Buying seeds

So many seeds, so little time.

It’s good and bad when seed catalogs show up in our mail boxes just before Christmas. The good part is they give gardeners something to do when everything outdoors is brown and gray. If you’re lucky and live where you get snow, at least it’s pretty. Here, everything is rather ugly this time of year. Even our grass is brown until April or May. Don’t believe me?

Winter potager and greenhouse; buying seeds
Winter potager and greenhouse

Still don’t?

Another view of the winter landscape in the back garden. The only green thing is that stupid Eastern redcedar that my husband insists on keeping, but that's a subject for another day.
Another view of the winter landscape in the back garden. The only green thing is that stupid Eastern redcedar that my husband insists on keeping, but that’s a subject for another day.

I get sassy in winter when there’s no sun for days on end.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled program: buying seeds. The bad part? I probably don’t need to belabor it, but…. Since we gardeners are feverishly waiting for spring, our eyes can overwhelm our pocketbooks. Does anyone even say pocketbook anymore? Perhaps, not. Who cares? I always liked that word.

Anyway, before I buy one packet of new seed, I am going to inventory the seed I already have. I went positively bonkers on bulbs and corms last fall so I need to spend my kitchen garden budget wisely. For the ornamental garden, I have a lot of plants in the greenhouse, but maybe not as many as last year. The first year of the greenhouse I simply overwhelmed myself with plants. I had to keep giving them away.

Pennisetum 'Princess Caroline' (grown as an annual in OK), Vista Bubblegum Pink petunia and a grass that was supposed to be Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln' (perennial dwarf fountain grass), but isn't.  This photo was from 2011 when we had the terrible heat wave.
Pennisetum ‘Princess Caroline’ (grown as an annual in OK), Vista Bubblegum Pink petunia and a grass labeled Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ (perennial dwarf fountain grass), but isn’t. This photo was from 2011 when we had the terrible heat wave.

I am only sad I didn’t dig up Pennisetum purpureum ‘Princess Caroline’ shown in the photo above. September was simply too hot to manhandle her, and I was too tired. I hope I find her somewhere locally. Maybe Bustani Plant Farm will carry her again this year. Maybe.

I am really scattered today. Again, back to seeds and seed buying. Here are my favorite catalogs this year. You can read about my previous fave seed catalogs too, if you want.

Franchi Seeds come in large packages, and you get a lot of seeds for your money.
Franchi Seeds come in large packages, and you get a lot of seeds for your money.

Seeds from Italy. I think I will order a few special things from Franchi before I hit publish on this post. Last year, I waited too long, and they were completely sold out. I like Franchi seeds because they have unusual and beautiful varieties of open-pollinated vegetables, herbs and flowers. Also, they are extremely generous with the number of seeds in each packet. Plus, it’s hot in Italy in the summer. It’s hot here too. ‘Nuff said.

Three views of the Chiltern Seeds catalogs. They are long and narrow this year.
Three views of the Chiltern Seeds catalogs. They are long and narrow this year.

Chiltern Seeds. My friend, Fairegarden, turned me onto Chiltern. I love them for flower seeds we can’t seem to get from companies in America. They are very generous with the number of seeds per packet too. They aren’t cheap so I alway check with a U.S. company first. One of my best foliage plants ordered from Chilterns was Amaranthus tricolor ‘Tricolour splendens perfecta.’ I guess the amaranths are in a taxonomy change again, but I’m going with the name I bought it under. I’ll also be buying Zinnia ‘Queen Red Lime.’ I see that Chilterns has some wonderful selections of Chinese vegetables this year. Pretty exciting stuff and a very serious catalog. The Brits all use botanical names so be ready to do some searching online for the common name too. One more thing I like about European gardeners, they call eggplants aubergine. It’s a prettier name for that gorgeous and great tasting vegetable. Also, if you haven’t tried pak choy (bok choy) yet, you should. It’s delicious.

