Toronto Star column – published March 1, 2014
“An optimist is the human personification of spring.” ~Susan J. Bissonette
Gardeners are a seedy bunch, especially in winter. Some time before Christmas my copy of the Veseys Seed catalogue arrived in my mailbox from P.E.I. I tucked it away in my ‘in-file’ to review this time of year, with the preoccupations of the holidays behind me.
Mid winter, I remind you, is the best time to sit back, relax, and learn a thing or two about gardening. Seed catalogues – online or in print – are a great way to enhance your skills as a gardener and to try new things.
Here is a primer on seed ordering for spring 2014:
Know the terms: seed catalogue copy writers have a habit of using expressions that are unique to the business, without necessarily explaining to the neophyte gardener what they mean. Here is a short list of the most common ones:
- Open pollinated. A plant producing flowers that can be fertilized by other varieties of the same species are ‘open pollinated’. Flowers are pollinated by wind, insects, birds or other natural methods. For this reason it is a good idea to isolate open pollinated vegetables away from other plants that are in the same family. Two varieties of open pollinated cucumbers, for instance, can produce some weird looking cucs!
- Heritage [or heirloom]. A variety of flowering plant or vegetable that has been in cultivation for over 100 years is considered to be a heritage variety. While this length of time varies depending on who you talk to, generally it is accepted that a century-old variety is a ‘heritage’. Many gardeners seek out the old heirloom or heritage varieties in an effort to preserve the taste and ‘table readiness’ that many of them are famous for.
- Organic. Seeds that have been produced using non-chemical methods, according to the rules of the Canadian Organic Regime, are ‘organic’ seeds. This is important for gardeners who want assurance that the plants that they grow in their garden are free of chemicals from the seed production phase on down. It also means that the seed has not been coated with a pesticide to prevent rot and other disease before it germinates in the ground. This is important to know if you are sowing your peas in cold, wet soil that predisposes them to rotting before they root.
- ‘Coated or pelleted seed’. Seed coated with clay to make handling easier. I buy all of my carrot seeds ‘coated’ as it helps on a number of fronts. It prevents foraging by birds after I have sown them, the coating protects the seed from disease, it eliminates the need to thin seedlings [when I have plenty else to do in the garden], and it absorbs moisture from the soil and holds it until germination. For shallow-sown, small seeds like carrots this makes a huge difference to the percentage of seed that germinate and the number of carrots that I grow successfully per square foot.
- Hybrid. A plant whose parents are from two genetically distinct individuals. Generally, a hybrid is a variety that has been manipulated by the ‘hand of man’. A ‘non-hybrid’ is a variety of plant whose lineage cannot necessarily be traced. Seeds from a non-hybrid generally mature true to the parent plant, while hybrids are a lost cause in this regard. The seed companies love it when you like hybrids as you have to purchase these seeds, rather than gather them from your garden yourself to save from season to season, like heritage seeds.
Armed with this basic information, you can wade into the world of seed catalogues with confidence. Don’t be overwhelmed by the breadth of offerings when you first open your new catalogues. The 2014 edition of the Veseys catalogue is 185 pages and there are bigger ones out there! Take your time with this… leaf through it a few times before you commit to ordering.
No doubt you will see vegetable and flower varieties that you have never heard of before. If Raab/Rapini, Brocolini, Escarole, Radicchio, Tomatillo, or Stevia are foreign plants to your lexicon, you can thank the ever expanding list of available seeds to the multi-ethnic nature of the Canadian population. As foods from other parts of the world are introduced to us, some become so widely accepted that they pop up in mainstream grocery counters and seed offerings.
I grow about an acre of vegetables each year, all from seed. Some seed I start in my greenhouse several weeks before planting and others I plant directly in the ground. I enjoy the exercise of ordering seeds as it refreshes my mind annually with regards to the cultivation and care of each variety. It also provides a great introduction to new varieties.
I recommend that you look over more than just one seed catalogue and check out the seed racks at your favourite garden retailer. The fresh seed for this season has just arrived in the last couple of weeks. I have noticed that many unusual vegetables, herbs, and flowers are now available where they were hard to find in prior years. There are some seed racks devoted to Italian vegetables and others offering seeds that originate in the Orient.
If you live in Toronto or any other ethnically diverse neighbourhood, be sure to check out the seeds offered at retailers within your urban area. You will often find unique offerings of seed varieties that are interesting and worth a try.
Which brings me nicely to this: there is no better time for you to join a horticultural club. As we wait out the winter in anticipation of a great gardening season ahead, the frequent gatherings of like-minded gardeners helps to keep the dream alive.
Gardeners are, by their very nature, generous and friendly. You will find a fountain of free information and camaraderie wherever they meet. If you live in Ontario and are unsure just how to connect with the hort clubs in your neighbourhood, visit the Ontario Horticultural Association’s website [http://gardenontario.org/] where you will find lists of hort societies organized alphabetically, geographically and by district. Alternatively the most thoroughly researched hand book of its kind is The Toronto Gardener’s Journal & Source Book by Margaret Bennet-Alder (http://torontogardenbook.com/). Websites, contact names and phone numbers for virtually every hort club and specialty garden group is listed there.