Seeds are the foundation of your garden. You can’t grow much of anything without them. Seed genetics determine yield potential, ability to grow in your area, resistance to pests & disease, flavor and nutrient quality. The better the quality of the seed the more robust the root system, the healthier your plants are and the higher your yields. This is especially true in an organic growing system.
Selecting Seeds that are Right for Your Garden
The first step in the selection process is to purchase seeds that are best adapted to your soil, climate and length of growing season. There are several companies the produce seed for the New England region. High Mowing Organic Seeds, FEDCO Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds are three of my favorites. All three companies buy seeds from local farmers as well as from growers outside of New England. All of their seed varieties are trialed on their respective farms.
You will then need to select the type of seeds based on your growing methodology (organic or conventional). If you are gardening using organic fertility methods you will want to purchase organic seeds. Organic fertilizers (especially nitrogen) need to go through a biological process in the soil before they are available as a food for plants. So, it is critical that your plant have a robust root system to take up nutrients. Conventional fertilizers are readily available to the plant and feed it directly without the assistance of soil biology. The plant doesn’t have to work for its food. With each passing generation the genetics of the plant change. Root system of conventionally bred seeds eventually become more diminutive (this is one of the reasons it takes so long to develop a conventional plant variety into an organic variety – the root system needs to be genetically rebuilt). The added benefit of using organic seeds is that they will be non-GMO and free of chemical pesticides.
Choosing the varieties you want to grow is your next step. Here are some things you might want to consider:
• What vegetables do you want to grow?
• Is disease resistance important?
• Is one variety more nutritious or tastier than another variety?
Different Seed Types
Open-pollinated seeds come from a plant that can be pollinated by natural means such as birds, insects and wind. If they are pollinated by the same variety they will grow true-to-type (like the parents). If they are pollinated by a different variety, you will have created a new flavor. And, if you want to save seeds, this is the type you need to buy.
Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated seeds that have been around for decades and maybe even centuries. They can be organic or conventional and may be better tasting or/and have higher nutritional value. Heirloom seeds are usually more susceptible to plant diseases but they have very stable genetic material.
Garden Gem Tomato courtesy of Harry Klee – University of Florida
Hybrid seeds (often labeled F1) come from two varieties of a plant that have been artificially cross pollinated for specific traits (for instance grape tomato Maglia Rose and commercial tomato ‘Fla. 8059’ were combined to produce Garden Gem). Unfortunately, seeds from the offspring of a hybrid may not produce true to the parent or may not produce at all. Don’t choose a hybrid if you plan to save seeds.
Certified Organic seeds have been grown without the use of any synthetic nutrients or synthetic pesticides and under a specific process mandated by law. They have been inspected by a certifying organization. Certified organic seeds can be open-pollinated or hybrid but not genetically modified.
Conventional seeds have been grown with the use of synthetic nutrients and synthetic pesticides. They can be open-pollinated, hybrid, or genetically modified. As I stated earlier they generally do not perform as well under an organic regime as organic seeds do.
Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds have been impregnated with genes from a different species or have been altered through genetic engineering techniques. Why stay away from GM seeds? Yields are not substantially higher than normal seeds, they are significantly more expensive and nature has been finding ways around their modifications making them less effective. GM pollen can contaminate your neighbor’s seeds and we have no real idea what long-term exposure to GM crops will do to our bodies. Check out this interesting article about pigs eating GM foods.
Different Treatments for Seeds
Seeds can be treated to prevent pathogens or insects from destroying your seed or seedling. Treatments include chemicals fungicides, insecticides, and antibiotics. Some treatments combine an insecticide with a fungicide. Organic seeds are treated through some form of physical treatment (steam, hot water, etc.) to kill pathogens and not any pesticides.
Systemic pesticide treatments are absorbed by the seed or developing seedling and become part of the tissue of plant. These treatments protect both the seed and the young plants against pests and diseases but they also make the poison part of what you eat.
Pelleted and Raw Carrot Seeds
Pelleted seeds are covered with an inert material to make them easier to handle and plant. There are organic and conventional pelleted seeds. Pelleted seeds germinate more quickly because they absorb and hold moisture well.
Primed seeds have been treated to germinate more quickly. Depending on the process, they may or may not be allowed in organic production (sometimes pelleted seed are primed).
Seed Germination, Vigor and Age
Most seed packets will have a germination rate on the package. The packet also gives you instructions on how densely you need to sow based on germination rates.
Seed vigor is much harder to measure, but seed size is often good indicator. Before sowing, I sort my seeds by size. I then plant the largest and feed the smallest to the birds.
Be aware that as seeds age, both germination and vigor decline, slowly at first and then more rapidly as they grow older. And, vigor will decline faster than germination rates (you can have seeds that germinate but then grow very slowly or not at all). Don’t buy cheap seeds. There is a reason they are in the discount bin.
Short-lived seeds, including vegetables such as onions, leeks, parsley, parsnips and sweet corn, have germination rates that decline rapidly. For best results, purchase new seeds for these crops every year.
Early Maturing varieties have been developed for shorter growing seasons. They are usually smaller fruited so that ripening happens more quickly (cherry tomatoes ripen more quickly than slicing tomatoes).
Days-to-Maturity gives you an idea of how long it takes for a plant to reach full ripeness. Remember this calculation is very weather dependent (cooler weather slows the growing process). If you are starting seeds indoors (tomatoes for example) the “days-to-maturity” begins on the day you transplant your seedlings outside.
Disease Resistance information is usually provided in the catalog description. If there is no information you need to assume that resistance is minimal. Disease resistance or tolerance does not mean immunity so your plant may eventually succumb to disease.
Picture from Amazon.com
Recent research has shown that the nutritional content of your plants can vary significantly from variety to variety. You may want to seek out cultivars that bring greater nutrition to you dinner table (they also happen to taste better). To learn more about the nutrient content of various vegetables you might want to check out Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson.
Store your seeds properly (airtight container at 40 degrees) and do not use old seeds unless they have been stored properly. Be sure to check out the “packed for” date to determine how old your seeds are.
Fluctuations in humidity and temperature can greatly impact seed viability and diminish shelf life. Store your seeds in sealed containers in a refrigerator or a freezer. This can greatly extend the amount of time seeds remain viable.
Finally, seeds are complex, living organisms so handle them carefully when planting. Damage done to a seed while planting is often overlooked. And, you will want to get your seed orders in before the end of February.