A version of this column first ran in the Roane County (WV) Reporter and Times Record. Support local journalism! Subscribe to your local newspaper. This is one of a series of blogs for new gardeners. Start reading the whole series here: Part 1.
Before I get into this week’s column, I need to issue a correction. I have realized that the plant I have been growing and referring to in this column as “ginger” is a relative. So when I said it got six feet tall and made lovely fragrant blossoms—this is Hedychium Flavescens. Edible ginger is Zingiber oficinale. And it probably does just get three feet tall and rarely bloom here—if I can get some going I’ll find out next year. I want the edible ginger.
Soon the seed catalogs will be arriving in your mailbox, if the seed companies have your name. One way some of them make extra money is by selling your name to other companies. If they send some you don’t want, you can call and get your name removed from the list. If you are new to gardening and don’t get any catalogs, you can call and request them. My favorites have been Pinetree Garden Seed and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Pinetree is especially good for small quantities of seed, cheap. SESE is located in central Virginia, and focuses on crops and varieties that do well here too.
You can also buy seed locally, but I get most of mine from catalogs, because I want to be picky about varieties. I also prefer to stock up with the seed I need by the middle of winter, just in case something happens to interfere with the supply. Seed is not available locally until early spring.
For me, the first step is doing a seed inventory. I keep my seeds in four of the half-gallon size plastic peanut containers, plus some smaller plastic containers for seed I save myself. I got these containers from Southern Exposure Seed; one reason I like them is that they offer lots of equipment for saving seed. I store these in my dark, cool pantry.
I haven’t done it yet this year, but about this time I go through all my seeds and list what varieties I’ve got, what year it was collected (for commercial seed I assume the year prior to my purchase) and about how many seeds. Then I consider this whole list against what I plan to grow next year; by now I have pretty standard amounts but you might want to use this year’s harvest as a benchmark. For example, “I want twice as many sweet peppers, so I need twelve plants.” Then you make a list of what kind of seeds you actually need. This is why you need to check how many seeds you have left; you may have remaining carrot seed but not enough. The year is because old seed needs to be planted at higher rates; very old seed may not germinate at all.
You should have your Seed Needed list on hand before you look at those seed catalogs, for the same reason you shouldn’t go grocery shopping without a list when you’re hungry—everything looks good and you buy too much (especially chocolate, right?). This column is about vegetable gardening, but this is doubly true for flower catalogs. My late neighbor Sarah Hotchkiss referred to those as “horti-pornography.”
This also leads into the reason I like some catalogs over others. Many of them suggest that every item is perfect in every way—so how are you supposed to choose? They usually feature large color pictures of everything, although with vegetables the exact appearance isn’t the most important thing. The ones I like tell you the shortcomings of individual varieties, so you can choose according to what matters to you. For example, northern gardeners need to choose varieties that mature quickly and tolerate cold soil. This is rarely an issue here.
I do not want low acid tomatoes, since I can tomato sauce; I also prefer a tangy tomato. So I won’t pick low acid varieties, but some people like them. And I do like black and orange as well as red tomatoes, but the white ones give me the creeps.
If you succumb to temptation and buy more seed than you need, this means you’ll be well stocked for next year, as long as it isn’t a short-lived kind of seed. Herbs, onions, parsnips, sweet corn and popcorn, okra and salsify are listed as being good for only one or two years in the handy chart in my seed saving guide. Everything else should be good for at least three years.
Some plants you won’t be starting as seeds. This includes potatoes, which are started as sets (chunks of potato with at least one or preferably two eyes). As these can harbor disease, it’s worth buying them as certified seed potatoes in spring. These are grown in cold places where the common diseases don’t thrive. Sweet potato starts are called slips, and you can start these yourself, in early spring. With onions, you have a choice between seeds and sets—I buy the sets because seeds seem to take all year to get to set size. Garlic also starts with cloves, but is best planted in fall; if you haven’t already planted yours, it’s probably not too late but get them in the ground ASAP.
Read the rest: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27.