The ability to plan for the future seems like a uniquely human skill, and it’s almost a superpower for those in horticulture. Deciding what to plant and when every year takes wisdom, experience, patience and a little bit of hope.
Helping to explain how to choose the seeds for your next growing season is Caleb Goosen, Ph.D., crop and conservation specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
Goosen explained that most vegetables have true seeds, created as a result of flowering, but then there are the exceptions – garlic, potatoes and sweet potatoes, for example. To grow them, you’ll plant a clove or a tuber. “The main thing to remember [with the latter] is that because it’s the entire plant or a portion of a living plant that becomes another copy of itself, it can bring disease with it a little more easily,” he said. He suggested finding certified seed for those crops to lower the chance of issues occurring.
Consideration #1: Start seeds or buy seedlings?
Like a lot of things in life, the answer to this question is “it depends.” What are you growing? Short season crops, such as small greens, quick root crops and some beans and peas, can go directly in the soil. Others, like carrots, parsnips, other beans and peas and some herbs, can be difficult to transplant.
Long season crops (brassicas, nightshades, cucurbits, alliums and artichokes) need to have a head start. Goosen suggested getting them started somewhere warm – or purchasing seedlings.
Consideration #2: How much seed do you need?
The best method to answering this question is having past experience. “Hopefully you already have a sense of what you did last year, what you did before,” Goosen said. This is where recordkeeping comes in key. He added that social media can serve as your back-up records – check those dated Instagram and Facebook posts for what was blooming when.
Look at how much produce you sold last year to determine how much seed you need, but aim to overshoot, Goosen said. You’ll always need a little bit more than you think. It can be hard when you’re constrained by space, but some seedlings will always be taken out by pests, by disease and by weather. Be sure to keep good records for the next year too (using a calendar, journal or blog – and take lots of pictures).
If you’re trying a new crop, pay attention to packet and catalog descriptions for germination rates, transplant times, harvest times, etc.
Consideration #3: How do you select varieties?
“First, know your own needs,” Goosen said. “What space do you have? What are you prioritizing?”
Here again, past experience is best, but Goosen said you should leave a little room for new varieties and new growing techniques. An evolution of what you’re already growing is a good step. If your tomatoes are popular, try a new tomato – don’t leap into squashes you are unfamiliar with.
Other tips for choosing varieties include recommendations from nearby growers, ideally those with microclimates and soil types similar to yours. University Extension services also do trials and offer reports on varieties’ disease resistance.
Goosen said to also think about All-America Selections. “Their whole goal is to determine the best of the best,” he said. AAS Winners are flowers and vegetables that have been “tested nationally and proven locally.” You can see their latest champions at all-americaselections.org.
Additionally, you can select varieties based on “pretty pictures,” Goosen said. “For many growers, that’s half the fun.”
Ultimately, though, planning your planting depends on what your needs are and what set-up you have.
by Courtney Llewellyn