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Sheryl Humphrey's Rainbow Chard painting for the Hudson Valley Seed Library's Art Packs collection. Image courtesy Sheryl Humphrey.

When seed catalogs start arriving in the mail, gardeners know it’s time to get busy.  That’s because unordered seeds never grew anything, as all gardeners discover one sad spring or other.  Somehow the order never got written up, phoned in, or placed online. The March deadline came and went – and there you were, mid-April, furious with yourself as you scrutinized the limited selection at your local home improvement center.  Which brings us to a very important question: why order seeds from a catalog?

As you may have guessed, one reason is selection.  For the gardener who is an inveterate experimenter, half the fun is in trying and comparing varieties.  Another reason – it may sound silly, but it’s true: it’s educational.  Once you’ve looked over the pages of enough catalogs enough times, you’ll find yourself spouting Latin names like a pro!  Even if you’ve never grown the plant, you’ll know what it looks like, based on the picture you no doubt drooled over.

These days, the amount of information included in some catalogs makes for serious reading.  There’s honestly no way NOT to learn about the finer points of gardening.  Lastly, catalogs invite discovery.  You’ll find out about products you never knew existed, and you can count on there being at least one you just have to own.  Over time, you’ll become expert at separating the truly useful from “just another pretty package.”

Long-time gardener that I am, I generally find myself inundated with seed catalogs this time of year.  Here are five that are at or near the top of my list of favorites:

Top five seed catalog faves

Gardens Alive! One reason I like  Gardens Alive!  is that it’s close by me, in Indiana.  I feel confident that whatever they sell me will do well in my yard.  Fuel consumption caused by lack of proximity isn’t an issue; they’re close by.  There’s a $25 coupon on the front cover, for use if I buy at least $50 worth of product from them.  Prices have always struck me as a little high, but their selection of organic plants and seeds is very respectable.  I like their fertilizer for newly-planted fruit trees very much; it’s done the trick so far.  Interesting items include a worm composting system, really good selections of sprout and microgreen seeds, and insect-specific solutions for the vegetable garden.  Drawbacks?  The catalog has no index.

Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co. Gurney’s catalog is “seniors friendly.” The page layout is open rather than crowded, making it easy on the eyes.  The front cover includes a $25 coupon that can be used on purchases totaling at least $50.  There are lots of heirloom vegetable varieties, a number of fruit plant-specific fertilizers, and some very “interesting” plants to tempt you (I may not be able to resist the coffee plant on page 49.)  The catalog also has a very good index.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  I like the fact that Johnny’s is employee owned.  I also like the fact that over 325 organic products are included.  The symbols and abbreviations are a bit much, but there’s an index to the symbols on the bottom of every other page.  This was one of two catalogs that carry Stevia plants, and the Tools & Supplies section is just excellent, albeit pricey.  The plants are arranged alphabetically.

Seeds of Change.  SoC’s seeds are certified organic, and there are positive truckloads of information about each and every plant variety.  The hardiness zone map is more accurate than some others (much of the state of Kentucky now lies within zone 7, not entirely in zone 6, as some maps indicate).  Overall, the catalog is busy looking, a trade-off for the wealth of information and the excellent selection.

R.H Shumway’s Illustrated Garden Guide.  This catalog measures a generous 10.5” x 13.5”, and is replete with very charming, old-fashioned illustrations.  Shumway’s has been in business for 141 years, a point they hammer home with the old-time type font they use.  Type size is very user friendly, and the seemingly random page layout lures you ever onward.  The index is nicely laid out, and the hardiness zone map is accurate, so far as I can tell.  My favorite herb is rosemary, and I have long wished I could grow it as a perennial.  Imagine my delight when I found Rosemary “Madeline Hill” on page 6 – hardy to zone 5!  Ah, the joy of gardening.

Bonus. I want to include the online catalog of the Art Packs from the Hudson Valley Seed Library, whose mission to aim for total localization through New York backyard growers, to cultivate heirloom varieties, and to include the work of local artists on their seed packs (see seed pack above) is truly an inspiring story and one that other localities could emulate.

