Digging In: Finding the perfect seeds and other useful stuff
Is there really a perfect seed company for your individual growing needs? Just in case you are not aware, the 2013 seed catalogs are out, and just like all other retailers, they are looking for your business.
There are literally hundreds of seed companies available for you to choose from. Some specialize in flowers - either annuals, perennials or bulbs - some focus on vegetables or herbs, and still others specialize in exotic plants.
Before selecting seeds or even plants, for that matter, there are a few things you need to understand about your location:
The elevation at your growing site is going to determine your growing season, whether it be 120 days or 65 days. It will also be an indictor of your first and last frost date. The number of days in your growing season for growing tomatoes, melons and pumpkins will definitely make a difference on the variety that you are able to grow successfully.
Very high elevations or very low elevations are going to have a short growing season. Either it will not be warm enough or it will get too hot for the plants to mature and produce. Some are lucky enough to live in between, and then some of us try to trick Mother Nature.
The first frost date for 3,333 feet in elevation is approximately Oct. 30, or soon afterwards, and the last frost date is after Easter, the middle to the end of April. If your elevation is higher than 4,500 feet, then your first frost date will be earlier, and your last frost date will be later. If you elevation is 2,500 feet, then your first frost date will be later, and your last frost date will be later too. However, the daytime temperatures will get too high for your plants to produce.
All vegetables and flowers are going to produce or bloom better in a well-composted, fertile soil with lots of organic materials. Vegetables such as potatoes and other root crops are not going to produce well in heavy clay-type soils. Others will do OK, but your watering schedule becomes the challenge.
Obviously, most will not do well in very sandy soil because it is almost impossible to maintain an optimum moisture level. Seed packets have a wealth of information on them; however, the soil conditions and elevation requirement are generally lumped together for the general area. There is simply not enough room on each packet to be specific about a geographic location. So be aware of these two things before you order those seeds.
Let's explore some other factors about seed packets and some of the terminology you might see.
Days to germination: This simply means the approximate number of days before you will see the seed sprout through the soil. Depending on the soil temperature, and the air temperature, the number of days might be a little shorter or longer.
Days to maturity: When you are direct sowing into the soil, this means the number of days until harvest. Be aware, when you are starting seeds to be transplanted (tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli, for example), the days to maturity will be from the transplant date. For this reason, it is usually suggested that you start these seeds four to six weeks before you plan to transplant them. If you wait until April to start tomatoes from seed, you have waited to long.
Terminology you may or may not be familiar with:
Heirloom: An old seed variety that has been around for 50 or more years. A seed that has not been altered or artificially changed, and will come back "true to type." In other words, the next generation will look and taste just like its parent.
Hybrid: The offspring of a cross between two or more varieties, usually of the same species.
(F1) hybrid: (F1) refers to the first generation of offspring. Hybrid varieties of vegetables and flowers are typically (F1) hybrids.
Certified Organic: Seed harvested from plants that are grown organically, i.e. without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Inoculation: The introduction of beneficial bacteria to legumes to ensure the formation of high nitrogen nodules on their roots.
Open-pollinated: Open-pollinated varieties are seeds that result from pollination by insects, wind, self-pollination (when both male and female flowers occur on the same plant) or other natural forms of pollination.
Resistant/resistance: Implies that a variety has a certain amount of resistance when exposed to a disease-causing problem such as fungus, bacteria or virus.
Tolerant/tolerance: Implies that a variety will perform relatively well when exposed to environmental stresses such as cold or hot weather or drought.
Treated: Seeds that have a coating of fungicides and/or insecticides intended to protect the seeds from rotting or insect damage in the soil before germination takes place.
Genetically Engineered (GE): The terms GE and GMO are often used interchangeably by the media, but they do not mean the same thing. Under discussion here is genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering describes the high-tech methods in recent years to incorporate genes directly into an organism. Scientist are splitting and dividing genes from different species in a laboratory to produce a new kind of cell. The plants that result do not occur in nature; they are "genetically engineered" by human intervention. There are some genetically engineered seeds currently used in agribusiness. At present time, home gardeners will NOT encounter any packets of GE seeds sold through home garden seed catalogs or garden center seed racks.
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO): The USDA defines a GMO as an organism produced through any type of genetic modification, whether by high-tech engineering or long time plant breeding methods. When plant breeders select two different open-pollinated varieties for specific traits, such as uniformity or disease resistance, they create a hybrid cross between two species. This same process may also occur in nature.
In reality, they are genetically modified organisms, and this is where the term GMO actually applies. Some examples of this process are seedless watermelon, or pluots.
Hopefully understanding these terms will help you in making your seed selection. Even with this knowledge, in my opinion, your elevation and days to maturity are the most important. Maybe I am impatient, but I would rather select varieties that have a short maturity date, and possibly be able to get a second planting in during the same season.
But do keep in mind Mohave Country elevations go from just above sea level to almost 7,000 feet. So your individual location is going to make a difference.
Where do you plant?
Another factor to consider is, are you planting in a raised bed or containers? Many seed companies now identify specific varieties that they have found do well in those types of growing conditions.
Whereever you decide to purchase seeds from, it is a must to keep a garden journal. I have often felt that Mother Nature always gives me more of one thing and less of another each year, so I always give a particular variety at least two plantings.
This is where your garden journal will assist you. Each year, make note of the variety, planting date, the seed company and the results. I believe you will find that certain seeds from company X will produce better than the same variety from company Z. There is nothing wrong with using several companies to make your purchases from.
If you are considering making your purchase via catalog or online, I strongly suggest you combine your order with a fellow gardener, friend or neighbor. By doing this, you will definitely save on shipping fees. Many catalogs make special offers if you order by a specific date, and if you sign up to receive their emails, you will receive several special offers. As in all sales, be sure you understand the conditions and remember to calculate the shipping costs.
Sit back and relax from the hustle of the holidays with your pen and paper in hand. Make a list of what you want to plant and draw a diagram of where you are going to plant them. I believe it was Norman Vincent Peal who said "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."