Seed catalogs begin to arrive in mid-December, but we tuck them away until New Year’s Day, which becomes an orgy of seed dreams in front of the fire. For several weeks, we circle, color-code, and fold down pages in all of the catalogs, like we had an infinite amount of space and the perfect climate for every plant. Dream Big — but then, reality sets in and we have to narrow the selection down. These are the criteria for seed selection, after years of patient sorting.
1. No GMO seeds. The jury may still be out on GMO’s long-term impact on the environment, but I do not want to be part of the distribution of genetically modified seeds. Therefore, if the company does not publish the Safe Seed Pledge up front, I toss it. After a few years, those catalogs no longer land on my doorstep.
2. Consider the climate. The Pacific Northwest has long (from February to early July) damp springs, quick cool very dry summers, and temperate winters. It is rare for the ground to freeze thoroughly, although it is totally saturated from December through March. I start with catalogs designed specifically for the Northwest, like Territorial seeds, which often has varieties developed three blocks ways, at OSU. Irish Eyes also focuses on short season crops, as well as potatoes. Big time outfits do not do as well here; I haven’t considered Burbee seeds for years, although they were my first seed catalog when I lived in New Hampshire. Greens grow here, year round. Mustard, kale, collards, cabbages…perfect. Long season, hot weather crops, like sweet corn, beefsteak tomatoes, and eggplants need special care and nurturing, as well as a specific microclimate. I have one friend who does well with the hot weather crops, but her backyard is more exposed than ours. We have talked about crop trades. So, when I read the descriptions of tomato varieties, if it is a 90-day tomato, it is off the list. Dried beans can also be a challenge, because they need to be fully fleshed out, if not dried down, before the first fall rains.
3. Will we eat it? We are open to a huge variety of vegetables, but we like some much better than others. If it is a choice between daikon radishes and another row of yellow beans, the beans win, every time. We are not the only ones; the CSA trade box is often full of radishes. The corollary also holds true—is it tasty? Two years ago, OSU developed a very striking black cherry tomato. The plant was husky and green, the tomatoes prolific and stunning, and the advertising was high in antioxidants. They appeared in everyone’s front yard garden boxes. Everyone admired them. Then we bit into the fruit. Not tasty. Very few were planted last year.
4. Do we need it in that color? One year, two of my seed-purchasing friends and I all fell prey to the Purple Podded Peas. The description of the flowers and the pods was so well written; the plants were lovely. The contrast between the purple and green…stunning. Then we harvested. The peas were hard as a rock and flavorless. I don’t have room for plants that just look lovely—at least, not if they want to be watered. Red celery did not grow as well as the green, but was pretty. Even the Painted Lady Scarlet runner beans did not produce as well as the traditional variety.
5. Finally, after hours of dreaming, I narrow down my choices. I always try a new tomato, because I am still searching for perfection. I allow myself one or two experimental crops each season. One year, it was soybeans, which were excellent. Another, I grew a few kohlrabi, but was stumped by how to cook them. Some years, fennel bulbs do well, others celery. The goal is a balance of old, proven winners and a few new crops to provide interest.
By early February, the seed lists have been made, the orders sent, and the rough garden plan sketched out. On Candlemas — also known as Groundhog’s Day—I will start the cabbage and broccoli, tomatoes and kale plants for the early garden and set the grow lamps up in my classroom. When the first seed sprouts, the cycle has begun again.
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