Ordering Vegetable Seeds: Tips & Tricks
IT’S TIME TO ORDER VEGETABLE & FLOWER SEEDS
Comparing cucumbers in several catalogues at once beats trying to have 4 pages open on your desktop. Why compare cucumbers? Because they ALL taste and grow so different!
The seed catalogues are arriving. The basics are this: buy open-pollinated seed, save seed, order locally. Okay that is going to take some unpacking – lots of new lingo there if you are grappling with catalogues and the millions of online choices.
Meanwhile, the seed suppliers are busier than ever and I just got this reply from one of my suppliers: “We will ship your order as soon as possible after mid January. Please note, we have many orders to fulfill already and expect to receive many more. Due to this and our need to maintain social distancing within our company, it will take time to prepare and ship orders.” (I received seeds ordered the first week of January on Feb 16)
Dry beans are eaten both when they are “dry” – as pictured and when they are still in flat pods and green in summer (see below.) This makes them so much fun and the season of eating so long.
Dry beans, picked flat and green, are wonderful eating!
The “order local” part might be harder than ever with Seedy Saturday’s cancelled all over the place this year. The next best option is to order whatever you can get and then start saving your own seeds going forward.
Also, sometimes seeds are only packaged locally. The seeds are bought elsewhere and brought in. Read the fine print but don’t sweat the small stuff. A good plant is a good plant. I order my Newburg Onion seeds from Sweet Rock Farm on Gabriola Island. For me, Gabriola is local because I garden on Vancouver Island. Sweet Rock says they grow them – unusual in an era when most farms buy their seeds. I have tried Newburg and it is a fantastic large yellow onion. Meanwhile I also ordered Red Label F1 (hybrid) from a supplier in Ontario because I am still looking for a perfect red onion.
Yellow onions are tricky to grow but oh so good. I love Newburg from Sweet Rock Farms
This only works when the seeds are Open pollinated or stable from year to year. In other words, they can hang out with other plants of a similar kind and the results grown from seed are about the same. It is tough to save seed from squash because these tend to cross with other squash plants you grow. The seeds will look the same but inside the seeds the DNA is different. I order new squash seed every year. On my recent podcast with Sal Dominelli of Sweet Rock Rock he clears up which squash cross over so have a listen there.
Pantano Romanesco (on left) is an open pollinated variety. I save seeds from these tasty tomatoes. Arbason is a hybrid so it needs to be bought as seed every year. It is not good enough to grow again in my opnion.
Beans that are open pollinated are easy to save because the seed itself looks different and keeps it’s integrity. A Kidney bean still looks like a kidney bean when you harvest it and it can be cooked as kidney beans are always cooked. Heirloom tomatoes are also open pollinated and will keep their looks and taste from year to year.
When my leeks survived a winter and went to seed, I saved the seed. That was a mistake.
Some plants like carrots and leeks take two years to produce seeds so they have to either be dug, stored over winter in a root cellar and replanted in the spring. I saved leek seeds one year from my own plants and the plants grew like a cross between the sleek long leeks you buy and a fat bulbing onion. Ooops. I guess the leeks were hybrids so did not come true from seed. Or they may have crossed with an onion I had in bloom at the same time. Saving seed is not as easy as it seems.
The new hybrid Eleonora basil was such a delight last year. It is downy mildew free and the leaves are perfect on sauce or for eating fresh all summer long.
I grow a lot of squash but I always order seed fresh each year to get exactly what I want. Butternut and Red Kuri. Both great but good for different things. PS Butternut will last for months but Red Kuri has to be made into pies or frozen quickly because it has a shorter shelf life.
Remember not all seeds can be saved. And new seeds are being created all the time. Last year I ordered downy mildew resistant Eleonora Basil (from William Dam seeds) and was so excited by the results. I always check the seed catalogues for this very reason. There may be something new to try that you didn’t even know existed.
Emma Biggs sent me seeds of two new tomato plants she loves so I’ll have to try those this year and let you know how they go. Tomato breeder Karen Olivier started doing her own breeding in the Edmonton area and has successfully launched many of her own stable varieties that are short and tasty. Look for her seeds listed in the Artisan Seed catalogue online or find Karen at Northern Gardener on Facebook.
GROW OPEN POLLINATED
This is a term, similar to “land race”, that will grow to be the same year to year so it is easy to save the seed. Think of Bloomsdale spinach from 100 years ago. Still good and easy to save if you simply let your patch go to see on it’s own. If the package of anything says open pollinated you are good to go saving it from year to year (unless it is squash – see above) but remember the plants will gradually adapt to your conditions.
Plants that are “open pollinated” mean they have not been recently crossed to produce special seed. They are stable over time. I get a lot of open pollinated seed from rareseeds.com and enjoy the catalogue and variety they offer. I also interviewed Karen of Northern Gardener for my podcast and she says it takes 9 generations to stabilize a tomato cross.
I love this hybrid cauliflower, Veronica, so I am willing to pay more for the results I get growing it. Always perfect. But definitely not open pollinated or from saved seed.
