From The Seedy To The Sublime

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The plant and seed catalogs have arrived!

I gave myself a couple of Christmas presents when two of my favorite nurseries offered 10 percent discounts late in December and then one of them had another 10 percent off in January. I’ll take 20 percent off my first-pick garden plants with a smile

As I’ve been leafing through the catalogs, I realize that the information available in them can be anywhere from helpful to misleading, with lots of confusion sprinkled in between. So this week and next I hope to shed some light on how to use these catalogs, what the various terms mean and what I hope are helpful tips in how to buy and spend wisely.

But first …

Over the years I’ve reviewed and commented on plenty of garden and seed catalogs. I’ve found some to be outstanding horticultural resources and a few even have literary merit. In this category I’d include Plant Delights Nursery and Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery for plants, whereas Wayside Gardens has slid to near the bottom. For vegetable seed, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Territorial Seed Company are my current favorites. Others, on the other hand, have been downright awful, misleading, confusing and pretty much a waste of time.

In the waste of time category, Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co. gets all my votes. What a shame what the new owners are doing.

The organic revolution seems to have passed them by. And I can only refer to them as “retrograde,” as their 2014 catalog appears to be pushing treated seed, as in treated with fungicides and who knows what else. I don’t think the words natural or organic appear once in the catalog.

It seems to be a case of both ends against the middle as Gurney’s is owned by the same company that owns Gardens Alive, a catalog that sort of pushes natural and organic products. And good luck with customer service, which is somewhere in India.

Gurney’s offers high prices and poor quality. You can do better, much better, anywhere else.

Now on to the nitty gritty. So you buy a packet of seeds, be they vegetable seeds or flower seeds, there are certain things that the seed packet or catalog description will tell you. The more information that’s available, the easier it is for you to grow and harvest.

I’ll review most of the terms you need to know below and next week but most seed packets have a few things in common. First, if the seeds cross state lines then they are involved in interstate commerce and governed by both federal and state laws and regulations.

In New York, that means that each seed packet must be stamped with the date that the seed was tested for germination. It should also indicate the percentage of seed that is expected to germinate and if the seed has been treated with anything, such as a fungicide.

The package should also indicate the weight of the seed and in most cases the number of seeds as well. You’ll find that 99 percent of the packets have been tested for this year, so if they have “tested for 2013” or earlier on them, don’t buy it and you might want to question why they’re being sold.

For flower seed, the packet must also state if it’s an annual, perennial or biennial. The regulations are different for tree seeds and seed potatoes though.

For live plants, bare-root plants, potted plants and cell packs of flowering plants and vegetables and potted plants, caveat emptor. There are few regulations other than that if they move from state to state they must be disease- and insect free. And most of the time they are.

However, they all have one thing in common: they have nothing in common.

You can get just so much text on a seed packet, though Renee’s Garden Seeds does an absolutely remarkable job in this category. The packet information is nearly equivalent to an encyclopedia.

For the most information, what’s not on the packet, refer to the vendor’s catalog. This is where Johnny’s and Territorial absolutely shine.

After going through a number of catalogs and packets, here are some of the terms and descriptions that you should find helpful:

Annual, perennial or biennial? In most cases it’s pretty clear which category a plant or seed fits into but remember that a plant can be a perennial but not perennial up here because it’s tender, thus it’s a tender perennial.

A plant can be an annual but seems to be a perennial because it appears to come back every year. In all likelihood, this is a hardy annual.

Some plants are often listed as perennials but are actually biennials. In most cases this is a case of the vendor simply not telling or knowing the truth. This seems to be the case with many plants in the malva family, such as hollyhocks and other alceas. Many sold as perennials are actually biennials or at best short-lived perennials, with a lifespan of three years max.

You can still find some catalogs, like Gurneys, that still list pampas grass (it gives no genus or species) as hardy in zone 7. It isn’t, and probably won’t be for the next 50 to 100 years. More on hardiness later.

Knowing about days to germinate and days to harvest can be very confusing, but sometimes very simple. In the case of a radish, we always do direct seeding. The seed goes into the garden soil and isn’t transplanted.

If the seed packet says “28 days,” it means that if growing conditions are average, 28 days from the date you plant the seed is the date you can expect to start harvesting. Simple. But when it comes to plants like peppers, tomatoes, melons, squash and cukes, you may do direct sowing or plant transplants.

This is a grey area at best. Take, for example, peppers.

If you are growing your peppers from seed, you may need to start the seed indoors eight to 10 weeks before our last frost date. That can add up to 70 days. And yet when you look at the catalog it says anywhere from 55 to 70 days to harvest. This is because there is the assumption that you won’t be doing direct sowing of your peppers and that you’ll be using either your own or store-bought transplants and the number of days indicated is the days to harvest from transplanting and not seeding.

In the case of tomatoes, the Territorial catalog is quite clear: “Days to maturity are calculated for transplants; for direct seeding add 30 to 35 days.” So, on your long season crops, you need to read carefully. When in doubt, go long.

When it comes to genetically modified, or GM, plants, relax, there’s been plenty written and spoken about GM seeds and GM crops. For the most part, this isn’t an issue for home gardeners with the exception of possibly summer squash and sweet corn. But here it helps to understand the difference between hybrid seed and GM seed.

Unlike hybrids, which are created when two different plants are cross-pollinated to make a third and different plant (even Mother Nature does this), GM varieties are plant types that were created by the insertion of genes that may have come from another plant, a bacteria or another organism or lab-created gene.

GM plants are found in commercial farming in corn, soy beans and sugar beets. There is some suspicion that even non-GM corn varieties may now carry some GM genes since corn pollen blows in the wind. Most seed companies, especially the ones dealing with organic seeds, will have statements in the catalog about GM seeds and their philosophy about GM plant material.

Well that’s enough for this week. Next week heirlooms, open pollinated seeds, organic seed, how and when to buy plants, why my plants ended up in Denver, sizes of plants (Why are they so small when I paid a fortune for them?) and some wise words from the shopping department.

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