Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.
CAUTION: If you have difficulty keeping your annual garden seed budget under control, you probably should not read this.
It's January 12 and I've spent the last two weekend mornings reading seed catalogs and preparing my orders. (Meanwhile, it's about 50 degrees outside, again. The continuing mild weather we have had this winter here in the Midwest sure keeps climate change on my mind.)
I think about 80 percent of everything I have learned reading about gardening over the last 40 years, has come from seed catalogs. Every year I still discover new crops and new growing tips that I am excited to try. I scribble notes throughout several catalogs, intending to pass along the top tips to Mother Earth readers. Then I am too busy and the marked-up catalogs languish in a stack on my desk, slowly buried by other projects.
This year, thanks to my new iPad, I'm typing notes as I go along, while writing up my orders.
Here are some of the things that caught my eye among over 700 varieties in the 2012 catalog of heirloom seeds from our friends at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Mineral, Virginia).
*An excellent overview listing 30 crops for fall and winter harvest, with estimated cold hardiness and best varieties, for each crop.
*Located in Virginia, SESE specializes in heirloom seeds and advice for the Mid-Atlantic region. The company was founded in 1982 by Jeff McCormack and Patty Wallens. Today Southern Exposure is cooperatively owned and operated by Acorn Community Farm, an egalitarian income-sharing community.
*The 85-page 2012 catalog includes a chart of Recommended Planting Dates for the "Mountains", "Island Plains" and "Coastal" areas. Even though our continent has so much variation in climates, many seed companies these days aim their catalogs to a national audience. Companies like SESE that offer varieties and advice for their regions are providing a very important service and deserve our support. There's just no substitute for first-hand experience.
*Runner beans are a different species than our regular green beans, with bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds. SESE says these beans produce a bulbous root "which in mild climates can be dug up in fall and replanted in spring", which means your plants would flower and produce beans sooner if you did this. Cool.
*They are offering an edamame soybean variety called Moon Cake that grows 5 to 6 feet tall and was bred specifically for "flavor and nutrition." Intriguing; gotta give it a try.
* SESE offers two varieties of fava beans, which reminds me of the only time I've ever eaten favas, years ago at a restaurant in New York City. They were delicious, but every time I've tried to grow favas here in Kansas, it doesn't work. I think our growing season is just too hot and dry for them. (If you've figured out how to grow them in the midwest, please let me know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
*Tips for growing cabbage: After harvesting the main head, leave the plant and it will produce side sprouts; select the strongest sprout and allow it to develop into a second, smaller head. Also, decrease bolting by heavy mulching and by twisting mature heads slightly to check the plants' growth.
*SESE offers a variety of gourd called Egg and reports that "old-timers put these small egg-shaped gourds in nests to encourage hens to lay their own there." What fun!
*They offer a number of varieties bred by gardeners in their region, including a more cold-hardy variety of Tat Soi developed by Even' Star Organic Farm.
*Would you believe a kohlrabi that can grow to 60 pounds! That's Southern Exposure's report on Gigant, a Czech heirloom. Normal size is more like 15 to 20 pounds, they say. I love kohlrabi's flavor and crunch, and it keeps almost forever in the fridge. I've had better luck with the Kossack variety, but will give Gigant another try this year.
*I've heard positive things about "potato onions" for years and am finally going to grow them this year. SESE says these perennial onions are widely adapted and produce 3 to 4 inch bulbs that store for 8 to 12 months! (Anybody know why they are called "potato" onions?) And they are also offering a hardy perennial leek--gotta try it too. Leeks have such a great flavor.
*We all know supermarket tomatoes are mostly not even worth buying these days, but are you growing a winter storage tomato? SEES offers Rev. Morrow's Long Keeper and says this Louisiana heirloom seed's "excellent storage quality earned it a place in our garden".
*Have you ever seen Elephant Head amaranth? It really does produce a huge flower that looks like an elephant head, with a long trunk. I think I'll tuck a plant or two into a corner this year.
*Years ago I read about Tina James' Magic evening-scented primrose, but have never had a chance to try it. This selection's flowers reportedly open so rapidly in the evenings that it's name sake, Tina James and others host "primrose parties" and invite friends to come watch the flowers open. SESE promises the fragrant yellow blooms will be 2/3 open in 10 seconds or less.
Southern Exposure offers heirloom seeds of four varieties of sweet cane sorghum, plus one variety recommended for making brooms. They also sell a book about this homestead skill: Sweet Sorghum: Production and Processing. If you are interested in producing your own sorghum syrup but haven't because you can't find the equipment needed to crush the canes, stay tuned. One of our Mother Earth News advertisers, Grainmaker, is developing a new home-scale cane crusher and we hope to be able to tell you more about it later this year. Meanwhile, you might want to trial some sorghum varieties this year to see how they grow for you.
*If you are in to saving your own heirloom seeds, Southern Exposure has one of the best selections of seed saving supplies around.
*Last but not least, a big thank you to Ira Wallace and her colleagues at Southern Exposure for helping us introduce the delicious Floriani Red Flint corn. Every time I eat this heirloom open-pollinated corn, I am re-amazed by it's rich flavor. If you can't grow your own corn, you can order whole grain Floriani for grinding at Starke Round Barn (supply is limited).
Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years. Connect with her on Google+.