Henry Homeyer: Grab your seed catalogs and start to plan

By Henry Homeyer
©2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Groundhog’s Day has come and gone. That means we’re coming down home stretch. Winter is more than half gone. It’s time to think about ordering seeds, if you haven’t yet.

Many great gardeners just don’t bother starting seedlings indoors. They say it takes too much time and effort. And nowadays, there are great nurseries in most areas that produce all kind of fine heirloom tomatoes and crunchy red lettuces. But I love to pamper my little tomato seedlings under lights, watering and fussing over them every day. It helps me stay sane. Of course it’s still too early for most things.

I love ordering specialty seeds and trying new things each year and look forward to the catalogs. Many of the seed companies are now depending on our ability to choose seeds and order them on-line. I love the old fashioned seed catalogs, catalogs I can hold in my hand and study at my leisure – even in the bath tub.

I recently got a catalog from Seeds from Italy, an importer in Nebraska. Dan Nagengast, the co-owner, worked in West Africa with me decades ago so I decided to give him a call to talk seeds. What are some of his best tasting tomatoes, I asked? He says his most popular tomato is one called Red Pear. Unlike American pear tomatoes, this is a big one: 8 to 18 ounces. Great flavor, and meaty with few seeds.

Another tomato I am ordering from Seeds of Italy is an old French one called Marmande. It’s said to have good fruit set even in cool weather, and is described as “semi-determinate.” Determinate tomato plants grow to a certain size, set fruit and stop growing. Indeterminate tomatoes keep growing until frost or disease kills them. But semi-determinate? I’ll grow these, and find out just what they do. Nagengast said another favorite is St Pierre, an indeterminate heirloom with great flavor.

Heirloom tomatoes comes in all shapes, sizes and tastes.

As you go through your catalogs or read them on-line, you might be confused by the term heirloom. Heirloom means that the plant stays true to its characteristics year after year. They breed true, so you can save seeds. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is the biggest heirloom seed producer in America, offering some 1,800 heirloom varieties. They have more weird veggies than you can shake a stick at!

Hybrid tomatoes, in contrast, result from crossing two varieties. The first generation after crossing them yields a plant that has characteristics of both parents and is generally superior to both. If you save seeds, you’ll get progeny that are like the original parents as well as some of the hybrid you wanted. But you can’t tell what the seedlings will produce, so it’s not recommended.

Another seed company I like is Hudson Valley Seed Co. It is new in the marketplace, just eight years in existence. Co-owner Ken Greene started it as a seed library – a service offered to library patrons in Gardiner, N.Y. Library members could get free heirloom seeds, grow plants, save seeds, then pay back the library with seeds they saved. Obviously, an important education component was part of the process as many plants will hybridize on their own unless spaced appropriately.

No longer a seed library, Hudson Valley Seed Co. is certified organic. When Ken Greene came to my part of the world this winter, I bought a few seeds including one for cold-weather watermelons that originally came from Russia. Watermelons are not usually a big success in New Hampshire, so it will be good to see what they will produce.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Winslow, Maine, is one of my favorites. They are the go-to company for many farmers around the country because their seeds are always top quality, and they have just about every type of seed one could want. Home gardeners can benefit from the extensive cultural information they provide on their website or in their catalog.

A variety of seed packets.

Unlike some seed companies, Johnny’s does research and development at their home base in Maine. Obviously they have growers who produce much of their seed, but I am confident that their seeds are good for my climate, not somewhere down south. It is also an employee-owned business. The sell both organic and conventional seed.

You may wonder about the advantages of buying organic seed. Yes, it costs a little more, but by buying organic seed you are supporting farmers who treat the soil and environment with care and respect – just like you do. If you are an organic gardener, you probably will want organic seeds because the mother plants have survived and thrived without chemicals – just like they will have to do at your house.

High Mowing Seed Co. of Vermont is a company that only sells organic seeds. And unlike many seed companies, they ship free if you order over $10 worth of seeds. Renees Garden Seeds is another one of my favorite seed companies, with many organic seeds.

Lastly, check out the Seed Savers Exchange. This is a non-profit that since 1975 has been collecting, saving and selling heirloom seeds. Join so you can access their amazing collection of heirloom seeds.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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