Cold, damp, dark. It’s a typical February on the rainy west coast. Not complaining – at least we’re not buried in snow, and the temperatures are relatively balmy compared to a big chunk of the continent. It may not be a good time for soaking in the sun, but it is a great time to looking through those seed catalogs!
If you’re at all into rural living or increasing your family’s self-reliance, I’m guessing you’re probably being inundated with these beautiful little bundles of paper and ink about now, promising luscious riches months down the road. Their pages overflowing with photos or perfect, gorgeous produce and us leafing through, thinking, “I’ll take one of that and three of those…” But before we get carried away, I invite you to hold up for a minute.
Before you spend a penny of your hard earned money on seeds, you need to ask yourself one question: “How do I choose the best seeds for my specific purposes?” In other words, your plans for your mature veggies will dictate which seeds you choose. But what the heck does that mean?
This is something I hadn’t even thought of before chatting with my homesteading mentor about it back in 2010, so this article is thanks to her [merci, Robin!]: choosing seeds for growing veggies for market gardening or canning is a completely different animal than choosing the best seeds for seasonal fresh eating.
Seed Catalog Secrets
OK, so it’s fine and dandy that we should be choosing our seeds strategically, and not all willy nilly, but what should we be looking for, exactly?
The answer is easy: all the clues are embedded right in the catalog pages.
Here are some examples:
If we’re looking at beans we might pick certain varieties because we want to can a lot of beans. And if we plan on canning, we don’t want to be picking a small amount week after week until we get enough to can (you can see where that would end up). No, you want stuff that ripens all at the same time. So how does that affect our seed catalog perusing? We’re going to be looking for varieties that are advertised as all ripening at the same time. Keep in mind, the majority of seed catalogs will have very dependable ‘planting-to-maturation’ dates listed, so this is pretty easy to tell.
But if you’re looking for veggies to pick over a fairly long period of time for just fresh meals, you won’t want everything ripening at once.
If you’re just planting for meals and not ‘putting away’, you’ll also want to use some handy techniques for extending your harvest that you can influence by the seed selection:
- Broccoli (if you’re not a fan, just imagine it’s something you love go with it for a minute): We’re used to buying broccoli with a large green head. We steam or boil it, then eat it, and it’s finished. But if you choose the purple, sprouting broccoli instead, you’ll harvest it later, say early spring, but it will produce hundreds of tiny heads instead of a couple big ones. In other words, you’ll be harvesting those scrumptious little florets for a long period of time. And it’s easier than growing large heads because they mature so easily in their season that they don’t succumb as much to aphids and other bugs aren’t really out yet. What you going to watch for, even amongst the purple sprouting broccoli, is an early and a late summer variety. Some English catalogs have early, extra early, mid-season and a late variety. If you had all those in your garden you’d be picking broccoli from February to May. That’s one technique. Your over-wintering or sprouting broccoli you would ‘start ’in late spring and transplant in early summer for a bountiful harvest in early Spring.
- Cabbage: Cabbage varieties generally mature in between 2-3 months, 3-4 months, or for planting later and harvesting in winter or early spring depending on the variety. If we go back over our catalog, we’ll see ‘days to maturity’ listed beside each variety. For example, ‘January King’ pretty well speaks for itself! Another small variety, called ‘Derby Day’ matures in 58 days, early in the season. It will be picked and eaten, then it’s gone. Fortunately, in some catalogs, we’ll find seeds divided into summer harvest, fall harvest, and winter harvest, so you can pick one from each section. Each catalog will not only have its own planting charts, but also extensive charts that take in all zones. If something doesn’t mature according to schedule, we can learn from this that our growing zone may be different. These charts are based on ‘perfect’ conditions.
- Potatoes: If we look in our catalog under ‘potatoes’, we notice there are Early, Middle an Late potatoes. Late potatoes usually store better, and you can leave them in the ground and heavily mulch over them to allow for fresh harvest right through winter in some areas. If you aren’t sure what kind you have, what’s interesting is that the minute a plant turns yellow, it means the chlorophyll has gone from the leaves and the potatoes can’t grow anymore because there’s no more energy being created by the leaves. Early potatoes will die down early in the season so you eat these. Then you see the next set start to die down, this is the mid- season crop. There might be some green leaves into October on some plants. These will be your late crop of potatoes. You might want to mark these with a stake driven into the soil, then apply a thick layer of mulch and leave them in the ground. If you leave them undisturbed, they’ll start growing again in the spring. Because of crowding, they’ll be smaller in size unless you break them up.
- Carrots: Like with many other veggies, there are carrot varieties for every taste and growing style. Some are meant to be harvested when young and small, some get very large – and they all have a ‘date to maturity’ chart. These maturity dates are tested for the areas the catalog pertains to plus they are tested under ideal conditions. It could take longer, or the plant may become dormant during a period of drought then pick up again. A specific example is the Neptune carrot, which is a long storage carrot. Another may grow up to 10-inches in length, which wouldn’t be suitable for shallow soil. So, would we want carrots that size? At 90 days to maturity – that’s a long haul, so you have to decide if the time investment is worth the results. Then there are those carrots that store well in the ground – like ‘Balero’ – potentially a perfect option for homesteading. There’s another variety called ‘Mokum’ that has to be hand-dug, according to the catalog, which is going to be a bit inconvenient if you just want to pull something quickly for dinner.
