January, for gardeners, is a kind of second Christmas: mailboxes overflowing with seed catalogs, gardeners’ imaginations filled with visions of new varieties, bountiful flowers, and tasty produce. There’s a long road between the fantasy gardens of January and the harvest of summer. That road starts with seeds. Here are five things to consider when trying to narrow down the multitude of choices into selections that can reasonably fit into your yard, time, and budget.
Choose varieties with shorter harvest windows
In the trade, it’s called “days to maturity (DTM)” — time between planting and harvest. Beans, for instance, might have DTM anywhere between 55 (bush green beans) and 110 (large limas). The shorter the DTM, the greater chance for success in an unpredictable and frost-prone environment like the Klamath Basin.
Use DTM to cull some options from your menu
You can manage some plant disease via seed selection
Some diseases, especially those we call “soilborne”, can linger in the soil for many years. There are many disease resistant varieties — rust resistant beans, blight resistant tomatoes — that we can use to manage disease while reducing fungicide use on the garden. Seed catalogs tend to be a great source of disease resistance information.
The bigger packet is not always the better deal
Even under ideal storage conditions, seed has a shelf life. Different types of seeds differ significantly in the time they remain viable (able to germinate): parsley and onion one year, beans three years, lettuce six years, weeds 1,000 years. Depending on the crop, buying more than you can plant in one or two years to save a few cents on seed packets may lead to more frustration in poor plant quality than is offset by savings.
Group seeds into “cool season” and “warm season” plantings
Seed germination is dependent, in part, on soil temperature. That’s soil, not air temperature. Cool season plants such as broccoli, lettuce, parsley, and spinach, grow well in cool temps, but germinate faster when soil temps are warm — one reason we start some seeds indoors. It’s easier to manage the warm soil temp indoors, then harden these plants off to withstand cooler outdoor temperatures. Warm season plants — tomatoes, peppers, beans, and melons — need soil temperatures at least 55F to germinate and grow. Planting these into cold soil is sure to stunt them and reduce later yield. In Klamath, where the growing season is short, we benefit from starting even warm season plants indoors because of cool soils early in the growing season.
Seeds give you more choice
A good seed catalog or independent garden center will offer far more, site specific seed variety options than a national big- box store. Looking for the perfect chartreuse zinnia to compliment the blue salvia you got last year? Do you need sunflowers that will stay under three feet tall so they don’t block the view from your window? Seed catalogs have choices that fit these specific needs. For vegetables and herbs, you’ll find varieties best suited to your own cooking style and needs. For vegetable transplants, most large stores will carry a few starts of the most common, inexpensive seed varieties- starting your own seed opens up a whole new world of options.
That last consideration can be a bit of a conundrum. With all those choices, it can be very difficult to choose only what you can really manage in a growing season. Use the first four tips to narrow down the options, and use this bonus gleaned from produce growers, who have the same challenge of so many amazing plants to grow: limit new and experimental types to three to five per year, and stick with tested favorites for the rest.