HYBRIDS AND F1 HYBRID
Some amazing plants are crossed in a greenhouse, field or lab to get amazing results and fantastic plants. They are priced accordingly because this is labour intensive work. Even though they are pricey I still buy Veronica Cauliflower. It is the prettiest Romanesco type cauliflower I have ever seen and so reliable. I pay $7.25 for 20 organic seeds because it is so good and because last year I bought a similar open pollinated variety that was not nearly as reliable.
ORDERING SEEDS? STEP 1
Look up catalogues online or send for catalogues so you can highlight, compare in real time and cross-reference with any seeds you have left laying around as well as comments you recorded in your garden journal.
Seeds have already started arriving. Rareseeds.com sends out mostly open pollinated seed that you can save yourself in future years. I would do that except I am so busy ordering new kinds of seed – so much to try – so little time.
I love how cheap the seeds are from rareseeds.com and the huge abundance of seed in each package. Sure I don’t get the latest hybrids here and I don’t get local but I do get quantity. And when it comes to ordinary crops like Iceberg Lettuce there is no sense ordering fancy new hybrids.
I am perfectly satisfied with cheap and plentiful Ice Queen and word on the street is that everyone loved the plants they bought from me last year. So crunchy and full of water and minerals!
Ice Queen from Baker Creek is so crisp and lively. I love it and order it every year. Yes I could save seeds but the seeds are cheap because they are an old variety and are not hybrids so I splurge.
One gal asked online if I could supply a list of plants to her that I think she should grow. Oh – if only it was so simple.Every gardener has to hoe this row themselves.
This recently picked arugula self seeds itself around my garden so I don’t even know what kind it is any more. But it sure tasted good served with my potato crusted whitefish recently. I also roasted some unknown beets from my garden for colour on the salad. Yummy. The truth is some people don’t like the bitter taste of arugula so that’s a decision you have to make for yourself.
In the garden, we have to order with 4-dimensions in mind. We need to consider time, space, length of time to maturity and length of harvest from any one crop. You also need to consider location, sun profile and container vrs open garden. How much space do you have? Do you have to stake the bean or pea you buy or is it a two-dimensional bush plant just filling up width and length of row? Are you starting lettuce indoors to plant in your Garlic bed after that is harvested? Then you’ll need enough seed to start fresh plants in late June.
I love cauliflower but last year I ordered too many kinds. This year it is back to my 2 favourites Susanna and Veronica plus one white still to be determined. Here the Susanna picked in December is quickly stir fried and devoured. Yummy.
So depending on space and willingness to stake or plant in pots or in rows in a field, every gardener will need to place different orders. And because I sell plants I have 30 kinds of tomatoes growing this year. Do you like big tomatoes and have a greenhouse? Then grow Aussie or Pantano Romanesco. But grow Sweet 100 if you prefer a longer harvest and tiny fruit. Do you have a windowsill with only a tiny space? You’ll enjoy Little Bites Cherry. Do you love to cook? Try San Marzano Lungo #2.
JUST DO IT. You might make a few mistakes – like the rest of us – but if you order what you like you will do better than if you keep thinking about it. I have talked to many gardeners who ordered too late last year so our advice communally is to order seed early. DO IT SOONER THAN LATER. If Covid continues to drag on we are all going to be happier having our seeds safely on our shelf ready to plant.
I had so many kidney beans from my summer harvest that I made red-bean soup last night instead of black bean. In other words I am as flexible in the kitchen as I am in the garden.
AND WHAT ABOUT CUCUMBERS?
Since you have read to the very end I will tell you I decided to never grow my old favourite Marketmore cucumbers (open pollinated, heirloom, easy, cheap) ever again. They were early but they were bitter at first. And the newer variety Mercury (F1 Hybrid, Beit Alpha type, early) was almost as fast and oh so much sweeter. With it’s thin skin and crisp taste I was convinced they were the best.
Mercury are so fantastic early in the summer with their thin skin you can leave on. But later in the year, Marketmore are better in my garden.
Until late August. By then Marketmore tasted so sweet and Mercury were bland and watery by comparison. Now you see what I mean about gardening. You have to choose yourself. Taste for yourself. Cook for yourself. And yes, I have ordered the old favourite Marketmore again this year.
Plants not ordered alphabetically in catalogs. I expect to find celery right before cucumber. Instead I see one catalogue lists Beets, Carrots, Broccoli, Melons, Watermelons, Spinach and then lettuce. What happened to cucumbers? Oh Right; they are between Beans and before Broccoli. Very confusing. Suggestion: if catalogues are going to mix it up this way at least supply an index!
Clarification: I work alone. I go in and make changes as I see mistakes. I always make mistakes. So enjoy my rants but please ignore the typos. I’ll get back to it soon enough and fix it up. And if you know a sponsor or someone who would like to support my gardening and writing efforts let me know. Always good to have help and support.
What Would Donna Do?
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