November 28, 1997

Last time we talked about selecting your seed company wisely. This week we'll discuss how to buy your seeds, and perhaps how to select varieties.

I am an advocate of purchasing your seeds mail-order. Not only do you know that the seeds have been stored under optimum conditions (with the caveats mentioned in my previous article), guaranteeing higher levels of viability; but also you will find a much wider selection of varieties available. For example: Territorial Seed Company sells 4-6 different varieties of corn on their seed racks, but the catalog lists 22 different types. It only makes sense for them to offer their best-selling varieties on the racks, but your tastes may not coincide with the majority of gardeners!

Additionally, mail order gives you a wider variety of seed sources. You may be able to find local seed companies who also stock seed racks (such as Territorial here in the maritime northwest); but the vast majority of seed racks are owned by huge companies like Northup King. NK is certainly a quality company, but their seed can't be equally well-adapted to every climate, and they can't financially justify making more than a token effort at customizing their offerings for the various regions. Even many smaller "regional" seed rack jobbers like Lilly Miller are trying to cover many climates with only one set of seed offerings.

This brings up an interesting point, which I learned from Shepherd Ogden (of The Cook's Garden) some years ago. He had been talking to a vegetable breeder, and asked him why they don't try to breed more varieties which are adaptable to a wide range of climates, which would be a boon to the home garden market. The answer? Well, it went pretty much like this: "I sell more broccoli seed to a single Salinas Valley commercial grower than all of the gardeners in the United States purchase in a year." This ties in with my previous article, and supports the idea that local seed companies (which also trial their seed locally) are best for the home gardener; unless, of course, you live in the Salinas valley! Finding out which varieties grow in your region is basically a matter of trial and error; I'd rather let the seed company foot that expense than do it myself.

Even the smallest local seed company will not be targeting just your particular microclimate, so you have to use your own judgment to some degree. If you garden in an area which is cool with respect to your region, don't try to grow the latest varieties in the catalog; at least not at first. Grow the earlier and mid- season varieties, and see when they are ready in your garden. Conversely, if your region is cool, but you think your garden is in a relative hot pocket, you might devote a small amount of space to trying vegetables which are marginal in your area, as long as you have a high tolerance for failure. I've been growing melons, which are really not adapted at all to the cool maritime northwest, for several years, and watermelon for three; this year I finally got my first ripe watermelon!

It always pays to talk to other local gardeners, especially those who have been there for many years. Borrow their experience, especially at first, but don't be afraid to push the margins a bit as you gain your own base of knowledge.

The home grower often wants to get a long harvest season from the garden. This runs contrary to the way seed breeders develop modern varieties, since commercial growers want to harvest a field all at once. I like to buy three or four different varieties of a vegetable, selecting them according to the listed "days to maturity". This allows me to get several harvests from one sowing. Additionally I will try one or two new varieties with overlapping maturity dates, so I can judge them for flavor and yield.

This leads in to the debate of open pollinated (OP) versus hybrid vegetables, which can really set off fireworks. I'm going to more or less sidestep the issue for now. Hybrids have the advantages of being more vigorous and often more disease resistant, with a disadvantage of maturing pretty much all at once (assuming we are talking about a single variety). OPs advantages include that they will mature over a wider range of time, and sometimes can taste better than modern hybrids (this is especially noticeable with tomatoes); but OPs are more variable genetically than hybrids, so it is not uncommon to find some plants which are unproductive. If you have a small garden, I'd suggest growing hybrids simply because every plant counts. Gardeners with more growing space can compare hybrids and OPs side by side (and vegetable by vegetable), and make decisions for themselves. I really would like to suggest you try at least one heirloom open-pollinated tomato, though!

In my mind, though, the final determination of what variety to grow comes down to taste; and of course, taste is going to vary from gardener to gardener. You may love Seneca Scrumptious corn, while I prefer good old Golden Jubilee. You might find worlds of difference between different types of kohlrabi, while I think they all taste the same; so I grow Rapid, a very pretty purple kohlrabi that adds some color to my garden. I adore Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, while some friends find them way too sweet. After 700+ words, it comes down to this: In the end, you've got to decide what works best for yourself.

I admit to having just scratched the surface here; there are issues and questions which I haven't addressed. If you have questions, see glaring omissions, or disagree with me on anything I've said here, please feel free to tell me so!

All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013