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How to navigate a seed catalogue

Raw lettuce seed on the left and pelleted seed on the right. The pelleted seeds, coated in clay, are much easier to handle.  (Photo Credit: Dwight Sipler via Flickr)

Raw lettuce seed on the left and pelleted seed on the right. The pelleted seeds, coated in clay, are much easier to handle. (Photo Credit: Dwight Sipler via Flickr)

For the steadfast vegetable gardener, the growing season has essentially begun. With the latest seed catalogues now hitting mailboxes, the determined smallholder is checking notes from previous harvests, drawing up to-do lists, and making plans for what to grow this season.

While the die-hards couldn’t be happier, less experienced gardeners often find this process fraught with anxiety. Seed catalogues can be a wonderful source of inspiration and ideas, but sometimes they can also raise as many questions as they answer.

Invariably, there’s the ubiquitous: ‘What varieties should I order?’ ‘How much seed is enough?’ ‘What do hybrid and open-pollinated mean?’ Then there’s the big one: ‘How do I know what will grow best in my garden?’

One simple tip is to pull eyes away from the beautiful pictures and begin to focus on the text. Turns out, there’s more there than you might expect.

“We’ve got tons of information that will help someone who’s never grown something before, but that will also help our seasoned growers,” says Paul Gallione, product education coordinator at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine.

(Photo Credit: Rustik Magazine)

(Photo Credit: Rustik Magazine)

Gallione’s job is to assist both new and experienced customers with growing concerns, help them understand how different products perform, and guide them through the many varieties available.

He says the best way to start planning a garden is to make a list of the vegetables and flowers you and your family love most. “Think about what you like, but also think about what your skill level is, and what sort of resources you have available – in terms of your land base, what tools you have, if you have shade or sun, or a bit of both.”

Wayne Gale, president of Stokes Seeds in Thorold, Ontario, also takes a pragmatic approach to planning. “I always recommend focusing on the return on investment by square foot,” he says. Corn, for example, requires a lot of space to thrive, yet is relatively cheap to buy by the dozen. “So unless you have lots of room, forget it,” Gale suggests. Tomatoes and peppers, on the other hand, yield a lot of a product that is fairly expensive to purchase.

To suit the needs of the widest range of customers – from professional farmers to backyard putterers alike – many large seed companies also offer both organic and conventional options. Organic seeds generally refer to seeds from plants that have been grown without synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, though the specific definition can have slight variations.

In a similar vein, most companies also offer both hybrid and open-pollinated seeds. Gale explains that hybrids, plants produced by crossing two distinctly different parents, are bred to improve the characteristics of the resulting plants.

“Hybrid seeds cost a bit more because of the extra work involved in their production,” says Gale. “In return, you can usually expect better quality, higher yield, vigour and uniformity, and in many cases better disease resistance. Hybrid flowers generally have improved color and larger blooms.”

Although Gallione says many Johnny’s customers want the uniformity and consistency of a hybrid, open-pollinated seeds do have one distinct advantage.

“If you take the fruit from a hybrid and try to save that seed, it’s not going to come back true to type,” he says. An open-pollinated variety offers the grower the opportunity to save seeds from one year to the next.

The surge in popularity of heirloom varieties has made open-pollination a sought-after trait. Heirloom varieties, which have been perpetuated for generations by saving seeds year after year without crossing parent lines, are among the most desired options offered by seed companies today. Many trace their ancestry back to the earliest days of North American settlement.

The new Artisan collection of tomatoes were bred for colour, shape and flavour. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johnny's Selected Seeds)

The new Artisan collection of tomatoes were bred for colour, shape and flavour. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

But Gale suggests there can be more to an heirloom than meets the eye. “This term has been misused,” he says, adding that some seed companies and producers use the word to describe products that are, simply, ‘old fashioned.’

“I know of some tomatoes that are being labeled as heirloom because they are ugly or of a strange colour, but are recently developed hybrids made to look old fashioned,” says Gale.

A true heirloom, according to Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri, is “one that has been passed down through families and is usually considered to be over 50 years old.”

While heirlooms are often not as resistant as hybrids to many plant diseases, they continue to be in high demand nonetheless. Since 1998, when Gettle hand-printed his first seed catalog, Baker Creek has grown to offer 1,600 varieties of heirloom vegetables, flowers and herbs. Gettle’s remains committed to offering only heirloom seeds in the catalogue, largely because of their superior flavour.

“People are really tired of the way produce in the supermarket tastes,” he says. “They remember when they were kids, and they remember their grandma’s garden. The tomatoes tasted good and the melons were sweet. Everything that they’re bringing in from Mexico and California is picked green and shipped, and it just doesn’t taste like it used to.”

Paul’s Picks (from Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

  • Provider – consistent green bean, can be planted early, “bulletproof” in terms of production
  • Nelson – nice tasting carrot, “consistently sweet”
  • Montauk – corn variety that produces an attractive ear, takes longer to develop but “worth the wait”
  • Mountain Magic – bright red, round salad tomatoes with “excellent flavour”
  • Salanova – an innovative lettuce variety that “grows like a head but breaks up like baby lettuce, and has mature flavour and texture”

Wayne’s Picks (from Stokes Seeds)

  • White Star – an eggplant that is “easy to grow and pretty to look at”
  • Primo Red – a firm, tasty tomato “great for salads and burgers”
  • Black Magic – the popularity of kale has “exploded” and this is a great variety to grow
  • Aspabroc – avoid growing this hybrid baby broccoli in mid-summer
  • Tender Sweet – stringless sugar snap peas that “children find irresistible”

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