Saturday January 12, 2013

Although seed catalogs started arriving in my post office box even before the holidays, now is the time when I expect a deluge of colorful catalogs promising me hundreds of kinds of seeds for new/old/flavorful/special plants. I enjoy growing vegetables and flowers from seeds, so I am the kind of sucker those companies love. It’s too early to plant things, but now is the time to drool over those catalogs and order some seeds.

Most big seed companies do not grow their own seeds on a farm in their home state. They contract with farmers in places that excel at growing a particular crop -- beans, for example, or carrots. They provide seeds, the farmer grows them, and then the farmer sells the product to the company.

I like small seed companies, particularly those that specialize in heirloom, open-pollinated plants. Open pollinated plants are those that breed true, year after year -- if you follow some basic rules about planting distances and saving seeds. I bought seeds from Hudson Valley Seed Library in New York State last year (www.seedlibrary.org) and was pleased with the performance of their seeds, and with the fact that they encourage you to save seeds -- and even to buy seeds you grew for a credit.

I like seed cooperatives that are not out to make their stockholders a lot of money. Fedco Seeds in Maine is one of those, and I have been buying their seeds for decades (www.fedcoseeds.com). I like that they sell seeds in small quantities. Most of us don’t need 100 tomato seeds of any one variety.

Seed companies that grow their seeds in New England are the ideal, but few exist. High Mowing Seeds (www.highmowingseeds.com) is a wonderful Vermont company, but Vermont weather is "iffy" for a seed grower. So they grow some seeds in Vermont, but also contract farmers to grow their seeds in places such as Idaho, which have more reliable growing conditions.

One of the problems we have here in New England, many years, is our short growing season and cool weather. So I recently did a little research online to look for Canadian seed producers. Many are not willing to ship to the U.S. because of the paperwork, but some are. I recently talked to Greta Kryger at Greta’s Organic Gardens (www.seeds-organic.com or 613-521-8648) in Gloucester, Ontario. She is a small producer with a flair for the unusual. Thumbing through her online catalog I ran across several things I have never grown before -- or even heard of.

I shall try the "lichti tomato" from Greta. According to the website, "They’re about the size of a cherry, and taste like a cherry crossed with a tomato. A very pretty and attractive plant that originated in South America, but has been naturalized in many countries. Start plants like you would a tomato." She told me on the phone that the plants have thorns and are quite prickly. On that same page she lists Jaltomato, Greenberry and Miltomato Vallista - all either in the same genus as tomatoes, or closely related to them. All are small fruits, but offer some unusual flavors.

Another Canadian seed company is Vesey’s (www.veseys.com), located on Prince Edward Island. In business since 1939, they are a much bigger company and are not focused on heirloom or organic seeds, though they sell some of each. But they do say their varieties are good for short, cool summer seasons.

Some gardeners get intimidated by catalogs with hundreds of choices, so Vesey has made some nice collections of seeds to help you out. Among these are a veggies for beginners collection, which includes things such as "Merlin" beets that require no thinning and "Sugar Sprint" peas that do not require a trellis. They have a children’s collection with things such as "Purple Dragon," a purple-skinned carrot that my grandkids love.

Vesey’s website also has a page with a single top pick for each kind of vegetable. I’ve grown many of them, and think their choices sound good. You can get your order priced in U.S. dollars, which is handy, even though the American and Canadian dollars are nearly equal. 

Starting plants from seed is not for everyone. But you can save money and try things that are not available from garden centers if you do. And if you teach your children to start carrots by seed outdoors, they will love to eat raw carrots and grow up to be gardeners. What could be better?

Henry Homeyer is a life-long organic gardener, gardening consultant, author of four gardening books and UNH Master Gardener. His Web site is www.Gardening-guy.com.

Henry Homeyer has a new book for kids, a fantasy-adventure chapter book about a boy and a cougar: Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. Go to www.henryhomeyer.com for details.