my seed-catalog shopping rules
RESTRAINT IS NOT MY STRONG SUIT, but when faced with a pile of seed catalogs and a DSL line linking me to thousands more, restraint must become my mantra. To insure vegetable seed-ordering success, not excess, I wrote a refresher course whose principles I swear I am trying to follow. Om…restraint…om. (Or not.)
At first, I thought this would be a post for beginners, but realized even experts are over-indulgently inclined. For me, resisting buying everything requires an annual review of the basic mathematics of vegetable gardening. Now (not after 11 boxes of seeds arrive that you forgot you ordered) is the time to crunch your own numbers:
How many of A, B and C plants can fit into my Y square feet (and for what cost in seeds, supplies and labor)?
My more detailed self-help course in restraint, never more important than in an economic year like 2009, goes like this–a series of questions, really. (And yes, I talk to myself, the naughty Margaret trying to tell the practical one to just please let her have 25 kinds of tomatoes):
1. What do you have left over that’s viable from last year? This may require a germination test (left) to answer properly.
2. How much room in a sunny spot where the soil drains well do you really have? Tell the truth.
Most vegetables crave sunshine (so do a majority of annual cutting flowers, if you, like me, lump zinnias and such into your vegetable-seed order). Even here, on a couple of acres, production growing competes unfavorably with my love for ornamentals; there’s never enough ideal space for all such annual crops that I believe I cannot live without. Another wrinkle: We are talking about space with water, as many food crops rely on regular, deep soaking for maximum yield.
3. What really rates that precious square-footage, based on these two factors:
(a) What do you eat most of/can’t live without?
(b) From that list of “big loves,” what is available locally for a reasonable price in season? (This second bit of thinking may help those of us who define “can’t live without” as “the entire botanical world.”)
On this “essentials” list, include items that you “put up” for year-round use, as I do all my tomato products, and various herb pestos. If you consume a lot of something, it may well be worth growing. Examples:
As a vegetarian, I eat a lot of white potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash, heavyweight items which when purchased in the organic-produce section really add up. A mere $3 of ‘Delicata’ or ‘Blue Hubbard’ seed (or better yet, a packet of each that will last two years) yields a lot of squash if grown well (meaning protected from vine borers, with vigilance and Reemay).
I also grow all my chard and kale, basil and Italian flat-leaf parsley, because I eat a lot of each one and simply will not pay a couple of dollars per bunch for the herbs or double that for the greens.
What won’t I be growing, if I follow this thinking? I gave up eggplant, for instance, because I only ate them once or twice a month, and could more efficiently buy that eggplant or two when I had a taste for it than grow a crop. I use celery, sure, but maybe a bunch every month, and it’s always available, so why give it a place in my sun? Loving the occasional beet for salad doesn’t require a whole row devoted to them. Toss one in your market basket on occasion.
But certain specialty items are either too pricey or unavailable for purchase locally, meaning you must make room. If you make all your own salsa, perhaps you want to grow tomatillos. But maybe it would be cheaper and easier to simply purchase the one jalapeno pepper plant you’ll need at the nursery, or a pound of jalapenos at the produce market, rather than buy and start seeds. Grow what’s precious: Have you seen the price of organic baby greens or a single, juicy colorful heirloom tomato, even in high summer?
3. Now that you have a list of things you want to grow, the final challenge: Which are really worth growing yourself from seed?
(a) Anything that grows better direct-seeded than started in cells and transplanted, and/or that I want to make repeat sowings of: I include beans, peas, squash and pumpkins, spinach and salad greens, cucumbers, root crops like carrots and beets, braising greens (chard and kale are my staples), dill, basil, melons, and corn (though I don’t grow the last two).
(b) With things that “do” from transplants, like tomatoes or peppers, think this way: How many plants of each will you need? For example, I have taken to buying one ‘Sweet 100’ and a ‘Sun Gold’ cherry plant at the nursery, or begging them from a friend who has extra, rather than ordering a packet of seeds for each and growing on a six-pack per variety. Who needs more than a cherry tomato plant or two?
With paste tomatoes, of which I grow 18 plants, my thinking is the opposite: no wasted seed or effort there. Start from scratch. Vegetable growing doesn‘t produce free food, just great food and safe food, food with a connection. Choose carefully for maximum reward.
- Once you’ve pared your list with this curmudgeonly thinking, do this: Add a couple of indulgences back in that don’t meet the requirements—I know I will.
- Don’t grow something in bulk that you can’t cure and store properly, even if it’s a staple of your diet. Do the research in advance.
- Collaborate: My friend Andrew and I often compare our orders, and swap partial packets or plants to get around wasted effort and cash.
- Don’t overlook an investment in pest-prevention, such as floating row covers and hoops to support them. If handled carefully, these are reusable for many years, and save many a crop.
- Consider trading up this year to seeds labeled as OG, or organically grown. This puts your dollars where they will do the most to support environmentally sound farming practices that deplete fewer resources, including the soil itself.