Time for Seeds!

It is year-end and we really need to be thinking about seeds and/or plant orders.

I know; who has the time? Everyone does. You don’t need to make final decisions, so grab a seed catalog, cozy up in a comfortable chair with some warm tea or homemade wine, and then take a half-hour to begin. If you don’t know where to start, then merely turn the first page of the seed catalog or visit the home page of a seed website. That is where the new varieties of plants will be located to get you interested.

Do you need to be thinking of how to go about it? Do you just grab the closest seed catalog and go for it? Do you (gasp!) even have a seed catalog?  I guess we need to start at the beginning.

If you do not have a seed/plant catalog, then go to the internet and do a search in Google for “seed catalogs”. I assure you that the list will be endless. I just did one search and I found most of the common ones. Oddly enough, I did not see the catalog that I purchase from. They are called Pinetree Garden Seeds. Their web address is actually www.superseeds.com. Yes, they are legitimate. I have ordered from them for many years and they have been reliable so far. (I am not affiliated with them at all.)

On that note, should all of the seeds be priced similarly between companies? Yeah, they should, but they are not. Do your comparison shopping; the prices can be double in some of the fancier catalogs. With that being said, be sure you also compare the quantity in each packet or the weight of the seed packet to get the unit price. (Price per seed) Some packets may only give you a few seeds. Generally that is enough for the casual gardener. Gardeners that have serious gardens for processing veggies for the year may opt for larger packets. Not every company sells larger quantities. Also be aware of shipping charges. Some charge much more for shipping than others.

Generally speaking, the more glossy the pages, the higher the cost of the seed packets. Ignore the bling and determine the variety you want based on the descriptions.  Don’t be afraid to compare descriptions for the same variety. And do not be concerned that one company might have better seeds or plants than another. They all get them from the same wholesalers. These catalog companies buy from seed wholesalers or growers and package them with their brand name. With that being said, some seed companies have exclusive rights to “proprietary” seeds. Those seeds generally have some brand name as part of the variety name.

Many of these seed catalog companies are not based in the United States. If you call in an order you may need to listen with an accent. Yes, even the ones that make you believe that they are a true USA company.

There are some independent seed companies that are privately owned. They might grow their own seeds, but you would need to do some research to be sure.  Expect to pay more.

I did a little of the legwork for you just to point out two examples of cost. In front of me are four catalogs; Pinetree Garden Seeds, Burpee, Gurneys, and R.H. Shumway’s. I looked up the cost for Mortgage Lifter tomato seeds because that is generally one that you will see for sale in most catalogs. Here are the results:

  • Pinetree - $1.75 qty 25 seeds, unit price= $0.07 per seed

  • Burpee -   $4.95 qty 100 seeds, unit price= $0.05 per seed

  • Gurneys - $1.49 qty 30 seeds, unit price= $0.05 per seed (Price doubles after 2/10/2016)

  • R.H. Shumway’s - $2.35 qty 30 seeds, unit price= $0.08 per seed

I will now give an example for Danvers Half long carrots:

  • Pinetree - $1.50 qty 300 seeds, unit price= $0.005 per seed

  • Burpee -   $3.95 qty 3,000 seeds, unit price= $0.0001317 per seed

  • Gurneys - $1.49 qty 1,500 seeds, unit price= $0.000993 per seed (Price doubles after 2/10/2016)

  • R.H. Shumway’s - $1.85 qty 750 seeds, unit price= $0.002467 per seed

It isn’t a cut and dry decision. If you look at it on a per seed basis, your decision may be different than one in which you do not need a maximum number of seeds, but prefer an initial low cost per packet. (You may only need 10 seeds, not 3,000.) Don’t forget cost for shipping in the formula. Some companies make their money on the shipping end of the deal.

