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Understanding Seed Catalogs: 15 Features to Look For

12/13/2013 6:06:00 PM

Tags: seed catalogs, heirloom vegetable varieties, garden planning, Virginia, Pam Dawling

Are you already thinking about snuggling by your woodstove browsing seed catalogs?  Don’t get sucked in byHeirloom Butternut Squash Varieties catalog superlatives! Careful reading of the variety descriptions will ensure you don’t miss something basic that would tell you this variety is not for your farm. Here are 15 phrases to watch for:

“Adaptable” “easy to grow” are good phrases to look for. “Requires an attentive grower” is a helpful warning.

“Early zucchini, 47 days from sowing” - but even the late ‘Costata Romanesco’ is only 52 days. How important is it to have zucchini 5 days earlier, especially after your first sowing? “Early maturing” isn’t useful if the seed rots in cold soil, so check both points.

Disease resistance/tolerance. Read the 66 items in Johnny’s Vegetable Disease Code list. Don’t be a vegetable hypochondriac– your plants won’t get everything! ‘Raven’ zucchini has no listed disease-resistance, while ‘Dunja’ withstands four diseases. Both have open plants, high yields of dark green zucchini. ‘Dunja’ has only small spines. No mention of ‘Raven’s spines – are they wicked? ‘Dunja’ is organically grown, 'Raven' is not. ‘Dunja’ costs twice as much as 'Raven'! What price organic seed, disease-resistance and short spines?

 “Semi-easy harvesting”: faint praise. ‘Spineless Perfection’ zucchini (45 days) has an open plant, ‘Tigress’ (50 days) is only semi-open, and makes no promises about lack of spines. Both are medium green, high yielding, cylindrical, with the same disease-resistance package. Price is very similar. Is the saving of a dollar on 1,000 seeds worth the costs of a five-day delay and spines?

“Heirlooms taste best” Some old heirloom vegetable varieties are rare for a reason! People didn’t like them much! Others are fantastic and easy to grow in quantity. Finding which are which is the challenge. Is “mild” flavor better than “rich” or “robust”, or not? Your call.

“Compact”, “Mini” = small. Do you want small or full-size crops? “Mini-broccolis” Santee, De Cicco won’t produce a big head, ever, just florets. Mache (corn salad) is a very small vegetable. Even if the variety description says “long leaves,” it’s all relative – maybe they’ll be 4” rather than 3”. At the other end of the Rampancy Rating are these key phrases: “needs room to roam,” “vigorous vines”: are they worth the space? “Needs sturdy trellis”: is it worth the time?

“Bitter in hot weather.” “Prefers warm days and nights” – you have been warned! If your spring heats up quickly, you’ll want greens that are bolt-resistant as well as cold-tolerant, so you can set them out early.

Packet sizes: grams, ounces and seed counts. Seeds are measured out in many ways. Take a steady look at seed specs (seeds/ounce or seeds/gram). Alas, this country has not yet fully metricated. Go to www.Metric-Conversions.org/ for conversion tables and online calculators.

“Concentrated fruit set” versus “long harvest season”: If Mexican bean beetles or downy mildew are likely to take down your crops, you might do better to sow successions more frequently and not worry about long harvest periods.

“Easiest for hand harvest” (E-Z Pick beans) means they come off the vine easily; but “better for handGrow Heirloom Corn Variety harvest” can simply mean unsuitable for machine harvest (plants sprawl). “Intended to be picked very slender” means tough when big. If “good side-shoot production” isn’t mentioned, it’s likely that broccoli was bred for crown cuts.

“Short-term storage only” – we usually read this as “not for storage.” If you want to put produce up for winter look for “Retains flavor when frozen or canned,”  “Best for sauerkraut,” “Easy to shell”.

Onions and latitude. Happily, more catalogs now state which latitudes each onion variety is adapted for.  No use growing ‘Red Bull’ (43°-65°) at 38°N, as the days never get long enough to initiate bulbing. Nor ‘Desert Sunrise’ (30°-36°) – after the spring equinox, our longer days will initiate bulbing before plants have a chance to grow very big.

Pumpkins or squash? Some winter squash are cataloged as pumpkins. Many cans of pumpkin pie filling are not made from round orange-skinned pumpkins, but from squash. Choose squash varieties that grow well in your area and make all the pies you want. Or make no pies and serve the squash/pumpkin baked, or in soups.

Warring sweet corn types. Don’t plant SuperSweet varieties unless you isolate them from other kinds, or you make sure they don’t flower within 10 days of each other. Mistakes lead to horrible starchy kernels. Dry corns (popcorn, dent corn, flint corn) also need isolation from all sweet corns.

Too good to be true: New, fancy types often don’t have all the problems resolved. Try brand new things on a small scale first. All the fanfare over ‘Indigo Rose’ tomato, the excitingly evil Deadly Nightshade color of the immature fruit, and then – blah flavor when ripe.

Photos by Kathryn Simmons

Pam has written in more detail about catalog interpretation on her blog, www.SustainableMarketFarming.com, where you can read her weekly postings and order her book Sustainable Market Farming.

Photos by Kathryn Simmons
Photos by Kathryn Simmons


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