More Skinny On Seeds

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This week, it’s time for part two of the seed and plant buyers guide.What got me going on this little journey this year was reading a catalog that was offering eight red sails lettuce plants. This Connecticut mail order retailer, which shall remain nameless but which has the initials WFF, is offering these eight plants for a mere $10.45, plus shipping of $9.95, for a total of $20.45 for eight small lettuce plants.

Now I can understand buying other vegetable plants by mail because there are hundreds of varieties that you simply can’t get at local garden centers. These include, but aren’t limited to, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. But lettuce? Common, easy to grow, on-every-seed-rack red sails lettuce?

To further illustrate how absurd this is, consider this: even if you buy the seed by mail you can get 250 seeds from one of the best suppliers (Territorial Seed) for $3.95. Add the four bucks for shipping and that comes to a mere $7.95.

This seed can be directly sown into pots, cells or outdoors with no special tools or gizmos. But let’s say you’re not a great gardener and only 200 of those seeds germinate and turn into lettuce plants.

Okay, now let’s say that you’re even worse than that and only 100 become your own home-grown organic lettuce plants. That’s eight cents per plant.

The ones that you could have bought from the mail-order nursery: $2.55 per plant.

My point is that you should be growing most of your vegetables from seed. It’s simple, so much less expensive, and easy if you just follow the directions.

Yes, there are plants that you’ll want to buy at the garden centers simply because you screwed up and forgot to grow a variety or two or three or because you had a crop failure. It happens. And there is no denying that some varieties and grafted types of veggies will probably be available only by mail. But $2.55 for a lettuce plant?

So, before you grab that catalog or head over to your local garden center, there are few more terms I’d like to go over as they are often misused or misunderstood. Next week, you’ll get the lowdown on having plants shipped right to your door and some advice right from a grower.

Organic

Seeds marketed as organic were grown on certified-organic farms and have not been treated with pesticides or coated with chemicals to prevent rotting or premature sprouting. They’ve also never been genetically modified with things, such as bacteria or other plant DNA (read about GM seeds in last week’s column).

For some, buying organic seeds is worth it because it protects the environment and people on seed farms from harmful pesticides. You’re also supporting organic agriculture and breeders who are working to develop new varieties that do well in organic growing conditions.

You can find organic seeds in catalogs (not Gurney’s though), from a number of mail-order suppliers and on seed racks at local garden centers. If you can’t find organic seeds in the variety you’d like to grow, however, go ahead and buy conventional seeds.

The amount of synthetic chemicals riding along with a seed is very tiny, with one exception—seeds coated with fungicide to keep them from rotting before they sprout. Seed catalogs and seed packets must note if seeds are treated, so you can usually avoid them. Also, the FDA requires seeds treated with poisonous chemicals to be dyed—those I’ve seen are usually shocking pink—to prevent confusion.

Heirloom

Just exactly how long a standard variety has to have been around to be called an heirloom depends on who you talk to. The end of World War II is a generally accepted cutoff point, though there are no hard-and-fast rules here. That marked the advent of chemical-dependent agriculture and the selection of varieties that grew well in those conditions.

Heirlooms can be great choices because they were developed to grow well in organic conditions. They have also pleased generations of small growers and gardeners well enough to have survived, so they are usually easy to grow and tasty.

All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, though not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. That means you can save seeds from this season’s harvest to plant next year.

Food for thought, though. Don’t assume that just because someone has decided to call a seed or plant an heirloom that it’s guaranteed to be extraordinary. There is usually a reason why a plant falls out of favor.

I’m thinking back to a number of older apple and tomato varieties that fell out of favor and are now on the rebound because they have instantly become heirlooms. Most of them fell out of favor because they were prone to disease issues.

Newer but similar varieties were developed that were more resistant to those diseases. But in time we found that the new varieties weren’t nearly as tasty as the older ones. It becomes a trade-off, so just beware.

Open-pollinated

These are plants that are created in the most basic form—pollinated by either bees or wind. Unlike hybrids, open-pollinated seeds will reproduce true to type, meaning the offspring will display the same characteristics as the parent plant, and seeds can be saved from season to season.

However, if you save seeds from an open-pollinated tomato variety and you live in the northeast, your subsequent tomato offspring might taste very different from the same tomato grown by a gardener living down south. Your variety has adapted from elements in your particular climate and environment, and theirs has, too.

There are some seed catalogs that sell only open-pollinated varieties and some that have sections for those types of seeds. They are always appropriately noted.

Hybrid

Regardless of what you may think, there is nothing inherently bad about hybrid varieties. Some are wonderful plants and perfect for organic gardeners because of their disease resistance.

Mother Nature is constantly producing hybrids without our help in the woods, fields and meadows. A man-made hybrid is the product of a breeder carefully making sure one specific plant variety cross-pollinates and fertilizes another specific variety. This is done because both varieties have desirable characteristics and, combined, those characteristics can create a much more desirable offspring variety.

Hybrid seeds are always labeled “hybrid” and/or “F1,” first-generation offspring, or “F2,” second-generation offspring. But what can get confusing for home gardeners is that you can’t save seed from your hybrid varieties, plant it the following season, and expect to get the same results.

Every seed produced by a hybrid variety will grow into something different. In order for hybrid varieties to retain the desirable characteristics of both parents, the parents have to be crossed each season. Open-pollinated seed, however, will most often come back true to type as long as it’s not inadvertently cross-pollinated.

When shopping, look for hybrid varieties that exhibit characteristics you want. For instance, great taste, disease resistance, tender skin, high nutrition, or the habit of ripening over a longer period to spread out your harvest.

Hybrid varieties that offer high productivity, good disease resistance, as well as great taste and tenderness, can be wonderful choices for your organic garden.

Treated Seed

Some types of seed are prone to diseases and rotting in cold or damp soil. Commercial corn seed is usually treated with a fungicide and some other seeds may also be treated.

The seed packet must state if the seed inside has been treated. Most catalogs will give you the option of buying treated or untreated seed.

Disease resistance

Many seeds are developed to resist diseases that are endemic to that crop.

For example, if a tomato has been bred to be resistant to verticillium wilt, there will be a “V” in the description. An “F” would indicate fusarium resistance.

It’s important to remember this is resistance and not immunity.

You can find tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash and other vegetable seed that’s disease resistant. See the catalog or seed packet.

Again, you can get a great education about all of this in a good seed catalog. Both Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Territorial make great learning tools and great reads.

Keep growing.

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