The above is an example of popular vegetables. The prices will vary significantly for other vegetables. If you think that you can shop by price for individual seeds and split your order between companies, think again. The shipping costs will negate any savings that you think you are making. Try to order from just one company to keep shipping cost down. With that being said, sometimes you must order just one packet from another company if you are specific about one variety.

Is it really that important to shop by price? If you order a lot of different seeds it could be important for somebody that is having financial difficulties. Ordering seeds is one of those things that look cheap until you total your order and it is $150.00 without the shipping.

My orders are never expensive anymore because I save seeds. I only order seeds that I cannot generate myself, that I need for crossbreeding, or are something new that I have not grown before.

“Why order so early? I can wait until spring for when I actually need seeds and/or plants.”

No, that is not wise. The seed catalog companies order what they think they will sell and that is it. If they run out they will not (or may not be able to) get more. You may have spent 2 hours finding a special veggie and when you finally place your order, it is not available. I’ve been there. You will lose a year for that veggie.

There is another reason for ordering early. The seed will be fresher. Who knows what their storage facilities are like? Are the seeds overheating in a warehouse? If you get your seeds now, you can store them in a Ziploc bag in your refrigerator. Refrigerated seeds last much longer than those stored at room temperature. You could actually use seeds for three years if you store them correctly. (Not parsnips; get them fresh every year.)

If you see my example above, you will also note that seed prices will change after a certain date. They will lower their price for a period to get you to buy early. If you wait too long, then the price goes up.

Many of these seed catalogs will also sell live plants. Let’s discuss that a bit…

There is a situation where ordering plants early is an act of frustration. That is most applicable to Northern gardeners. As with seeds, live plants are purchased by the catalog companies from wholesale growers. Most (if not all) of these catalog companies use the same growers. However, unlike seeds, live plants require special refrigerated storage units to keep the plants alive at the proper temperature and humidity. These catalog companies do not have these facilities. (Though they try to convince you otherwise) Therefore, they take live plant orders and tell you that the plant will ship in the spring.  The catalog company compiles their orders and sends them to the grower in the spring… just like the other 100 catalog companies. However, the grower may not have enough plants in storage to meet the demand from all of the catalog companies. Somebody is going to be shorted.

You placed your order in December, spring comes, and then you get an email stating that they ran out for the year. You call and complain that you ordered in December of the prior year, so how could they run out! Orders are distributed, not by order date, but by shipping times. (Plant zone numbers) Those in warmer climates get their orders first and you get the shaft.  And now it is too late to order that plant anywhere else because every catalog company is maxed out for that plant. How do you get around that?

You can’t. It is pot luck. Furthermore, some companies will “fudge” the order and ship you a plant that might look the same, but is not the real variety you ordered. (They might ship you a McIntosh apple tree instead of an Empire.) It will take you 3 to 7 years to find out that they screwed you over.

Yup! Been there too! You will be surprised to know that the largest and most advertised catalog companies do this. Paying a higher price guarantees you nothing. (Other than paying more money)

Another warning; do not select a “2nd choice” variety if yours is not available. That is their way of padding an order when they run out. They are guaranteed to make a sale and you will get a 2nd choice while somebody else (that may have ordered later) will get their “only” choice.

Are you getting discouraged? Don’t be. There is a way that is more reliable in regards to trees and shrubs. Do a search for nurseries in your state. There are many private ones that do a fabulous job with their plants. And they WILL reserve your plants. If they say that they are in stock, they mean it. And the money stays in your state instead of being moved out of the country like some of the larger catalog companies that may have been bought out. And generally speaking, the plants they grow will do better for you because they are closer to your growing environment.

You can also do a search for seed/plant catalog reviews. There is a website called “Dave’s Garden” (http://www.davesgarden.com/) where people can voice their experiences in a section called “Garden watchdog”. You can search through catalog names or enter a name yourself. Small private nurseries are also listed.

