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Seed Starting, Part 3: What to Look For in a Seed Variety

Seed catalogs decoded

Take one look at even one seed catalog and it’s easy to get overwhelmed - 40 kinds of tomatoes, peppers in all shades, heirloom or hybrid - what’s a new gardener to do? We’re here to help! This year’s seed starting classes will provide a few options so you don’t get overwhelmed. But if you venture out on your own, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Ask another local gardener. Chances are they have favorite varieties due to what grows best for them year in and year out, or what tastes the best.

  2. Decide if organic is important to you. Most catalogs, if not entirely organic, designate organic with a special code (like O or OG). If organic is important to you, this narrows down your varieties.

  3. Next, decide if you want to be able to collect seed from your vegetables to plant again next year. If so, go for heirloom or open-pollinated varieties, designated as H and OP, or with the whole word in catalogs. Heirlooms are seeds that have been around through generations, and their origin and history are documented. All heirlooms are open-pollinated. Open-pollinated simply means that when these plants are pollinated by another plant of the same variety, the seeds from the vegetable will produce plants next year that “true to type” or almost exactly like the plant they came from. Hybrid or F1 designated seeds are hybrids. Seeds collected from these plants will either not germinate at all, or may produce wildly different plants compared to your original plant. Once you are narrowed down this much, you usually only have a few varieties to choose from.

  4.  Next, read the descriptions for plants that suit your conditions. Here are some hints for our local conditions, and other things to look out for:

    • Days to maturity: We get about 180 growing days in PA, but many of those are not warm. Therefore, I tend to opt for varieties that need fewer days to maturity. For some vegetables, like radishes, peas, lettuces, etc, with very short growing times (3 weeks in some cases!) you can plant several sessions of seeds to harvest throughout the year

    • Cold tolerance and heat tolerance. For long growing season vegetables, like peppers, I look for higher cold or frost tolerance, in case we get an early frost. For cool season crops like lettuce, kale, broccoli and the like, I look for high heat tolerance - that means you can grow them longer into the season, or start earlier in the fall, and they won’t wilt.

    • Slow to bolt. I know myself -- I don’t always make time to harvest everything on time or often enough. So, I look for varieties of greens and herbs (things that can be harvested throughout the season) that are SLOW to bolt. That means when they are under stress (like lack of water, or too much heat), they won’t go to flower or seed as fast. Usually once a plant like a leafy green or herb goes to flower it becomes tougher and more bitter, so isn’t the best to eat any more

    • Soil conditions. Usually here in Pittsburgh we have heavier soils that are of a relatively poor quality (always get your soil tested!), and we get a fair amount of rain. That means that plants that require quick draining or lighter soils won’t do as well here, without modifying your soil. So, especially for root and tuber crops like carrots, beets, and potatoes, I look for plants that don’t say the require well-drained soils, or specifically state that they do well in heavy soils.

  5. Fun! I also look for strange and interesting varieties to try each year -- who doesn’t smile when they harvest a purple potato, or a cucumber that looks like a miniature watermelon?!

  6. A word (or two) about tomatoes. In addition to deciding on whether you want a sauce tomato or a slicer or a cherry variety, also look for the words determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes will usually only be harvested once, but they stay bushy and smaller, so don’t need to be staked as much. Indeterminate varieties can be harvested throughout the season, but get large and need to be staked.

  7. Disease resistance. This is less important unless you know of a specific problem. For example, tomatoes that resist blight are good to look for. Some varieties are bred for their disease resistance, but this usually means they are hybrids. There are lots and lots of codes for these in catalogs -- don’t let those worry you!

  8. The letter M. For some reason, when referring to seed counts, M refers to thousand. This is somewhat irrelevant for a small gardener -- you’re most likely going to buy the smallest quantity of seeds available. But just know if a seed catalog says 330M/pound that means there are 330,000 of those seeds in a pound.

Hopefully this has helped you to decode your seed catalog and narrow down the varieties of each vegetable that you want. Stay tuned next time for Starting Seeds, Part 4: Getting Your Gear Ready

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