Sunday, January 25, 2015

Identify Gardening Goals for Seed Selection

Right now is a really fun time: it's seed selection time! These frigid days are perfect for curling up with a cup of hot chocolate or tea, a big stack of seed catalogs, and a highlighter. My big problem is succumbing to the siren call of full-color photos and poetic descriptions and buying way more seeds than I can fit into my small garden, or attempting to grow things that will never work for me.

If you also fall prey to this, identify your goals in gardening. That way you'll make sure you get just what you want out of your garden. There are lots of reasons to garden, and each one requires different things. Here are some common considerations or goals in gardening that can help you narrow down your seed selection.

Trying to grow as much food as possible; severely limited grocery budget. For many people, the constant rising of food prices has put a strain on the family budget. It's hard to buy high-quality, super-fresh produce when you are barely scraping by. If you are on a limited budget, your goal in gardening will be to grow as much food as possible to prevent buying as much as possible. When you are looking through seed catalogs, look for the following keywords: prolific, highly productive, grows fast, reliable, high yields, second harvest, long harvest. These words indicate that you should get good harvests. When looking for lettuce seeds, look for loose-leaf instead of butterhead or head lettuces. These ones can be picked over several weeks as needed, first as baby greens, then as full-sized leaves whereas other types are typically a one-harvest plant. Pick varieties that are well-suited for your zone. While you may get a harvest from something that does best in a different climate, you'll have lower yields. In some cases it may be worthwhile, but you are sacrificing a good harvest for a small one for the same space in your garden. If you see that something is an heirloom for your state and it says it gives high yields, your chances of a bumper crop are great. Chose indeterminate tomatoes rather than determinate (the former gives a larger harvest over a longer period) and pole or runner beans instead of bush beans (bush beans give one big harvest, whereas runner and pole beans give fair harvests, but over a long period so you get much more per plant). For things that give a harvest over a longer period, such as indeterminate tomatoes, peppers, okra, loose-leaf lettuce, or beans, look for the shortest days to maturity time-frame so you start getting a harvest as soon as possible and continue harvesting until frost.

You're a foodie. If you consider yourself a foodie, then flavor and texture are highest priority, perhaps above yield and ease of growth. Look for keywords like: best flavor, delicate texture, high quality, slow to bolt. Homegrown tomatoes are a completely different thing than anything a grocery store sells, so this is a no-brainer. Other items are also worlds different than their store-bought counterparts: greens, carrots (The first time I tasted a homegrown carrot I realized that I'd never actually eaten a carrot, only orange cardboard impostors!), okra, peas and sweet corn (the second it's picked the sugars start converting to starch so even farmer's market sweet corn won't be as sweet as the stuff you pick while the water is already on to boil). Grow these vegetables that have the greatest difference over anything you can buy.

Milkmaid Nasturtiums are as delicious as they are edible.
Dodging the HOA restrictions. If you have a Home Owners Association that doesn't allow food gardens, or a city that doesn't allow front-yard gardens, but that is your only or best growing zone, you have to be sneaky. Your goal is to grow some edibles, but ones that are pretty enough to look like they were planted exclusively for decorative purposes. You'll do best looking in catalogs with full-color photos simply so you can plan the *cough cough* "flower beds" artistically. Look for frilly lettuces that are red, purple or speckled. Pick things with funky colors that match the overall theme, like Ruby Red Swiss Chard. Some root vegetables can be hidden in between other plants if the tops are pretty: beets, carrots (they really have lovely leaves), even radishes. You make not be able to grow many traditional vegetables like tomatoes, but maybe you can get away with some "ornamental" peppers. These are typically smaller plants with small, vibrantly colored peppers. In my experience, the peppers don't taste as good as uglier varieties, but they are edible, and in the right applications (mixed into chili or pickled in a flavorful brine) might be good enough. Look through the flower selections for "edible" or "medicinal" listed in the description. I grow lots of nasturtiums in my front garden. They are lovely beyond words and the flowers, leaves and seedpods are all edible. Scarlet Runner beans have elegant red flowers that attract hummingbirds; the green beans are really just a side benefit.
This speckled lettuce is pretty enough for the front garden.

Optimum Nutritional Benefits. If your soil is good, pretty much anything you grow will have better nutrition than the weeks old stuff you find at the grocery store. However, some items are going to be nutritional powerhouses compared to lightweights. For example, grow vibrant leafy vegetables like spinach, red lettuces, Rainbow Swiss chard and purple kale instead of iceberg. In fact, don't grow iceburg ever. It is low nutrition, low flavor and gives a smaller yield for the space. Try growing the new variety Indigo Rose tomato as it is rumored to be one of the most nutritious tomatoes in the world and I've never seen it for sale. In general, the most nutritious vegetables are cruciferous (broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, mustard greens, turnips), green leafy vegetables (in addition to the cruciferous greens: spinach, lettuce, parsley), alliums (especially garlic, leeks, scallions) and tomatoes. Low scores go to iceburg lettuce, radishes, cucumbers and celery.

Food preserving. If you are an avid food preservation artist, you likely want to grow a garden that you can put up into lovely pickles, jams, vegetable chips and other goodies. To be able to preserve food at the peak of freshness, you need to have enough of a harvest to put up a batch from one or maybe two day's harvest. Look for determinate tomatoes as these put on a larger harvest just once whereas indeterminates give several smaller harvests over a long period of time. Look for bush beans over pole or runner beans for the same reason. Look specifically for pickling cucumbers over slicers or salad cucumbers; these have lower moisture and hold up better for longer-term storage.

