Read the Descriptions!
The new seed catalogs, with those mouthwatering photos, are appearing in our mailboxes lighting up the dreary winter days. Once you have pulled your eyes away from the pretty pictures, READ the variety descriptions.
The trick is to separate the good from the not so good, and find what may actually grow in your garden in this climate. I have made many mistakes because I didn’t read the descriptive details due to my brain being clouded by plant lust.
Buy Locally Grown Seeds if Possible
First, consider where the catalog, or seed vendor is located: Oregon, Maine and northern climes are usually good. Florida, the mid-west and warm summer states should be viewed with a bit of skepticism regarding the stated days to maturity and adaptation to our growing conditions. The exception to this is tomato seed catalogs which are located everywhere, so take the days to maturity with a grain of salt and add 20.
Look for Disease Resistance
There are key words in vegetable seed descriptions that can help you decide if a variety is what you need. In our climate many vegetables, and many annual flowers, are subject to fungal diseases; a really good seed vendor will tell you which varieties have ‘resistance’ or ‘tolerance’ to particular diseases. Tolerance of shade, drought and heavy or wet soil might be important issues to you, especially with ornamental plants.
Size Might Matter
Note the size of the mature plant and its edible part, how adaptable it is, the seasonality and the days to maturity. Important examples of these issues include onions and tomatoes. Some just won’t grow well here!
Check Time to Maturity
Not all onions are created (or hybridized) equal; some small green scallions will never develop a bulb, while bulbing types may get to a pound or more. Onions come in different types: ‘Short day’ onions will only mature south of latitude 35. Between the 35th and 55th latitude (that’s us) we need ‘long day’ or ‘day-neutral’ varieties. It’s also very important to know the ‘days to maturity’; a 90 day bulb onion should easily mature here but 110 days is a bit long. Some varieties such as Walla Wallas may prefer being wintered over to reach their full size potential.
Are you confused yet?
Tomatoes are a prime example of the NEED to know many details.
Consider where you will be growing: inland or close to the ocean, in a cloche or a greenhouse, or in a pot on a protected deck?
How big will the plant get?
Key words here are ‘Indeterminate’ (IND, tall vine), ‘determinate (DET, short vine), ‘vigorous’ (big,tall), ‘dwarf’ (very small), ‘semi-determinate’ or ‘compact indeterminate’ will be somewhere in between. If you are growing in a confined space, a vigorous IND tomato can get 10’ tall and will grow right out of a low cover, or not grow well in a pot.
Decide what fruit type you want; a large slicer or a tiny cherry, a 1oz. ‘grape’, a 2oz. ‘cocktail’, a slightly larger ‘saladette’, or a ‘paste’ or ‘plum’ for cooking.
It's important to know the number of ‘days to maturity’ from transplant, 75 or less is best in our area. Plan on adding a minimum of fifteen to twenty days to compensate for our climate depending on your growing conditions.
Don’t be seduced by a beautiful photo, a 90 day tomato is unlikely to ripen in this climate so don’t waste space. Smaller fruited types, such as cherry or grape, usually will ripen earlier than large slicers, but there are a few exceptions.
Some varieties are touted as being ‘cold tolerant’, or ‘will set fruit’ on cold nights. The flavor and texture of a tomato should be of importance to you, and again you need to be a code breaker. ‘Mild flavor’ is a nice way of saying bland; ‘soft’ may be mushy; ‘firm’ can mean rock hard, and ‘crack resistant’ is good, especially in small fruits. ‘Sweetness’ is totally subjective; it depends largely on how much sun and heat a tomato gets! If a tomato is grown in a cool location with less than eight hours of sunlight it simply is not going to be sweet. Look for varieties with a little acid to balance the sweetness; the flavor will be better.
Other vegetables such as lettuce, radishes and some brassicas may be ‘adapted’ to a particular season. Some are ‘cold hardy’, ‘heat tolerant’, and ‘bolt’ or ‘disease’ resistant; others are bred to grow best in spring, summer or fall. For instance, if you are looking at lettuce, ‘resistance’ to tip burn, mildew and bolting are very good. If the description says ‘spring or fall’, it means that it won’t do well in the summer. Radish varieties that are adapted for fall planting may bolt (not make a bul if sown in spring. Many vegetables including broccoli and cabbage come in varieties suitable for spring, summer or over-winter production. If you have a covered space you can have broccoli year round.
Whatever vegetable you choose to grow from seed, READ the description carefully before you buy. Certain words should tip you off to particular characteristics. Your success in gardening may depend on reading between the lines and making sense out of descriptions.