The Call, Column 37 – The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

8 02 2016

(January 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

Despite the snow, frozen soil, and minimal egg yield, the winter is one of my favorite times of the year in terms of urban farming. Why, you ask? Two words: seed catalogs!

It’s time to begin the preparations for next year’s garden, and the eight or so seed catalogs I’ve received in the mail over the past month make that task a whole lot more fun. They form the basis for my spring garden plan, how and what I decide to plant come springtime. Today, I want us to go over how an urban farmer should go about making this plan: what types of decisions you will have to make and how to go about making them, my personal methods for planning my garden each year, and some resources that I’ve found helpful in the process.

The first two decisions that you must make are: what you want to grow, and how much. These decisions are nuanced, and how you make them depends very much on your and your family’s goals in planting a garden.

If the purpose of your garden is the simple quest for good food, you probably want to focus on tried-and-true favorites: culinary herbs, heirloom potatoes and beans, and varieties of fruits and vegetables bred for taste. A good yield is important to you, but a bushel of tomatoes is worthless of they are bred for industrial production or cooking down into sauce, and taste like mushy water raw.

This is even more true if you make a few, specific recipes often, and are growing the garden to supply the ingredients for those recipes. If Italian food, for example, is a personal forte, then basil, oregano, and good Italian tomatoes are a must.

On the other hand, if you are growing with the goal of maximizing production in the confines of your backyard, whether for some measure of food self-sufficiency or even just to stock the cupboards for the winter, your focus will be different. High-efficiency, high-calorie-density crops like grains, beans, brassica vegetables, white and sweet potatoes, and root vegetables are the best way to accomplish these goals.

If, instead, you have found that eating a sufficient quantity of vegetables and low-sugar fruits (10 servings per day) can get cost-prohibitive, you might endeavor to supplement your food budget with a garden. The crops you’ll want to focus on are those that give you the greatest return on your labor investment – for example, nutrient-rich and calorie-poor crops like leafy greens, can run a pretty big food bill if you want to make them a significant part of your diet. It’s a great idea to combine what you buy at the farmers market (which is already cheaper than what’s in the supermarket) with the products of your own garden.

Personally, as I’ve grown and matured in my knowledge of agriculture, ecology, and human nutrition, the emphasis of my diet has shifted from high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods to “high-nutrient” foods. In turn, the subtle focus of my garden has and will continue to shift in this direction – rather than spending so much effort and space on things like white potatoes, sugar beets, corn, and other manner of grains, this year’s garden will be largely based on all manner of nutrient-dense vegetables and low-sugar fruits, and especially leafy-greens (with some sweet and white potatoes and other root crops mixed in, for the self-sufficiency aspects).

In all cases, how much you decide to grow of each crop should be made to match its intended uses. If you’ve decided on a “stock-the-cupboards, self-sufficiency” garden, you need to look at how many potatoes, how much cabbage, and how much corn your family eats throughout the year, both fresh while it is in season, and preserved, if there is a good way to do that.

In my case, tomatoes and peppers are a high-yielding, easily-preserved, nutrient-dense crop that my family uses a lot of. By growing many plants of these types in my garden, the goal is for us to have enough for much of the year. In terms of leafy greens, there are some that we like more than others – I go through a lot of spinach, kale, lettuces, arugula, and cabbage, so I will grow a lot more of that this year than, say, Swiss chard (which I like, but only in small doses).

Now that you have an idea of the types of crops you want to grow, and how much you should plant, you need to actually order the seeds! Here’s my organizational strategy.

It all starts with seed catalogs. If you haven’t bought seeds or plants from an online supplier before, you will need to go to each website and request a catalog; if you have, they usually begin sending you one around this time each year. I normally get catalogs from Fedco Seeds (along with their other plant divisions), Gurneys Seed and Nursery, Bountiful Gardens, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Burnt Ridge Nursery, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Some of these are from the local area, and otherwise they specialize in very high quality seeds and plants (organic, heirloom, permaculture-based, etc).

While you are deciding which companies to order catalogs from, and again after perusing their catalogs (which have way more information than a website ever could), you have to decide which companies you actually want to order your seeds and plants from. This decision can be based on many factors, but usually includes their prices in comparison to the others, how local they are, whether they offer specific seeds or plants you desire, and other company’s policies – about GMOs, organic seed, business structure and practices, and even practical considerations like ordering timelines. I usually limit it to two or three companies to order my seeds and plants, because there are a few whose quality has been proven (Fedco is my go-to for seed!), and otherwise because shipping can add up if you spread your order too thin.

For those who have grown a garden in recent years, you then need to make a seed inventory of what you already have. This is a big step for me, because I easily have over 200 seed varieties that I use every year (I know, this is excessive), and this step helps me organize my thoughts about what I liked, what I didn’t, what I still have, and what I need to order again.

Everyone’s inventorying strategy is different, but I use an Excel document and list out all of the different seeds that I have, based on crop type (Nightshades, the tomato family; Alliums, the onion family; Cucurbits, the squash family; Herbs; Brassicaceae, the cabbage family; Leaf Crops; Root Crops; Beans and Grains; Flowers; and Fruit). Next to each type of seed, I write the year that it was packed for (which can be found on the seed packet), a rough estimate of the amount of seed I have left of that type (either a number or, as I did this year, a designation of “few”, “some”, or “lot”), and a guess at the viability, based on how long seeds of that type or family usually last (I designate “viable” or “questionable”, based on my experience and tables like this one at fedcoseeds.com/seeds/seed_saving.htm). I also designate which varieties I actually ran out of this year.

            From this, I extract a rough list of specific cultivars and general crops that I want to plant again; and therefore, for those that I did not save any seed (which I admit happens far too often for my liking in my own garden), those cultivars and crops that I have to order again, and which company I got them from (if applicable). Start by designating those cultivars which are definitely viable (i.e. tomatoes or lettuce marked for last year) and which you also have a lot of left, as “in inventory” (and therefore don’t need to be ordered), while those that probably aren’t viable and/or you have little left, but that you liked as “out of inventory” (and therefore need to be ordered).

            You can then peruse the offerings of each company by the above crop categories, keeping in mind 1) which crops and how much you decided to grow; 2) what you already have for seed; and 3) what you definitely need to order again. For me, this is the Year of the Leafy Greens – I have some lettuce and kale seed from last year, but I’m stepping up my game and need to include quite a few of them in my order.

            Finally, I create another Excel sheet (can you tell my mom is an accountant?), organized by company, of the specific seed varieties (and plants) that I need to buy. Include their name, as well as other identifying information – production number, weight or count, and price – to keep you organized, make it easy to build your shopping cart (if ordering online), and keep a rough estimate of total prices. Also, if shipping is calculated by weight or total order cost, you can include a formula to calculate it for each company in a cell below the company’s listing.

            Good luck, and happy (seed) hunting!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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2 03 2016
The Call, Column 41 – A Spring Planting Schedule | The Opinionated Farmer

[…] Earlier this year, we talked extensively about how to order your seeds from seed catalogs (here). Most importantly from this column, in order to select what to grow, you need to determine 1) what […]

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