a small food supply, a sort of box lunch, to nourish it during its seed life. The nucleus of every cell in that seed contains in its DNA the complete instructions for making a plant like itself. If we could translate this genetic information into instructions spelled out in English, the written blueprint for spinach might require several hundred volumes, each about 800 pages long." (The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds Robert Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough p.2)
1. The embryo which will develop into the plant under the right conditions.
2. The endosperm which provides food for the the germinating seedling in the form of carbs, proteins, or fats.
3. The seed coat: Keeps oxygen and moisture out and protects the seed from damage by insects and disease.
Types of Seeds
Open pollinated seeds will produce true to type plants if self pollinated or pollinated by the same cultivar. Pollination occurs by natural means through wind, insects, humans, or other natural methods. Seeds from open pollinated varieties can be saved but steps must be taken to prevent cross pollination. New open pollinated varieties are continually being developed. (such exciting news!) Open pollination ensures biodiversity in plants and is important to the health of agriculture.
Heirlooms are open pollinated but not all open pollinated varieties are heirlooms. To be considered an heirloom the seeds should be older than 40-50 years. They generally have a history and are handed down from one generation to the next and are grown in a specific region. Heirlooms have adapted to the soil and climate of that region. They are sometimes named after the seed saver or region they came from.
Hybridization requires the controlled pollinating of two different species to create a desired trait. The first generation, labeled F1, in seed catalogs grows better because of hybrid vigor. Seeds saved from hybrid plants are considered unstable and will not produce true to type plants and are less vigorous. For this reason you must purchase hybrid seed each year. Hybrids can be stabilized, become open pollinated, over years of growing, selecting, and saving seed.
What type of seed you choose depends on your goals. I use all 3 in my garden. If you are not interested in saving seed or the heritage of seeds then hybrids are fine. They are sometimes easier to grow but some open pollinated and heirlooms perform just as well.
Sometimes you choose a certain variety because of a trait you want or its disease resistance. So my point is be open to all 3 options and choose what will accomplish your goals. If you have no to little experience gardening then choosing all heirlooms, which may not adapted to your area, may result in a dismay failure.
Things to Consider when Choosing Seed
1. The best advice I can give you is to find successful local gardeners and see what they recommend. It's nice to have dependable varieties and a dependable gardening resource.
2. Then try a few new varieties each year and you may come up with your own list of favorites.
3. When choosing a variety, look at days to maturity, you may want to plant early, mid, and late season. Also be sure your season is long enough for the fruit or plant to mature to harvest.
4. Understand the symbols
OP Open Pollinated
5. When reading the description, note if harvest is extended over the season or if the plant sets one crop. Do you want to harvest over a longer period or have one large harvest for canning and be done?
6. With beans and winter squash there are bush, semi-bush, and vining. A vining plant will need trellising or rambling room. Trellis plants need some protection from winds.
7. With tomatoes you have determinate plants which grow to a certain size, stop, then set fruit. The indeterminate continue growing and producing until a freeze. They are large and sprawling needing support from tomato cages.
8. If you container garden look for varieties that are specifically bred for containers. Likewise there are varieties bred for green house production etc.
9. Descriptions list disease resistance. They are abbreviated V (verticillium wilt) ToMV (Mosaic Virus) The letters may be followed by number designating the race of the virus etc. Depending on the company they may or may not tell you what the abbreviation stands for.
If certain diseases are problematic in your area be aware and buy resistant seed. Resistance means that if the plant gets the disease it will likely survive and produce. This is where your experienced gardening friends will be an asset and can direct you in what diseases may be a problem in your area.
10. In cucumbers and melons there are varieties that are gynoecious meaning they produce mostly female flowers. Often standard (monoecious) seeds are included in the pack to ensure pollination. Parthenocarpic means the ovule produces fruit without fertilization so the fruits are relatively seedless
11. With corn, which is wind pollinated, you need to plant in large blocks and each variety generally requires isolation. Plan carefully. All sweet corn requires isolation from popcorn, ornamental corn, and field corn.
The promise of spring lies beneath the snow. As days lengthen you can anticipate and plan for spring and summer harvests. So grab those catalogs, inventory your seeds, have the fire burning, a cup of hot cocoa nearby, and start planning!