It’s cold outside though sunny and turquoise skies, but the wind is blowing and cuts right through anything worn outside. I have to go out there and tend my winter vegetables and herbs but I don’t stay long because I don’t like to come back in a gardensickle. Or should I say a gardener-sickle. Brrrr! But on the floor by my desk is a growing stack of dream gatherers – seed catalogues. This is how I make it thru the cold winter months when I’m limited to how much time I have in the beds.
My cold weather crops are planted and coming up, some harvestable, and we have beautiful salads and some medicinal and culinary herbs such as yarrow, parsley, dandelion flowers and leaves, several kinds of mints, onion chives, garlic chives, stinging nettle, a bit of fennel, bay leaves, fever few, and this and that. I gather and make tinctures and salves from the medicinal ones, and enjoy the aromatic ones in soups and salads. This year I have even set three big beds in green manure crops of white clover and will turn them over in the spring for soil enhancement.
But the siren sings in the catalogues and I am beguiled.
Just as a note – if you are seasoned gardener and you have always depended on the nurseries to provide you with plants, realize that you are limiting yourself to the few remaining commercial cultivated varieties, usually hybrid, but sometimes heirloom, which are most commercially viable to the company, not for YOU. If you want the most delicious, most interesting, most bio-diverse plants, you must grow from seed. And this puts you in the driver’s seat as to what you will eat and bring along into the future. Seeds Rule!
If you are a beginning gardener, or on a budget, seeds are infinitely more affordable. A packet of seeds usually will last 3 years, or there are enough in a packet to let you do some trading with your gardening friends so you have a wider variety to grow. Plus it’s FUN.
I have a huge number of kinds of vegetable and herb seeds in my collection and I use them for about 3 years until their germination rate is too low. But some of them are hard to replace, and if they didn’t go to seed to be collected, they are possibly lost to me. I try very hard to keep heirloom, land race (a variety that has totally established in a given place surviving no matter what condition for that space over a long time), and heritage edibles going year after year, so I carefully seed save every time my babies go to seed. But this year it has been particularly hard because when the seeds were drying on the plant, we had torrential rains and most of it went black and was not collectible.
This is why being careful every year to save seeds is so critical because this happens and the little seed companies that supplied many of the unusual or rare have been gobbled up greedily by the Monsanto companies who then cut off the little crop varieties. We are loosing our bio-diversity and it’s up to us little gardeners to keep them going, seed swap, support the seed exchange companies still in existence, and in general tend our food sources.
So, when the catalogues come in, I look thru them for the hard to find ones I really love first. Some of the beets, carrots, other root crops, greens, and other delicious edibles come in and I am delighted. But recently over the past 5 or so years, many have been replaced by hybrids which make for one year of good growing, and then the cultivar (cultivated variety) I cherished is lost.
I really don’t bother with hybrids. They can’t be reproduced, and benefit one year only, and only really benefit the seed company selling it. It reminds me of the Chinese policy of one child per family – its dwindling gene pool. In a country where there are millions more people than there are ready resources and large families cut the standard of living so low as to create poverty and misery, in a way it makes sense. But when it comes to plants, we desperately need that wide gene pool.
We have lost over 90% of our planet-wide edible varieties of plants over the last 50 or so years. Some people think ‘so what?’ But when you take into consideration the fact that our planet is colder or hotter or wetter or drier in some areas than we’ve seen in thousands of years, the things that grow well one year may not make it the next. So, without bio-diversity and integrated crops of varying conditioned plants, we could easily see famine in our lifetimes. And when we depend on hybrids or even worse, genetically modified plants that are disguised but really intolerable foods, we set ourselves up for disaster.
Thus the careful management of our own personal seed collections and the care we must make in selecting what we grow.
That tomato might look mouthwateringly delicious, but if it says hybrid, skip it. Not if you care about the future of food. Read carefully the zones each variety thrives in and get only what matches your individual climate or micro-climates, weather, conditions, etc. If you think something looks particularly good, but aren’t satisfied by the description in the catalog, every seed company has an expert who can answer your questions. If they are vague or can’t provide information, move on.
Also, look into the provenance of the company and make sure they are not a Monsanto clone. I never support any of these companies like Territorial. Here is information about the good and the bad. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/best-vegetable-seed-companies-zm0z11zsto.aspx#ixzz3A5bO8C7b http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/best-vegetable-seed-companies-zm0z11zsto.aspx#ixzz3A5bhy5qw for the good ones, and http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/monsanto-buys-heirloom-seed-suppliers as one site to determine the ones Monsanto has bought up. Do your own research.
I do have some favorite seed companies that I often use: Gurney’s, and one of my favorites – Kitazawa Seed Company because I LOVE oriental vegetables, and this catalogue also has wonderful and diverse cultivars of all the usual ones as well. Who wouldn’t be over the moon for Tatsoi Savoy (a kind of cabbage family microgreen), Siberian kale, Snake gourd, Chrysanthemum greens, Shark Fin Squash, Mandarin tomato, Majenta Sunset Swiss Chard, now come on! Can’t you just see that on your dinner plate?