It Starts With a Seed

For right now, all of the above is still a viable way to procure seeds. Now is a good time, however, to be figuring out which varieties you like enough to grow again, because you’ll want to begin saving the seeds.  With “peak everything” on the horizon, catalogs and websites may not be around a whole lot longer.

I grew up believing I shouldn’t save seeds because of the warning on seed packets, strongly advising against it.  This applies, however, only if you intend to sell the seeds you save. Home gardeners who save seeds strictly for their own use needn’t worry.

Regardless of whether you grow hybrids or heirlooms, the seeds you’ll want to save will belong to plants that run “true to type,” i.e., the individual plant displays the qualities you prefer, and want passed along. Hybrid plant varieties are bred mostly by seed companies for particular characteristics, some of which belong to one parent plant, some to the other. Heirloom varieties originally appeared as the result of wind or insect pollination, and were selected by individual gardeners long ago for certain qualities. Both kinds of plants can experience mutation, or naturally occurring changes, in their genetic material.

How to save seeds

The plant or plants you select should be fully mature, even a little past their prime.  In order to ensure that you will succeed in growing at least one plant with the characteristics you desire, try to grow as many as you possibly can in your home garden.  Select sturdy plants that have produced lots of vegetables.

Corn, garlic, lettuce, broccol– Permit seeds to develop and dry right on the plant. In the case of corn, harvest and continue drying in a paper grocery bag.  The kernels are dry enough if they fall off the ear as you twist it in your hands.  Place garlics in open weave bags after harvesting to allow for further drying.  Hang bags so the air can circulate for efficient drying.  An open weave basket would afford the same efficiency. Lettuce and broccoli seeds, along with the seeds from other cole crops (cauliflower, brussel sprouts) can be collected from the plant once it’s gone to seed (the plant will have grown flowers).  You can strip the seeds off by hand, or, if the seeds are good and dry, simply shake them into a paper bag.

Cucumbers, other squash –like plants – Cut open the vegetable and scoop out the seeds.   Wash vegetable matter off the seeds and spread them out on newspaper to dry.  The seeds must be free of other matter or they could become moldy.  Seeds can only contain 3-5% water, so test them for dryness: if you can bend the seed without breaking it, it’s still too wet.  There are seed savers who will advise you simply not to save the seeds of these vining plants; they tend to “wander” a bit, genetically speaking.  It’s a good idea not to grow cucumbers and cantaloupes the same year, or, if you have lots of space, grow them at opposite ends of your garden!

Beans, peas, peppers– Bean and pea seeds can be extracted from the pod once it’s good and ripe.  Be sure to let them dry.  Seeds should be left in the freezer for a day to prevent weevil infestation.  Pepper seeds can simply be removed from inside the plant and dried.
Tomatoes are a bit messier  – Slice open the tomato and squeeze the contents into a jar.  Fill the jar about ¾ full with water and stir.  The jar’s contents become a bit smelly, but the good seeds will fall to the bottom after four or five days.  The smelly residue on top can be thrown out.  Spread the seeds out on newspaper to dry.

Storage, labeling, resources

Keep your seeds in labeled envelopes (include the date!) in a cool, dry environment.  Long-term storage is possible, but seeds lose a bit of potency for every year that goes by. If your seed packets are placed in a jar, you can add a desiccant (one of those objects you find in medicine bottles and shoe boxes) in order to help keep them dry. And there are plenty of online resources (seed pack templates, design ideas, detailed seed packet templates and cool labels) if you’re in the mood (and have the time) to turn your seed saving into an artistic expression, craft activity, or gift-making endeavor.

This is not – you should forgive the expression – rocket science. People have saved seeds for as long as they have grown food; indeed, they could not have done so, otherwise. There is an Arab proverb that says “A cloud is a promise, fulfillment is rain.”  In similar fashion, a seed is a promise that reaches fulfillment when it produces a plant that bears more seeds.

Here’s wishing everyone a plentiful harvest in 2011!

– Vicki Lipski

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