Another area to research is gardening forums. However, oftentimes you have to take what is said with a grain of salt. Much of what you hear is just regurgitated info that has been regurgitated probably a hundred times before. It is difficult to get quality info. What you might get from the forum, however, is information on a private nursery that might have a unique plant that you are looking for. Somebody may have already found that source and will share that information with you. Expect a plethora of pop-up ads on these forums now. The good old days of no ads is history for just about every forum in existence.

There are some catalog companies that have learned that they can have one company, but several names/catalogs. You could actually have 4 catalogs with different names all from just one company. When you see that, look elsewhere. They are playing you.

With the above being said, Miller Nurseries was based out of central New York State. They lead you to believe that they were a huge “real” nursery and that their stock was all NY State grown on their “farm”. It is not. The pictures are from a long time ago when they actually did cultivate their own stock. I took a trip out there many years ago and the company was the size of a small feed store. And there were no fields of trees and shrubs being grown. I asked the clerk where the fields of plants were. She told me that they order them from wholesalers, freight trucks unload them into a barn, and then they are packed and shipped out. I have to tell you that they screwed up 1 out of every 3 plants I ordered. What a waste of time and money! They have subsequently been bought out by Stark Brothers. (That also screwed me over at another time)

Is it better to purchase plants from a local nursery “store” or a big box store? No! They too purchase from wholesalers. They might even be worse. They get those 6 foot tall trees shipped in and many come from a warmer climate and are already blossoming or leafing out. The first frost that hits them in the spring sends them backwards. Furthermore, they sell them in a root ball or pot and tell you not to open it up; just plant it with the root ball in-tact so you do not disturb the roots. That is total BS! They don’t want you to open it because they filled it with sand, there are no root hairs, no native soil, and the roots have been cut off or are mangled and broken to fit in the ball. They had been stored as bare root plants without soil all winter and are trying to fool you. Furthermore, they have a tremendous amount of tree structure with very little root to support it. Most will not make it without receiving water nearly every other day and being trimmed to reduce its structure by about 50% or more.

The “real” private nurseries that grow their own plants will carefully dig out the plants to keep real roots in-tack and then store them in carefully monitored rooms. When you get them, the roots are wrapped in damp material with no soil. You don’t want the soil so don’t fret it. Most growers are not going to ship trees with native topsoil. (They would run out of soil quickly) You actually want your own soil around these roots. And their roots will look like real roots, not cut-off stubs. The plant’s top will be seriously shorter than the ones from the big nursery stores. That is a GOOD thing. You do NOT want tall trees. Smaller is better in this case. They will have a better ratio of root to stem, will require less watering, and will be able to bring up sufficient nutrients to support the top. After two years, the short good plants will be ahead of those tall things with no roots.

Plant catalogs also sell the smaller plants and generally will have a better root to stem ratio as well. You just take your chances that you are getting what you ordered or will get it at all. Some catalogs will only sell you a section of a root for some plants. That is lame and very unreliable. Unless you are purchasing plants that normally come up each year from a rhizome (like hops), you should be getting an established, (but small) plant. Flower bulbs are not included in this. It is normal to receive dormant bulbs or tubers for such plants.

I will now explain a little bit about plants before you go on your search for seeds.

Some plants will be labeled as “hybrid” or F1. That means that the seeds are the result of crossing two varieties of that type of vegetable. It would be like taking seeds from a tomato that was a cross between a Big Boy and Early Girl tomato.  It will give a third variety of tomato when grown that may be superior to both parents. However, if seeds are saved from that hybrid, then the resulting plants will be all over the place in type. In a simple genetics world, 25% will look like parent #1, 25% will look like parent #2, and 50% will look like the hybrid plant you planted. The reality is that every plant has many genes and you will generate many phenotypes. With that being said, I am never afraid to save seeds from a hybrid because it is like growing a box of chocolates. And sometimes those chocolates can lead me to a superior plant after 5 years. I love it!