Garlic scapes are delicious and fun!
Want to try new food. If you want to just try new foods that you can't find at the grocery store, the world is your oyster. Keep in mind your zone, space and soil, but have fun. Look through the catalogs looking for funky shapes, odd colors and vegetables you've never seen. Look through seed catalogs that offer heirloom varieties for the best selection. Some catalogs offer both hybrid and open pollinated varieties, and these will likely have selections that are very similar to what you'll find at your grocery store or have grown in the past. Some of my favorite catalogs for finding new varieties are: Southern Exposure, Seed Savers and Baker's Creek. Baker's Creek is by far the best place to start if your goal is to grow new vegetables and varieties. Their offerings are beyond comprehension.

Want to eat fancier than you can afford. If you are able to afford a healthy diet but of the most basic kind, but want to try exotic, fashionable items, you're in luck! A lot of fancy foods can be grown easily at home. When you are at the market (or just thinking back to when you were), look out for the really high-ticket items. Grow those. Don't grow items that are cheap to buy, even at high quality. For example, zucchini and summer squash are relatively cheap when in season, so don't bother growing those. Cucumbers are also cheap. Grow hardneck garlic (plant in autumn). Not only are there lots of beautiful and tasty varieties, but hardneck (opposed to softneck) varieties send up a scape in late spring or early summer. These exotic beauties sells for $6 for a bundle of 5 at my market. They are out of this world: mild garlicy flavor but crisp and perfect for quiche, stir fry or soups. Edible flowers are expensive, but can be grown easily; look for Nasturtiums, marigolds, chrysanthemum, carnations, sunflowers, day lily, and pansies. Baby carrots are costly per pound compared to larger carrots, but easier to grow than larger ones. Look for Little finger, Babette,  Romeo, Thumbelina, an parisienne. Any vegetables that you like as a "baby" version can be simply picked early: carrots, radishes, greens, and beets. You can even thin every other plant in rows and eat the thinnings while allowing the others to continue growing. When growing greens, whether salad or cooking, look for varieties that you've never seen at the grocery store: dinosaur kale instead of Curly, tatsoi or mizuna instead of bok choi, ruby streaks mustard instead of southern giant curled. Tomatoes are a few dollar a pound minimum. You can also get a large yield per square foot (especially if you grow an indeterminate variety). Grow cherry tomatoes or fun colored tomatoes for the greatest cost savings, rather than run of the mill Romas or beefstakes.
Watermelon radishes are striking and a
fun surprise to cut open.

Teach children about food/healthy eating. If your goal is to get children excited about growing (and eating!) real food, look for fun varieties. Instead of plain orange carrots, look for purple, red or yellow ones. Grow watermelon radishes for their lime green exteriors and hot pink interiors. Look for terms such as: reliable, grows in wide range of soils, predictable, disease resistant. These make it more likely that your child will experience encouraging success instead of defeat.  If you have kids (or partners) who are picky eaters, you can grow things that can help get around the objections. Perhaps kids would be okay with eating neon green tomatoes (for TMNT fans call the slimy interiors "mutagen ooze") or purple carrots or tiny lemon cucumbers when they would be squeamish about the traditional counterparts.

Crystal Apple cucumbers are perfect
mini-sized treats.
Small space/container/indoor. If you are severely limited in your space whether due to having a small garden or needing to plant in containers either on a patio or indoors, you need to look for different varieties than you would if space was not an issue. Look for the following keywords: mini, baby, patio, container, short, compact. Certain vegetables grow better in containers than others. For example, you can grow squash in a container, but not well. Greens on the other hand do fantastically. If you decide to grow carrots in a container, look for shorter ones and especially for mini or baby carrots. For containers, grow "patio" or at least "determinate" tomatoes as these are likely to do better than the massive, sprawling indeterminates (I've had some indeterminates get over 10 feet tall in the garden). If you have a small garden, look for pole beans, indeterminate tomatoes, and climbing cucumbers and put up cages, fences, lines and poles for them to climb up. A single pole bean plant will produce more beans than a bush bean, but it needs room to climb.

Frugal gardening. If you have very little money to start your garden, look for basic varieties from cheaper sources. offers a smaller, but thorough selection of seeds at $1 a pack with $1 shipping. They are good quality, but not terribly exciting. That's okay if you're just trying to get started on the cheap. In most seed catalogs, the more common seeds sell a little cheaper than the fancier kinds. Don't diversify too much. While diversity is great, it can also be expensive. So while it would be fun to grow 10 varieties of tomatoes, it would also require buying ten packets only to use a few seeds from each. Instead, buy one or two packets and perhaps save the extras for next year (when you buy two more varieties). Get one or two lettuce varieties instead of a dozen. If you must have variety, it can be worthwhile to buy variety packs/salad mixes instead of several different packs. Do know, however, that these usually cost more and have fewer seeds, so if you are growing a lot, it can be more costly than buying a few different varieties. You can also split seed orders with family or friends to get more varieties while saving money on seeds and shipping. Chose open pollinated versus hybrid varieties and save your own seed so eventually you don't have to buy any seeds.

Before placing your order, do a search for "vegetable varieties" or "heirloom vegetable varieties" and your state to get an idea of what varieties grow best in your region. Identify the number of days in your growing season and make sure any varieties you chose not only will grow during that time-frame, but add a bit of a buffer just in case (my shady yard adds a good week or two til harvest for tomatoes).

By identifying you gardening goals before you place your seed order, you can ensure that you get what you want out of the garden. A little planning can be the difference between a disappointing chore and a fantastic, exciting adventure.

Daylilies are edible, pretty and grow easily.

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