If you aren’t already on the mailing lists of the good ones (the above sites are just a sampling, there are a lot of wonderful smaller companies that are organic, heirloom, trustable which need our support and our business to stay afloat), most of the seed companies will either provide a mailed hard copy of their catalogue or have them on a PDF online. But I like the hard copies because I can paper clip and sort. It’s harder on line.
I peruse the catalogues when they come in and dog ear or paperclip especially interesting items and set that catalogue aside for later use. This is my dream stack.
So, how do you ever decide when you fall into the rabbit hole of numerous catalogues? It’s like walking into Alice in Wonderland. That’s OK, it’s natural if you love plants, are passionate about your garden, and have a place to plant. I call it spiritual salivation – it isn’t in the mouth, it’s in the imagination. I can see myself picking luscious cucumbers, eating tomatoes right off the vine, grazing on fresh green beans before they ever get to the kitchen, tasting crispy lettuce, you know the drill. Heaven.
So, let’s get practical. You know how much growing space you have. I have about 20 raised beds that actually can grow annual crops. Most of my garden is in perennial or self-seeding varieties, so space is limited. I also have 18 or so very large containers that have annual space.
There are some crops that I count on year after year – like how could I function without Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes? I always grow flat leaf parsley, certain varieties of beets, lettuces, Swiss chard (fish hook, rainbow, etc.), several kinds of kale (lacinado aka dinosaur, Scotch curly, etc.), several varieties of carrots and beets, lots of garlic, onion starts (which I use as border plants), several kinds of cucumbers, radishes, the list goes on. I make a mental note of what did well the previous year and if something did especially well, I give it more garden space. If something couldn’t hold up to the crazy weather, I might make room for a couple of plants just for the seed saving aspect because from year to year they might do better or worse. But we need that bio-diversity.
That means that the majority of my garden space is already spoken for. But I often wish I had more of something like cucumbers for pickling or carrots for salads. They take a lot of time to grow and I am usually out of them way before I want to keep eating them, same for beets which are also medicinal, so they need to have a ready enough supply to dehydrate, powder and encapsulate for my husband who needs them but hates the taste.
Need must monitor supply.
Also, because we grow year round here at Hillside Gardens, I mentally know which are cool, hot, and marginal season plants. The cool kind are spring and fall. Ones that handle real winter cold like parsley, spinach, Swiss chard, and root vegs, go in as a fall planting. Cool weather varieties that grow and can make it into some of the hotter months are spring plantings and I try to put them where they will get some shade in early summer to prolong their production.
The really hot weather plants like tomato, cucumber, eggplant, pepper, and squash family must wait till the soil is 65 degrees and past the last frost date or be covered with cloche or plastic sheeting or started in a greenhouse or indoors before being transplanted.
Some plants make it through several seasons or are biannual like Italian Flat Leaf Parsley which is 2 years in the growing if you wish to save the seeds (which are a wonderful spice). And some plants have multiple uses such as broccoli which once the original large cluster is cut off will continue to make smaller clusters, and even after that has stopped, the leaves are delicious and sweeter than kale or collards.
So, timing has to go into the planning, which means also allocation of planting space.
Into this mix when planning goes the concept of companion planting, meaning you don’t plant onions with beans and other bad combinations. Some things work great together like tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, onions, garlic, and basil. When you integratively plant, (meaning you plant lots of different plants close together) in what we call in Permaculture Design a ‘Guild’, it’s a system where each plant benefits the others in its guild so everything is helped by growing close together. This makes the most efficient use of space but takes more planning.
I’ve done this for so many years, I know what the guilds are. But it might help to do a bit of research on this and have handy some index cards listing these guilds, or make use of some great sites for reference. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/companion-planting-guide-zmaz81mjzraw.aspx?PageId=2 I have printed out a bunch of these sites as references because there is a lot to know about this subject. Another great resource is the book “Carrots Love Tomatoes” by Louise Riotta. You can purchase used copies from Amazon or Thrift Books.com if you need to be thrifty. https://www.thriftbooks.com/?&mkwid=sKf47lYA6|dc&pcrid=230560015175&pkw=thriftbooks%20com&pmt=e&plc=&pgrid=8775931272&ptaid=kwd-18966545855&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI0ZvMlPfW3wIVFY3ICh0C_go6EAAYASAAEgJkEPD_BwE
To start out, after my nosing around the good catalogues, I make a list of what I have on hand that I know I need to put in the plan. Then I make a list of the things I didn’t grow enough of last year, or things I would have liked to have grown which didn’t make it on the list. This can be something like: more tomatoes, more cherry tomatoes, more pickling cucumbers, cumin herb, more cilantro, you get the picture. Then it’s time to go for the search for the most likely ones to buy.