Heirloom seeds come from plants that are a bit inbred. (The opposite of hybrid) They will generally produce plants true to form every year that you collect seeds, provided that you do not plant other varieties near them. Because many are open pollenated, you may find one plant out of 5 that does not look like what you ordered. Blame the bees and the wind for that. Nothing is perfect. Furthermore, it is impossible to produce millions of seeds that are identical in phenotype.

If you do not save seeds, you do not have to concern yourself with heirloom, hybrids, or such. Just order exactly what you want every year.

Also expect that not every plant germinated from the same packet of seeds will be identical, even with heirlooms. Wind and bees are going to cross pollenate a certain percentage of the plants. You might get 75% of the plants that grow as advertised, and the rest that will show other traits. Again, I don’t mind that because I select for unusual traits that I like.

“What about “organic” seeds?”

Frankly, I don’t see the difference other than price and availability. I’ve used both at some time or another. The best seed is generally the one you harvested yourself. If you grow organically and harvest seeds, then you will have organic seeds. If you don’t, then they will still germinate. Just because a seed is supposedly from an organic farm does not mean that it will be better or that there will be a difference in the vegetable produced. The energy in that little seeds is only useful to grow the first set of leaves. That is it. The rest is what you will give it and that is what will make your plant good or not.

“Do I want perennials, biennials, or annuals?” That is a good question. It all depends on what you want to do with the plant and where you want it.

Annuals will die after they bloom and go to seed. They come back the next year through the seeds. You will need to plant these every year or hope that the seeds deposited around the plant naturally will make it through a winter and germinate on their own. Some will and some will not. It is best to collect their seeds and store them yourself for planting the following spring. In regards to vegetable gardens, many of the plants are annuals and will need their seed to be brought inside so they will not rot through the winter.

Biennials will grow for two years and then die. They are vegetative for the first year and for the 2nd year they will grow stalky to produce a flower and seeds. These plants are more difficult to manage for a seed collector because the plant MUST be kept alive (although dormant) during the winter between years. Flowering (decorative) plants are generally left in the ground, while vegetables are generally dug up, kept in a cool environment in a root cellar (or refrigerator), and then replanted in the spring. Beets, carrots, and onions are biennial vegetables. Therefore, in order to save seeds, one must accept a two year commitment to the plant. Most people just buy the seeds every year. Again, that is not the best course of action if you want to create a plant that is the best for your yard.

Perennials are the Energizer bunnies of the plant world. They come up every year from the same plant and do not need to be replanted.  Oftentimes they will also seed like an annual. Many herbs generally fall into this category. Another example is horse radish. Not many vegetables are perennials. The one perennial that I like a lot is lovage.  Celery does not do well in my environment, so I have lovage. (It tastes the same) Lovage is a wonderful plant that will come up year after year. Eventually the perennial will need to be divided if it gets too big or it may need to be replanted if it gets too old.

As with anything in our time, you should do a little bit of research so you get the best results. Fortunately, there are many seed companies selling some really good stuff that is very unique. And that is where the seed catalogs shine. You will NOT be able to find the same variety of seeds at the local big box stores. Just try going to a local store and find Copra onion seeds. It’s not going to happen. It took me YEARS to find the right onion for my environment and it did not come from an onion plant or onion set at a big box store or a local feed/nursery store. I needed to purchase the seeds from a catalog in order to get it. If you buy locally, expect to only find the “usual” plant varieties that may or may not be optimal for your environment, but makes the stores the most money. This is the one case were not buying local makes sense.

This year I will grow some new plants. (New for my yard). They are angelica, salad burnet, Brussels sprouts, a climbing bean (seeds from a friend), and Mara Des Bois strawberries. I also ordered different varieties of a few other plants to see if they are a better fit than the varieties I have been using that are not as good as I had hoped. It can take years to figure out the best varieties for your yard.

Learn your environment, your soil, your lighting, your tastes, and then find “your” seeds. Good luck!

(Mine have already been delivered!)