Cover of the Rare Seeds catalog from Baker Creek.
Cover of the Rare Seeds catalog from Baker Creek.

For real reading pleasure, try the Whole Seed Catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. This is more book than catalog. You can order it online, and I’ve seen it various places around town. I know our Natural Grocers carry it. They also carry Baker Creek’s magazine, Heirloom Gardener, which publishes four issues per year, I think. I’ve been very impressed with the last couple of issues of Heirloom Gardener because their topics are far-ranging and more than how-to articles. I’m grateful for the history lessons. I bought the winter issue off of the newsstand last week. Baker Creek also has a smaller catalog if you don’t want the larger one. Of course, any seeds from Baker Creek are open-pollinated heirlooms. They don’t carry hybrids.

Lumpy Red tomato
‘Lumpy Red’ tomato, an indeterminate heirloom that made beautiful lumpy tomatoes all summer.

Hybrids are not necessarily a bad thing. Lately, they’ve gotten a bad rap because people confuse them with GMOs. Hybrid seeds and plants are not genetically modified organisms. Hybrids are natural, controlled crosses of plants. Sometimes, especially with some tomatoes in the South, it’s a good idea to look for hybrids with built-in disease resistance, heat tolerance and resistance to pathogens like root knot nematodes. However, many heirloom tomatoes also perform well in my garden, and they have more complex flavor notes than some hybrids. Because I never know what kind of summer I’m going to have, I grow both heirlooms and hybrid varieties selected for the South. Here are some of my recent tomato selections. ‘Marianna’s Peace,’ ‘Black Krim,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Beefmaster’ and ‘Lumpy Red’ all grow well in my climate. I talk about my favorite black Russian tomatoes here. If that’s not enough to whet your appetite for starting your own tomatoes from seed, here’s another tomato post. I haven’t decided what tomatoes I’m starting from seed this year, but I need to decide soon.

Part of my potager, summer 2010.
Part of my potager, summer 2010.

I explain more about hybrids, GMOs and heirloom plants in my book, The 20-30 Something Garden Guide: A No-Fuss, Down and Dirty, Gardening 101 for Anyone Who Wants to Grow Stuff.

The 20-30 Something Garden Guide, by Dee Nash
The 20-30 Something Garden Guide.

Also, when buying seed, consider where the seeds are grown and harvested. I noticed on Baker Creek’s website that they now have a William Woys Weaver collection of open-pollinated heirloom seeds collected by Weaver as part of The Roughwood Seed Collection. I like his recent article on zinnias. You know how much I love zinnias in my garden. Weaver is a seedsman and food historian from Devon, PA, and he is also a contributing editor to Mother Earth News. The seed collection started with some baby food jars containing seed his grandfather and friends collected, saved, labeled and grew. Weaver found this treasure at the bottom of a freezer when helping his grandmother clean house. If you read the seed descriptions, much it was collected in the Mid-Atlantic and eastern parts of the U.S. If you live in an area where summers are traditionally cool, this would be a great seed collection to peruse. However, just because you live where summers are hot doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grow from this collection. I just wouldn’t stake my whole garden on it.

Open-pollinated, heirloom seeds that are grown, selected and saved in a particular area become more attuned to the conditions and challenges in that part of the country. If you buy heirloom seeds from a different climate and then grow them over a period of years in yours, selecting seeds from the plants that perform best in your garden, you are creating heirlooms selected for your conditions in your part of the country. Does that make sense? It’s the process of natural selection. That’s why heirlooms saved over many generations are as rare and precious as rubies.

Of course, saving seeds from hybrids is pointless because you don’t know what you’ll get. I usually buy starter plants from Bonnie Plants when I’m going to grow a hybrid tomato, pepper or eggplant. As you can see from this map, some Bonnie Plants are grown in my state, and they perform extraordinarily well here. Bonnie Plants also stocks some of the more familiar heirloom plants. Plus, locally, TLC Nursery is now stocking heirloom vegetable plants from a local farm. Sunrise Acres also stocks organic starter plants at the Oklahoma City Farmer’s Market. I can’t possibly grow everything I want to from seed so I save my seed starting for plants I really want to try which I can’t find anywhere else.

