Winter, the season of Seed Catalogs. Seed vendors really know how to market to gardeners, hitting us during the cold, dark days of winter with bright, shiny images of summer bounty, the finest specimens often being held by a person who looks ridiculously happy, as one certainly would after having produced such a masterpiece of vegetable matter. A few minutes in I will find myself believing that I have not only the acreage to cultivate hundreds of different plants, but also large numbers of gardeners on staff to tend to it all, a few sous chefs waiting in the wings to help with the cooking, and twenty people at the table at each meal to eat everything. Such is the transformational magic of the seed catalog.
The first run through inevitably results in large numbers of dog eared pages and a selection of enough seeds to plant the aforementioned imaginary acreage. Then I pull out my seed tins, and pragmatism rears its sensible head. There are a few criteria that guide what gets to grow in my limited space. I plant things I can’t find in the grocery store, items that I can find, but they are sub-par in the market, and produce that is ridiculously expensive. For example, and consecutively, unusual herbs, tomatoes, and leeks. I also choose vegetables that are perishable and frequently don’t look great in the store, like lettuce and other greens. And I always plant radishes. There is something about radishes that just jump starts spring. They come up really fast and you can start harvesting in as little as two weeks as long as your weather stays cool and rainy.
I don’t have any specific seed resources to recommend. I have purchased expensive, heirloom, organically-grown seeds that never sprouted, and we can compare those experiences to the flower seeds that Cameron picked up years ago at the drugstore for the low, low price of three packs for a dollar. Those cheap, generic seeds resulted in a magnificent bed of annual blooms that drew compliments from complete strangers as they passed by on the street. I’m pretty sure the color could be seen from the space station. I have had more consistent luck with cultivars that are either bred in the general region where I live or are purchased from companies that have some of their seed farms in Virginia, so it may be worth looking for a vendor close by. Or just grab some from the kiosk when you’re shopping for snowstorm supplies.
We are lucky enough to live in an area where there are several active gardening groups that have solid outreach programs, some of which may exist where you live. Every spring the master gardeners give away seeds as well as vast quantities of locally relevant advice, and a few years ago, this packet of Italian zucchini seeds was handed to me at a Christmas parade. What’s not to love about people giving out seeds at parades? Finally, a cause that we can all support. And the zucchini have been lovely, too, although the plants spread a lot more than the packet indicated they would. Which brings me to my last point.
I always reflect on the previous year’s successes and failures while planning the coming season in the garden, although, to be honest, it never helps quite as much as one might want. There is something about the variability of the natural world that tends to shift the harvest toward one thing or another each season. Last year I was overwhelmed by heirloom tomatoes, but I only got a few, small eggplant. The previous year I had so many eggplant that the freezer was full of their roasted flesh and containers of caponata. It’s a win for the Solanaceae, but a head scratcher for the gardener who doesn’t understand why the eggplant decided not to participate one time and went all in another. This year’s plan, as always, is to plant what I want to and hope for the best, putting in a good deal of effort to help make it happen. Which reminds me, I should probably go out there and spread some compost.