These are just a few of the valuable hints you’ll find buried within your seed catalog. It’s all there – you just have to pay attention!
Tips from the Experts
My homesteading mentor (Robin Wheeler) was a wealth of information. I do miss her! Here are a few more of her tips for choosing seeds for homesteading, in her words:
- On ‘fun’ vs. ‘practical’: “Sometimes we choose things we think would be fun to try. We have to ask ourselves ‘are they practical?’ Our main thing when we’re choosing seeds is to always think ‘what is my goal?’ If your goal is a long season of food, that’s all you’re holding in your head. You have to know that if some things can be planted in a cool soil we can get a little head start. Others need a warm soil to sprout. If your area suffers from drought you might look for early vegetables. Crops like beets and carrots can get stunted and turn brown, but the minute they get water they’ll start growing again beans and squash will be ‘done’ because they cannot tolerate drought.”
- On extended the season: “Say we chose something like cabbage, potatoes, or even something green like chard or kale. How do we get the longest season out of this? Well, we have some good tricks we can try in the garden. If I plant chard in the hot sun, it will grow well in the spring and then start suffering when the real heat kicks in. Any I planted in semi-shade will be cooler and I’ll get a couple more weeks out of them. Then there’s the ones I planted in deep shade – they may be slower in growth, but overall will do quite fine in the long run. You can manipulate seeds in that way. Some people choose to plant over a longer period of time, doing several plantings a few weeks apart. You get a little spread here and you might find that plants that were immature when the drought hit will actually live through it, looking horrible until fall, will pick right up again, whereas the mature ones have more at stake. Some may do fine if they have developed a longer root system.”
- On experimenting: “Gardening is an art with variables. It’s also the wonder of experimentation … you cannot go wrong with an experiment! If you’re looking at a microclimate, you might find suitable planting spots in the least considered places, a shady spot behind the house. Beans can’t tolerate ‘cool’ but peas can, and that’s the advantage of a catalog with a good planting chart. Knowing where the plants originated also helps. We know tomatoes and peppers came from the Americas and mint and greens from Northern Europe. This gives us some idea of the climate they thrive in. It might be a good idea to keep your planting chart on the fridge where you can check it every day to see if perhaps there’s something you could be planting on any given day. Calendering is great too. Have one just for planting and record any planting plus what the weather was like on that day. Most people wait for that first hot, sunny spring day to start their planting. What they’re forgetting is that that’s also going to be a cold night. Rainy days have the warmer nights because of the cloud cover. Transplants would suffer the same way. The soil has to be warm. Leeks have a span that goes into August; arugula, March to September; kale and collards, March to July; so you could plants all through these periods. So calendaring and/or journaling is a great way to track your successes and possible failures.”
- On location and storage: “You either grow food where it’s convenient (close to the house) or ‘by location’, choosing suitable random sites) to make an ‘edible landscape’. Some seed catalogs will run out of seed stock, as seed companies tend to donate their leftover seeds rather than keep them until the next year. To avoid running short, especially for successive planting, you have to plan ahead by either buying in bulk or asking friends if they have any extra. If you keep your seeds cool and tightly sealed in a container, they can last indefinitely. Seeds can even be frozen in this state (as long as they’re kept dry) and it doesn’t seem to affect them because they’re dormant. There’s a ‘set-point’ in every seed that dictates how much humidity should be in it. If you get them too warm they’ll go into a deeper dormancy. Keep them in the exact state in which you get them.”
- On buying organic: “Many people are supporting the organic industry. If it’s certified organic, it isn’t GMO, so ‘where can I get my seed’ is the question. Buying from a local seed producer, you know the plants are adapted to your particular area. Buying F1 Hybrids is fine. It’s like crossing a horse with a donkey – you get a mule… just don’t keep the seed. Buying OP (open-pollinated) IS good and you can save the seed.”
- On buying for storage: “People who want to eat from their garden all year should buy things that save well – winter squash like Blue Hubbard and pumpkins that store well; beans that you can or dry; tomatoes to can; winter and summer leeks; carrots that can remain in the ground.”
- On finding good seed producers: “Find good local seed producers – Your local ‘Seedy Saturday’ event is a good way to meet them. Unfortunately small growers have limited stock, and they can’t provide the genetic diversity required by some plants (broccoli being one). Lettuce will self-seed, and chard will cross with beets (so you must be careful with the seeds to separate them). So as far as buying seeds goes, the earlier in the season you can buy your seeds, the better. Don’t wait!”
That’s a lot to take in, I know, but the bottom line is this: have a goal and a system. If you grow for market, you’ll want things that mature all at the same time, and uniformity for ease in bagging. If you’re canning, you want all the produce maturing around the same time, too. But if you want to eat from the garden daily, plus have some for storage over winter, you’ll want to pick and grow a wide range of varieties.
So, to summarize, the top tips for buying the best seeds for your rural property are:
- Buy only what you like to eat.
- Choose varieties that store well, or that you have ‘techniques’ for preserving.
- Choose things like cabbages and squash that have 3 or 4 lengths of maturing time.
- Try plantings in different settings throughout the garden, at different times and under different situations.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment a little!
Do you have any tips for choosing seeds for homesteading? If so, please let us know in the comments below!