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Parson: Making the right seed choices for your garden
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Here we are in the cold, dark days of January.  With temperatures in the mid-50s, we are right in line with what I expect this month. Wait a minute… Those are the lows!

I have always heard that when the highs are in the 70s, and the lows in the 50s, that’s time to set out your tomatoes. Not this year. Through the years there have been plenty of weeks in March when I felt like the tomatoes should go in the ground, but I wait. This year, January feels that way.

It’s not just me. Our fruit trees are starting to break bud on leaves and the flower buds are swelling as well. I guess the good part of that is the bees are flying and could pollinate the fruit. But even fertilized fruit needs weather above the freezing point to survive.

Regardless of the weather, I look at the calendar for guidance and find that we are in January-a month of rest for the gardener and the garden. A month of putting up one’s feet and perusing the seed catalogues. This month has not given me the rest I expected, but I have spent some time reading seed descriptions and salivating over pictures of juicy tomatoes and colorful peppers.

Here at the Oxford College Farm, garden planning is more complicated than most. We start with our crop rotation plan that I mentioned last month. We have nine fields, each with a group of crops to be grown during the season. These groups are further broken down into beds. By the time we order seed each of our 200 beds is planned for the season, including multiple cropping and cover crops.

Your garden, no doubt, has fewer rows. Even so, now is the time to measure your plot if you haven’t already and break it down into a useful unit for planning purposes. Next it’s time to order seeds to fill those rows.

Beware the seed catalogue. It will tell you lies. It will win your heart. It will make you feel like you can grow anything. But that is just not true.

Reading a seed catalogue is like playing ‘opposite day’ with a child. For example, every other tomato is listed as disease resistant. That is because tomatoes have some of the worst disease problems! For those who don’t know, all the initials after the tomato variety stand for some disease or pest that strain is resistant to.

In the seed catalogue you will see the most quickly bolting crops listed as slow-bolting. Cilantro will go to seed if you walk by it during the full moon. Even so, every purveyor of seed will list a slow-bolting cilantro.

It will win your heart by telling you these sweet lies. It will tell you this squash has the tastiest flesh, this tomato is the meatiest, this garlic is the hottest, or these beans will produce week after week. Some of these things are true. And you’re hooked.

Then it will make you feel like you can grow anything. Haven’t grown sweet corn in years? Maybe that super sweet variety will really perform this year! Don’t think you can grow celery in Georgia? Here’s one “adapted to all climates”.

But seriously, if you can read through the lines a little, the seed catalogue is a wealth of information. At this point, most of our 100+ varieties are things I have grown before and know what to expect. But there are new ones coming along all the time and some old favorites get fazed out.

For years my top two seed suppliers have been Johnny’s Selected Seeds from Maine and High Mowing Seeds in Vermont. Both have home-gardener sized packets available. Johnny’s was one of the first seed companies to cater to the market gardener exclusively. When I started farming in 1998, Johnny’s was the main seed supplier to the local organic farmers. Back then, High Mowing’s catalogue was more of a pamphlet, and their staff was much smaller than today. High Mowing was one of the first (and still one of the few) to offer only certified organic seeds.

If you are looking for something a little closer to home, Sow True Seeds is a great supplier out of Asheville. Their specialty is indicated by their name, only selling open-pollinated varieties.

If you save the seeds properly from your crop, an open-pollinated variety will “sew true” and each generation will have the same characteristics as the last. This is not true of hybrid varieties, marked by F1 in the catalogues. I choose certain hybrids because they will be more reliable, disease resistant, or even tastier.

So, what are our most exciting picks for the year?

  • Remember how I said the seed catalogues will make you think you can grow anything? We are trying celery root this year, ‘Mars’ is the variety.
  • Small , sweet, and colorful peppers known as ‘lunchbox’  or ‘picnic’ varieties are getting popular and we are trying them this year.
  • We will be growing one of the standouts from a scientific study variety trial this year-‘Alibi’ cucumber. It was very prolific in the trial.

And which of the old faithful varieties are we excited about growing?

  • Hybrid carrots perform so well: reliable production, small tops, nicely shaped roots, and the sweetness and crunch you expect. We grow Napoli and Yaya with success. Lots of people in the south will tell you to grow the Danvers type, but I have great success growing Nantes-type carrots.
  • The kale with four names is my favorite for one reason: flavor. You can call it ‘Cavolo Nero’, ‘Toscano’, ‘Lacinato’, or ‘Dinosaur’.
  • If you’ve ever grown ‘Cherokee Purple’, ‘Sungold’, ‘Striped German’, or ‘Rose de Berne’, then you know how good those tomatoes taste. I could write a whole piece on choosing tomato varieties…

Good luck making your choices from the seed catalogues and local suppliers of seedlings. Whatever you choose, make sure it has the space it needs when the time comes for planting!