In most of the country, fall gardens have been put to sleep… there’s frost on the windows… the ground is too hard to work… and just when you’d almost forgotten about growing… a lightning bolt of color strikes your mailbox and ends up in your hands.
A seed catalog.
In it you find page after page of amazing vegetables from wild and exotic locations like Persia, France, Siberia and Idaho. The possibilities of gardening thaw your ice-encrusted mind and re-ignite the gardening passion in your snow-dimmed soul.
Be careful, friend. Remember last year? And the year before?
I’ll give you a minute while you go dig through your seed box and look over the barely touched packets printed ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12 and ’13.
It’s hard not to succumb to the excitement and over-binge on seed buying, even if you’re a “survival gardener.”
Heck, I occasionally find unopened seed packages in the back of desk drawers, behind my dresser, in the pantry and under my bed. Over the years I’ve learned to dial back and make myself get the best use from my winter seed catalog reading.
How can you cut through the confusion and plan out seed-buying for the New Year? Here are seven killer tips:
1. Don’t Buy It If You Don’t Like To Eat It
Zucchini, anyone? This tip seems like it’s almost too dumb to list… but the fact is, many of us do grow stuff we don’t really enjoy, sometimes just because we’ve always grown it. Mel Bartholomew, author of Square Foot Gardening, recommends looking at your grocery list as a way to narrow down your planting choices. Why waste space on something you or your kids will tire of quickly?
2. Grow What’s Expensive
Ah, so you’re a cheapskate? Me too. And I like great vegetables. Have you always wanted to have your own organic blue potatoes? Plant them. Amazing leeks? Go for it. Endless stacks of deep red beets? Uh-huh. Fresh herbs? Yep. Exotic melons? Oh yeah. If there’s something you like to eat – but it’s a little steep at the store – plant it in your garden. If you grow extra, you can sell it and buy next year’s seeds.
3. Choose Heirlooms for Replanting
This is something a lot of people think about but never really pull off. Hybrid varieties can exhibit helpful tendencies the year you plant them… but next year, who knows what you’ll get from the seeds you save? If you choose heirlooms you’ll be able to save seed from year to year and hopefully never have to buy that variety again. A note on this: if you’re planting to save seed, watch your Latin names! Did you know butternut squash and Seminole pumpkins will interbreed? You also need to make sure you’re not growing too few of any one variety of “outbreeding” plant or you’ll end up with inbreeding depression. Best rule of thumb: grow plenty of one type of each “outbreeding” vegetable and save the seeds for next year. This will definitely limit your seed catalog excesses. (To learn more about seed-saving, I recommend you get a copy of Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.)
4. Plant For Calories
Is this a survival garden? Then you’re gonna take most of your space and devote it to plants that will feed you the most calories on the smallest amount of ground or with the smallest amount of care. Stock up on consistent producers like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yard-long beans, squash, turnips, carrots, etc. If you can get them and your climate allows, winged yams are another winner crop, as are the quite amazing Chinese water chestnuts.
5. Plant For Space Restraints
Some plants are total space hogs. If your gardening area is small, stay away from rambling watermelon vines and ground-eating sweet potatoes. Instead, you might still grow vining crops like beans – but plan for them to go up a trellis to get a lot of production in a small square footage. “Patio” versions of cucumbers and other plants might be your niche. You can also really double-down on the “grow what’s expensive” side of things and plant high-value herbs or exotic tomatoes if you’re dealing with a really small space. Vegetables that take up very little space include radishes, lettuces, spinach, onions, garlic and carrots.
6. Pick Plants That Require Little Input
This is a good idea if you’re short on water or time. There are crops that will take off and grow with little help from the gardener. If you’re growing without irrigation or are borrowing land from someone else, you need tough stuff. Old heirloom varieties of vegetables are often good at this. Believe it or not, watermelons are very good at growing with little water, as is okra, grain corn, yard-long beans, winged yams, turnips and southern peas.
7. Experiment… a Little!
Finally, since you don’t want to take all the fun out of gardening, make sure you leave some space for experimental crops that may become new staples. We do a lot of testing every year, often to the exclusion of things we SHOULD have planted to feed ourselves. (I’m just taking a hit for the survival gardening team on your behalf… somebody has to do the Real Cool Science Stuff). I recommend you always try something new… just make sure it isn’t going to cross-breed with something you’re trying to maintain as an heirloom.