If you don’t have a lot of experience with how to plan a space, there’s a great book called “Square Foot Gardening” which goes into great detail about how many of which plants can go into a square food of garden space. That tiny seedling when it first goes in the ground can take up 2” or 2 feet of space, so it’s easy to crowd things too closely or waste space by putting them too far apart. In that book, each square food has only one kind of plant. It’s a way to use a small amount of space but have a good variety of plants in say a 4’ x 8’ bed, if your space is really limited. But just for the concept of how much things take up space, this is an invaluable tool. It helps you visualize what you can actually get into that bed.
As an exercise, it’s a good idea to have gridded paper – ¼” squares, and using Square Foot Gardening technique, figure out how many broccoli you want, how many of the little squares you need for 6 plants (typical seed cells from the nursery have 6 plants), and visualize how much of that bed you will need. That also gives you an idea of how many seeds to start when it becomes planting time.
Then when you plant your beds, you know how much of each thing you actually have space for. This will limit how many of those intriguing seeds you will actually be willing to buy. (Ok, so willing and wanting are two things, and I’m guilty of buying too many but that’s like shoes, you can never have too many.)
I usually get more plants in the same space than the square food gardening plan because I’ll slip some carrots in with the larger plants like the broccoli because they take up under the soil space while the broccoli take up the above space. Depending on the companion planting aspect, you can get a lot more plants in a given space by varying the up and down space using aspect. But then you need to make sure your soil is particularly fertile which means digging in lots of composted manure to feed that kind of load on the soil.
Keep in mind that some plants need to be rotated on a given soil base because of disease. Tomatoes should be rotated for 4 years because the nematodes that can get established in a bed die out after 4 years. This goes for all the ‘night shade’ families of which tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, tomatillos, and tobacco are members.
I try to never plant the same kinds of vegetables in a given bed for two years running at least. But once you get a guild planting guide made up, you can substitute other cultivars if you wish to change them but keep the basic guide if they are of similar size. Then one kind of carrot can be changed to another but keep the same guide. Then move it from bed one to bed two from year to year in rotation.
If you have limited numbers of beds, you can exchange one end to the other end mirror image to achieve basically the same protection. And if you are careful to always interplant some of the protection plants like marigold or nasturtiums which kill the bad nematodes or collect invasive insects like aphids, this is further care for your plants.
If you are relatively new to food gardening, it’s a very good idea to make detailed records of what you grow in each bed from year to year so you can look back and see what went where. It’s also a good idea to make notes of the cultivars that did well, did poorly, didn’t make it, or got eaten by bugs, etc. so you can plan better each year. Even if you are experienced, remembering three years ago what bed you had tomatoes in can be a challenge. I do pretty well, but paper is better.
When making records, you are taking the plan on paper and transferring that to reality. But in my experience, if I see a little hole where another carrot can go, I will plant it and forget to put it on the record. So, mid way thru the season, go over what made it and make notes on your drawings. This isn’t as important overall if you only mono-crop (one kind per bed) or do rows, then you only need to list what each bed contained or row. But I do intensive integrative planting in guilds, so a single bed may contain 20 or more cultivars of plants inter-planted for most efficient use of space in a guild. So, when putting in rare or unusual plants, keeping that kind of record is important. Especially if you plan on saving seeds, and sharing or trading them later.
Labels in the garden keep straight what cultivar of any given kind of plant is there. A little trick I use is cutting up mini-blind plastic sheaves for labels. I alternate cutting it square and cutting it at an angle so it’s easier to stick in the soil. Then I use a pencil, not a marker to write on. Pencil does not fade with the sun, and can later be erased and reused. People are always throwing up whole blinds on garbage day around here so I go ‘free be’ing’ on trash days sometimes, and find a goodly supply for labels. This is especially good because it is sun resistant plastic and doesn’t break down for several years.
Keep your seeds in a cool, dry, dark place. Some people freeze them but that isn’t usually necessary. In the large seed banks kept internationally, their seeds are kept at a very specific freezing temperature but most people don’t have that kind of set-up. I just keep them in the house, in cardboard boxes, usually in our dry basement. Then if it’s more than 3 years old, I do a little test for germination rate and toss what doesn’t test high. I wet a paper towel, squeeze most of the water out so it’s damp, sandwich a few seeds in it, put it in a clear plastic sandwich bag, and put it where I won’t forget it. Check it after about a week, then two. If it isn’t putting out roots by then it’s a dud. I’ll leave it for 3 weeks on particularly precious seeds, but after 3 weeks, if it isn’t germinated it’s probably not going to. However, some seeds need to be treated by roughing up with sand paper, or refrigeration or freezing first, or soaking overnight (beans particularly by soaking) before they germinate, so check on this first before the test.
My love affair with seeds goes back to when I was 3 and my mother gave me my first little garden bed all to my own self. I planted my first seeds, watched them poke up out of the soil, grow to maturity and flower or make something wondrous and I was hooked. Now that I am a professional consultant, gardener, herbalist, Permaculturist, I have considerably grown in scale of using plants but the magic of it has never left me. I wish you wonderful times in your garden, lush and happy plants, and prosperity.
Diann Dirks, HillsideGardens, Auburn, Ga.