The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog is still free.
The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog is still free.

For seeds more attuned to my climate, I turn to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I have great luck each year with their seed varieties. I am going to grow ‘Alabama Blue’ collards this spring. I’ll let you know how it goes. I think I will also read Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, by Craig Lehoullier. He gardens in North Carolina and ‘Cherokee Purple,’ which he introduced years ago, is one of my best performers every year.

I also like Johhny’s Selected Seeds although they aren’t located anywhere near my region. I do buy cold-weather crops from them including beets, turnips, winter lettuce, kale and spinach. I laugh, though, when I read about summer lettuce. Like, what is that? I’m kidding. I know gardeners in cooler climates can grow some lettuces all summer. Alas, lettuce, in Oklahoma and Texas, is grown in spring, late fall and then held over in winter in a cold frame. I really enjoyed ‘Drunken Woman Frizzy-Headed’ lettuce last year. Although a butterhead variety, along its stems, it had the crunch of an iceberg. Very prolific and delicious.

Cover of 2015 Botanical Interests Seed Catalog.
Cover of 2015 Botanical Interests Seed Catalog, one of my favorite companies.

I can’t forget Botanical Interests Seeds either. They have beautiful flower and vegetable varieties, and the company is owned and run by such good people. Also, their seed packets are full of useful information. In fact, I profiled one of their seed packets in my book. Oh, and Territorial Seed Company is another favorite. I’ve bought from them for years. See how hard it is to choose?

This post is longer than I expected, and I’ve bought a few more packets of seed as I wrote it. Such is life. Now, please tell me which seed companies you buy from most often and why. We can all learn from each other in this garden journey. I’d also love to hear of one new vegetable, herb or flower you’re trying from seed in 2015. I’m trying parsnips, but probably in the fall.

Best and easiest vegetables to grow in Oklahoma

The vegetable patch at the beginning of July, 2012
A tomato (left) and Black Seeded Simpson lettuce growing in the potager.
A tomato (left) and Black Seeded Simpson lettuce growing in the potager (kitchen garden.)

On my stats page, I’ve noticed I’m getting a lot of searches for which vegetables grow best in Oklahoma.  First let me say, growing anything in Oklahoma is a dare.  You never know if spring will suddenly end, and 108F weather will linger for days; or, whether a hail storm or a tornado will foul things up.  Oh, and God bless the freakin’ deer, raccoons, rabbits and squirrels.  What they don’t eat, they dig up and tear apart.

Whew!  Now, with those caveats, the following are my best picks for the easiest vegetables to grow in Oklahoma.

  • Lettuce. Get it in early enough (plant seeds outdoors at the end of February), and you will have success.  Spinach isn’t always so accommodating.  Lettuce grows very well in containers, so if you have even a small balcony, you can also have fresh salads.  The leaf, bibb and romaine types are the easiest in that order.  Black Seeded Simpson is a classic.
  • Kale and Chard. Plant seeds the same time as lettuce.  One word:  easy.

    Red chard is beautiful, tasty and good for you.
    Red chard is beautiful, tasty and really good for you.
  • Green or Spring onions. Plant onion sets (those little bulbs you see at the nursery) at the same time you plant your lettuce.  Again, simple and easy.
  • Snow peas and peas with edible pods.  Both of these types of peas are easily grown in Oklahoma.  Shelling peas are a bit harder because our spring can suddenly quit before the pods are fully filled out.
  • Most herbs love containers, so they are another good deck or balcony choice.  I usually buy one or two basil plants to get a head start and then plant seeds.  There are many, different types of basil.  Get the one you want for the type of cooking you like.  I’m especially fond of Genovese and Thai basil, but  I grow many others.  All are good.  Parsley, both curly and flat, is easy.  So are the many thymes.  The only one I’ve ever had trouble with is fuzzy thyme.  It wouldn’t grow for me.  Sage is easily grown and is perennial.  I found oregano to be invasive in my garden, so I would only grow it in a container.  All the mints are bad boys who want to take over, so again, use containers.  I especially like spearmint and chocolate mint.  Rosemary is a tender perennial here.  Sometimes it overwinters and sometimes not.  It is lovely in roasted chicken.  So is sage.

