Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Winter wonders - the seed catalog

Catalogs galore!

January is one of the best times in the world for people who like to dream of gardening. There's not really anything outdoors to be done, at least in New England, but you can sit and dream and plan to your heart's content. January is the time when the seed catalogs start arriving!

So far, I've gotten eight of them, and I'm expecting several more over the next couple of weeks. I have the "standard" one, Burpee, because there are a few things I like to buy from them even though they're known to consort with evil corporations like Monsanto. They do carry some organic seeds now, too. I have Miller Nurseries as well, which is largely for fruits and perennial vegetables. The third normal catalog I get is Gurney's and I very rarely buy anything from them. However they sometimes send me $10 off coupons with no restrictions, so I'll go buy exactly that much (including shipping) so I get something for free. I'm wary of Gurney's though, as they do sell seeds tainted by the GMO monster.

My favorite catalogs are the specialty ones, though. Sow True Seed, which covers tons of stuff and comes out of Asheville, NC, has so many amazing items to choose from. Bountiful Gardens, too, has a great selection. Then there's Territorial Seed Co., Johnny's Selected Seeds, and Seed Savers Exchange. The best part about these catalogs is that they're all open pollinated seeds, Heirlooms or organic (or both). I don't have to be careful and check every item for GMOs and connections to Monsanto because I know these companies stand head and shoulders above the others, ethically speaking.

Seed Savers Exchange
For pure viewing pleasure, Seed Savers Exchange is my absolute favorite. It's a glossy color catalog, and everything in it is certified USDA organic. They have a lot of Heirloom varieties available. There's a certain joy knowing that you're planting the same variety of seeds as your grandparents did, or their parents. The harvest may be a bit smaller (or in some cases, a lot smaller) than their non-organic and modern brothers, but they make up for it in flavor and beauty.

Reading a seed catalog can be done in a variety of ways. Usually the beginning of January sees me simply paging through them, taking in all the images and some of the information. If there's anything really special I'd like to try, I'll mark it (I keep a highlighter with my catalogs!), but generally that happens later in the month.

By the end of January, I being to yearn for the warmer weather to arrive so I can put seeds out. Just as soon as the snow goes and the soil can be worked, I remind myself, I can put peas and beans out there! I start going through the catalogs in a lot more serious manner.

First, I decide on the basics. What do I always have in the garden? Tomatoes for sure, and beans, peas, cucumbers, and a variety of herbs. Do I have any of those seeds from last year that I need to use up? I check my box of seeds that sleeps in the liquor cabinet, to determine if I have left-overs from last year or seed I put away from my own crops. The remaining items on my list become the basis of my seed shopping list.

The second thing I do is figure out how many row-feet of each thing I will be planting. My raised beds are ten feet long, but with peas and cucumbers I plant on both sides of the trellis I use to hold them up, so I have to double the number of feet I need to purchase. The catalog tells you how closely you can plant things, and you can also check against the square foot gardening list to see if you can squish into a smaller space.

Once you know how many row-feet you need, and how many seeds you can plant per row-foot, you can calculate how many seeds you need. Always buy a few extra, just in case you decide to stagger your planting (a great idea for beans and peas) or you have a few holes in your row because of predators.

Information from a catalog
Each entry in your seed catalogs will have similar information. There will be a number, sometimes with a code attached (the 'key' will be listed somewhere else in the catalog), and this is the number you use on the order form. There's a name, and then a bit of history. Some background about the growth of the plant will be listed, along with some new vocabulary words: parthenocarpic, for instance, and gynoecious, along with others. If you aren't familiar with a term, go look it up. Google is your friend!

Info about a Thai pepper
Some catalogs have more information, including what the crop looks like, how prolific it is, and personal anecdotes. You can find out about the flavor, any problems that are known, and how long it takes to grow to maturity. At the bottom of each entry will be the price for the seeds. Some stores sell only one size, but others have a variety of sizes you can choose from, ranging from "sampler" (a handful) to pounds.

Have fun with your seed catalogs! Make lists: what you need, what you want, what you expect to purchase. Figure out where each item will go in your garden. Even in the snow, you can go size things out.

By the beginning of February, you should be ready to put your order(s) in. Sometimes I can find everything I want in one catalog, but often I purchase from two, plus pick a few small packages up at the local Agway or seed exchange. Once everything is ordered, your work really begins!

Next week we'll talk about ingenious ways of making a sprouting and planting schedule, and how to get organized before the spring rush hits! (Added Jan 14: Click here to read about planting schedules!)

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