Did you know that SNAP funds (formerly known as food stamps) can be used to buy seeds and plants that produce food? SNAP clients can buy heirloom and organic seeds and plants in stores that accept EBT cards. Visit SNAP Gardens: Turning Food Stamps into Bountiful Gardens for more info.
I have received several seed catalogs already and have deliberately NOT looked at them yet. Once you open the cover and look at that first photograph it is over. Over, I tell you!!! I get sucked in so quickly and immediately want to grow everything. Okay, let’s back up and put this all in perspective. Seed catalogs are designed and written to sell seeds. Even the most wonderful company is selling seeds to make money. And there is nothing wrong with that. But if we begin our seed shopping journey with that in mind it might help us to NOT order more seeds than we need or varieties that don’t even fit our lifestyles.
Last year I grew a lot of crops that I honestly didn’t even eat except for maybe a taste. Why? Many reasons, the main one being that I don’t know what vegetables I like (in many cases). Because I started life out eating canned green beans and canned corn, Del Monte being my favorite brand. If we ate salad we ate iceberg lettuce, a slice of store-bought tomato and sliced cucumbers. I then poured French dressing on mine because that was the only salad dressing I liked. I had never tasted a beet until last year and because I am not Italian I did not grow up eating eggplant. I have grown it in the past, and I have prepared and eaten delicious Eggplant Parmesan; it is not a veggie that is a regular part of my eating routine (meaning it is a lot of work and pushes me way outside of my comfort zone and abilities — I have to read up on how to sweat it, pat it dry, cut or slice depending on what the final outcome, and then fry it up). I did not grow up around a family member who grew vegetables. I have had to learn what I know from books, the occasional PBS television show, and, watching videos online. I had to learn everything from scratch and I still consider myself very much a student. Vegetables commonly grown in home gardens are foods that have not been a part of my regular diet. I am slowly making changes.
I am fairly adventurous. I derive great pleasure from learning new skills, discovering aspects of a subject that previously eluded me, and absorbing wonderful tidbits of new information. I am a curious soul. If I am not learning something new I feel as though I am dying. Although I am not a beet lover, growing beets last year taught me quite a bit: they are not a good companion plant for pumpkins, they seem to grow slowly but suddenly overnight are harvestable, and they begin to rise from the soil as they bulb up. Their leaves are lovely. The beets themselves produce this amazing purplish red color that can be used as a natural dye. Beets can be pickled as a condiment, fermented into kvas which is a beverage, or roasted in the oven. They are not commonly consumed in modern America but were a common home vegetable garden crop 100 years ago because they are so easy to grow and very nutrious. I will grow beets again this year and learn how to incorporate them into my diet. I will not plant them with my pumpkins. See, I learned a lot last year even if I didn’t eat many beets. I think I might know what I am doing this time around.
After that long and verbose introduction, here are some helpful hints on the topic of choosing which varieties to grow from seed catalogs and online catalogs (which are even more overwhelming).
- Skim each catalog the first time without marking any single variety. Do this with all of your catalogs — just skim.
- Second time through, mark some varieties that you are interested in growing this year.
- Make a list of what you would like to grow based on your diet and how much you spend for organic produce. If you can get large bags of organic carrots for a reasonable price, you probably don’t need to grow carrots. But if organic tomatoes are $5/lb in your area, that is worth garden space. Organic sweet corn is not even sold in farmer’s markets here so that is something I am thinking about growing intensively in a small space as an experiment. Organic peppers are nearly as expensive as tomatoes so I will once again attempt to grow them.
- For each item listed above look for a few varieties that might work in your climate: north (long day), central (day-neutral), south (short day). Here is a detailed explanation of Photoperiodism if you want to learn about why you need to grow certain varieties of onions or garlic in your location. Don’t even consider a short day variety of onion if you live in Michigan; the onions won’t form bulbs. If you live in a hot climate you want slow-bolting varieties of lettuce and spinach.
- Consider the length of your growing season. Here in Connecticut, our growing season is fairly short but not (confused yet?). New England has a longer cool crop season and a shorter warm crop season. I tend to choose varieties with shorter times to harvest. If I have a variety that is mature in 65 days and have a second variety that matures in 80-90 days, typically I will choose the shorter time to maturation because I have a short warm crop growing season of approximately 90 days. While in Texas growing lettuce and spinach are a huge challenge, up here in Connecticut I can grow them for a much longer period of time but have a difficult time growing peppers because our warm growing season is much shorter. Clear as mud?
- Do you want only fresh produce to eat as you go along or do you want to preserve some via canning or fermentation? If fresh only, you might consider not growing bush varieties of tomatoes, beans and peas which ripen all at once resulting in one large harvest. Pole varieties of beans and peas and indeterminate varieties of tomatoes grow over a longer period but produce less at one time. A corn crop will ripen all at once, though you can stagger your sowing times for multiple harvests if you have enough space, or grow early or late varieties.
- Do not hesitate to call the seed company and ask them questions related to your particular climate or the size and flavor of a particular variety. Do not use their toll-free number unless you are placing an order. If you cannot afford a phone call you can ask questions via email, but a phone conversation will yield a lot more information (a lot of people do not type quickly so you might receive a brief response). If there is no one who can answer your questions you should probably consider ordering from another supplier; that company might just buy seeds from who knows where (like China), repackage and label as their own.
- Do an internet search on each and every variety you are considering. Baker Creek Seeds has a review feature on their website that you might check even if you are not ordering from them. I now always check their reviews before making a final choice. If I had done that last winter I would not have grown Cocozelle di Napoli squash. Turns out that my experience with it is common (large plants, fewer fruits which is great if you have a lot of space and only one or two people to feed).
- Make friends with other gardeners in your area. If you want to call it networking to create perspective, go for it. Politely ask other gardeners which varieties they prefer to grow and why. Ask which varieties do not do well in your area. Sit at the feet of more experienced gardeners, so to speak, listen, listen, listen and learn. If you struggled with growing something, ask them what you might do differently next time. I learned a lot about growing pumpkins last year from speaking with an experienced gardener in my local garden center (it was not a Home Depot or Lowes).
- Order early. Seeds must be started 4-12 weeks before they can be transplanted to the garden. If you wait a week before you need to start your seeds you might end up in the rush and miss a week or two of growing time. Honestly, I need to place my order this week.
- If you are a beginner, grow only a few easy-to-grow vegetables. It is better to do well at growing one variety each of tomato, cucumber and pepper than to fail at growing 4 different lettuces, cherry, slicing and paste tomatoes, slicing and pickling cucumbers, fresh and dried beans, bunching and bulb onions, 3 different kinds of garlic, and more than one variety of corn. Start small and add on a little more each year as you gain confidence and knowledge.
Gardening is a journey. Do not let seed catalogs push you to a place of overwhelm and guilt. Keep it simple and do not try to grow more than you have the time, energy and space to grow. Do you consider last year’s garden a failure? Try again. Do allow yourself to dream of that fresh tomato, even if you only harvest a few. Keep a record of the amazing, delicious heirloom varieties that succeed and grow them again next year (unless you hated them or they didn’t do well at all — then consider a different variety). Time to hit the seed catalogs.