    Culinary sage is pretty in the garden.
    Culinary sage is pretty in the garden.
  • Summer squash.  What would summer in Oklahoma be without summer squash sauteed, wok fried, or fried like my Grandma Nita used to do?  Our family loves zucchini, yellow crookneck and straight neck and spaghetti squash.  I’m trying a couple of other varieties this year too.  We’ll see how they perform in my sunny potager.  Just remember to pick them small.  No one likes baseball-bat-sized zucchini.
  • Tomatoes.  Set out plants well after the last frost date (approx. April 20).  If you’re an inexperienced gardener, stick with those which have symbols for built-in disease resistance.  This will often be listed on the tag as a group of letters.  You’ll just save yourself a lot of time and agony.  Heirlooms do taste wonderful, but so does almost any homegrown tomato compared to that in the store.  I find heirlooms are often harder to grow with the exception of Cherokee Purple and Arkansas Traveler.  They generally perform well here.  My other picks are:  Super Fantastic, Park’s Whopper, Rutgers (often listed as an heirloom, but it was developed at Rutgers University, so I don’t know), Beefsteak and Supersteak for my slicers; Roma and Roma II are okay for a paste tomato; Celebrity is early, but not a fave of mine.  For cherry tomatoes, Supersweet 100, Sungold (the best yellow ever; wish I could find it), Yellow Pear, Chocolate Cherry and Sweet Million.  Cherry tomatoes are generally easy and adapt well to container gardening.
  • Beans, especially green beans are oh-so-easy.  The easiest for me are the bush beans like Contender and the regular Blue Lake.  I found the improved Blue Lakes had less vigor.  I don’t know why.  Sometimes you can’t improve on a good thing.
  • Melons like cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon are simple fruits to grow in our heat.  Their blooms are also beloved by pollinators. Our favorite cantaloupe is Ambrosia.  I like Moon and Stars watermelon, but I’m trying a couple of other varieties this year.
  • Pumpkins and other winter squash are pretty simple to grow too.  They require a long warm season to develop, so read the package to make sure you get your squash planted at just the right moment.  You don’t want the pumpkins to ripen before Halloween.
  • Potatoes, most any kind do well if you plant them by St. Patrick’s Day, easy to remember because he’s one of the patron saints of Ireland.  I like new, red potatoes so that’s the type I grow.  I always eat them before they get to full size.  I must have something with my green beans.

    Best and easiest vegetables to grow in Oklahoma.
    Potatoes and asparagus. No, you’re not supposed to grow them together. Long story.
  • Okra, a relative of hibiscus, which adores our weather, needs its space, but it is also easy to grow.  Just remember to pick it daily once it starts forming pods.  Large pods are tough customers no one wants to eat.
  • Corn is wonderful if you can keep it from the raccoons.  I especially love the variety Bodacious.
  • Strawberries.  Takes about three years before you get a decent berry crop.  You’re supposed to pinch off the blossoms the first summer, and yes, I know it’s hard, but your berries will produce better in the following year.

That’s all I can think of for now.  This year, try growing some of your own veggies, you’ll be amazed at the taste.  Just start with a small raised garden.  I saw a couple of kits at Lowe’s this week.  Put down some black landscape cloth, buy decent soil, and plant a few seeds or plants.  Then, just water and wait.  You’ll thank me in a month or two.  Oh, and be sure to plant a few flowers for the pollinators.  The flowers are pretty and lure them in next to your veggies.