Thursday, January 30, 2014

Garden Catalogs: How to Use and Understand Them

You buy one little pack of seeds or perhaps one small plant and suddenly you're on the list. The catalogs come rolling in.  Now, reading catalogs and comparing varieties is a good way to educate yourself and a fun pastime, just understand that all seed catalogs are not created equal.

The really good catalogs spend lots of time and effort to make sure that you get those items that will absolutely grow the best for you. Most seed and plant catalogs will provide the growing zones best suited for your area. In Virginia, most of us are in zone 6 or in zone 7. If this is all the information you have, beware! Your chances of wasting money just went up.

What is some of the other important information you may want to know? Sun or shade, soil type, growing conditions, plant uses, dry or moist conditions, and certainly when and how much to plant is essential information.

Catalogs come from different parts of the country and even different parts of the world. Look for information on where your catalog originated. Chances are a catalog coming from the north will focus on varieties suited for that area. The same is true for southern publications. They focus on plants that grow well in the south. The Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Pacific Northwest, and they all offer wonderful varieties. The question is: will they grow in my area? Pay very close attention to what a catalog says about adaptation and even closer attention to what they don’t say. You can learn a lot by reading between the lines.
Plant selection is harder than it once was -- and that’s a good thing. Today we have more varieties bred to grow under special circumstances than ever before. You can find new crosses that germinate in cool or warm soil. There are plants designed to grow at different parallels. Plants have been designed to set fruit at unusually high temperatures or that have a longer field or shelf life. Buy from catalogs that freely offer this information to save yourself a lot of frustration and money.

Perhaps more money is wasted on onions than on any other plant in the garden. The practice of growing onions from sets or small bulbs has been a common one for our area. The problem is these onions were planted last year at very high density rates. This keeps the bulbs small and suitable for replanting the following spring. The onion, being biennial, wants to grow slightly and then set seed. Large onions are hard to grow this way.

A better way of growing onions is from seed or plants. Here’s where you need to pay attention. Onions are classified into short day, long day, or intermediate day classifications. Short day onions are sweet but hard to keep---Vidalia type. Long day onions are the long keepers found in your supermarket. Intermediate day onions are a cross with some sweetness and a two to four month storage window. Below Virginia’s southern border short day onions grow quite well. From Maryland north, long day onions thrive. That leaves us right in the middle with intermediate day varieties. Intermediate onions are really good but the selection is limited.
Where onions grow best is basically a function of light based on our latitude line.  A catalog should give you the onion type, but even then, there are overlapping zones. Some short day and selected long day onions will grow for us. Look for specific latitude zone information for the best results.

Corn presents a similar situation. Varieties have been selected for northern areas, southern areas, or chosen because they grow in many areas. Again, look for the information or read between the lines.

Today’s expanded seed and plant selections come in three basic categories. Those are: heirloom, hybrid, and genetically modified (GMO) varieties. Heirloom varieties are older, seed-stable varieties from which you may save seed and reproduce the variety. Hybrid simply means that two or more plants have been cross pollinated to produce your new variety. You could make the same crosses if you knew which crosses to make. But: don't count on the seed companies telling you. That’s how they make their money. 

Genetically modified varieties involve gene splicing. The book is still open on these. Some catalog companies will make a blanket statement that their products do not knowingly contain any GMO material. If unstated, look for the term “Roundup Ready”. This statement almost always signals a genetically modified variety.
Most catalogs will carry a mix of both heirloom and hybrid varieties. Some catalogs specialize. You will find some really interesting plants in catalogs devoted to seed saving from heirloom varieties. These are our base of plants from which we created the hybrids. There are specialty catalogs for beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, fingerling potatoes and exotics.

Sometimes we overlook the fact that those things right in our own backyards are best. That leads us to local catalogs. Most of these are found within our area or region. You’ll find them at your local farm supply, seed store, or garden center. The varieties found in these books may not be the latest new thing but they are tried and true. Plant from these catalogs and you are almost certain to find success barring any natural calamity. For the beginning gardener or for one with limited funds, these are the ones to choose. In addition, you will probably be buying from an experienced gardener with local insight.

Look in your mailbox. Look online. Look in your local community. Wherever you look you are going to find the best selection of fruits, vegetables, trees, and exotics in the history of mankind. Plant varieties too close or deliberately cross pollinate your own varieties and you may be creating the next new thing or perhaps starting your own seed company. Remember, the man that created the “Mortgage Lifter” tomato paid off his debt by selling the seed. What a story!

Sample a lot of seeds. Plant small quantities until you find those best for you. Have fun and don’t get too serious. Give us a call if the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners can help. Happy Growing!  

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