How to Order Seeds for Next Summer’s Garden

Seed catalogs are competing for space in my mailbox, slowly but surely outweighing holiday retail campaigns. Seed surfing is one of the great garden pleasures enjoyed in cold, wet winter months. This past Saturday, when it seemed the rain just wouldn’t stop, I curled up with my cat in a big armchair and drifted off to summer seasons past. Before I knew it, I had a farm’s worth of produce on the horizon. Some checks and balances are in order when poring over seed catalogs, especially when it’s so easy to click a button and order a very small box full of what could potentially feed a small nation. Here are few ways I narrowed down my options:

Consider the Amount of Available Space

Read the seed description carefully to determine how tall and wide the mature plant will be. Include room for stakes. For example, an indeterminate tomato plant may reach 8 feet or more. I use narrow tomato stakes and prune the vines as the grow, keeping the circumference of the plant to within 2 feet. This allows me to grow four tomato plants in a 4 x 4 foot space.

Seek, smaller bushy varieties. Raised bed suburban and city gardens are more popular than ever. Growers are paying attention by offering more and more options for small spaces and containers. Smaller plants have the added advantage of growing at the front of the garden, which leaves enough sun and space for taller varieties in back. This year, I’m trying Seed Savers Dwarf Gray Sugar and Green Arrow peas, both selected for their high productivity and vines that stay under 30 inches. I also ordered Miniature Chocolate Bell peppers, described as “short and stocky,” in addition to their “excellent, fresh flavor.” Lots of room in back for tomatoes!

Grow Heirloom Varieties with an Interesting History

Saved seeds carry a history that enhances their flavor and earns them coveted space in our garden. Gardeners have saved seeds for centuries, conserving plants that bore witness to centuries of triumph and travail.

Who can resist the intrigue of Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans, Black Aztec corn, and Winter Luxury squash? They’ll make up our three sisters garden this year, with more emphasis on the tale than the taste, though I’m sure they’ll reward us in both regards. The irresistible history and horticultural lessons that arise organically from these companion plants will form the basis of our children’s garden.

Select the Best Vegetable Variety for the Area

Climate zone and soil composition are important factors when choosing what to grow, but there are other important things to consider before putting forth the effort edibles require. Disease resistance, heat and drought tolerance, tastiness, monetary value, and even attractiveness come into play.

Testing soil in late fall or early winter gives gardeners extra time to compensate for heavy nutrient loss incurred by last year’s vegetables. Most vegetables are heavy feeders, so nitrogen replacement is essential. A soil test tells you exactly what you need to add to achieve the right nutrient combo for the vegetables you want to grow.

Chose plants wisely. County extension offices and some universities recommend specific varieties that work best in a particular area. A planting schedule is another useful tool to use when planning what types of vegetables to grow. I’ve found these Virginia Cooperative Extension publications invaluable in selecting vegetable varieties to grow in my zone 7a raised beds: Vegetables Recommended for Virginia and Vegetable Planning Guide and Recommended Planting Dates.

Plant edibles that family members like to eat. I love squash, but my family hates it. I’ve learned to appreciate the volunteers that inevitably return. After many battles with squash vine borer, I’ve decided to let nature chose the healthiest offspring. I always end up with some very tasty butternut varieties.

I love eggplant, but so do many pests. Last year, I planted eggplant specifically to attract pests away from other crops. It worked, to some degree, but this year I’ll use the space for more productive vegetables that my family will eat.

Plan Ahead for a Season-Long Garden

By mapping out a plan for sequential planting, I make sure I have something growing throughout spring, summer, and fall. Start with peas, and when their spent, replace them with mid-summer crops. Plant lettuce and radish seeds throughout the early season, to ensure a continual harvest.

Companion planting allows some plants to mature, while others take root. It’s been said that carrots love tomatoes, and potatoes benefit from beans. Protective properties secreted by one crop may prevent disease or repel pests in another.

Timing is key when planting a succession garden. This year, I ordered extra kale, since it loves cool weather. I hate running out of seed in fall, when there’s nothing but bulbs for sale in the local nurseries. I also ordered extra lettuce seed, another cool weather crop, to toss between the rows in spring and fall. Pea vines shade the baby lettuce greens, keeping them fresh well into May. I’ll sow them again in later summer, up until two weeks before the frost date. They’ll grow under the cold frame until hard frost hits.

Hmm, frost…that was yesterday…

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