The 2011 seed catalogs are valuable gardening tools

Dreaming of 2011's garden bounty? A great way to start is with seed catalogs. You'll learn a great deal.

Courtesy of Betty Earl
Sought after for its striking colors and sweet taste, Chioggia beets, when cut, reveal rings of deep pink alternating with white. After cooking, the flesh turns completely pale pink. Many gardeners have first tried them after seeing a picture in a garden catalog.

The arrival of the first of many 2011 seed catalogs quickens the heart of any true gardener, for seed catalogs are one of the most practical of tools in planning a garden.

Amid all the baking, shopping, and well-wishing, it is a wise gardener who takes a few moments to think of next year’s garden.

And if you think about it, winter is the perfect season to indulge oneself in dreams, for there are no bugs, weeds, drought, mildew, or blight – just glorious visions of that perfect vegetable garden.

If you’ve been gardening for many seasons, you probably already have your favorites --you know, that core group of trusted vegetable varieties you’ve grown year after year for their reliability, ease, and flavor.

If you are new to the wonderful world of veggie gardening, you are in for a real treat, for your choices are almost limitless.

Don’t judge the plant by its picture

However, whether seasoned or newbie gardener, remember that we are all vulnerable to get caught up in the enticing pictures and descriptions, especially of the “bigger, better or more colorful” varieties.

So it’s not surprising that we may forget what did poorly for us in past growing seasons, or, even worse, end up with so many more seed packets than we can ever grow.

So, don’t judge a vegetable by its glamorous picture. Chances are good that the beauty queens destined for photography were grown under optimum conditions and the photographer scoured through numerous cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans to find that “perfect” veggie suitable for a photograph.

Your results will vary, depending both on the weather and the amount of time you actually spend in the garden.

Read before you buy your seed … and plan ahead

Apart from proper soil preparation, the key to success is in determining what should and shouldn’t be planted.

Spend a little time understanding the needs of the plant and save yourself a bundle of time and money by buying only that seed which is suited to your climate, garden conditions, and the amount of time or work you are willing to put in.

For instance, if you love fresh peas and plan on growing multiple rows of them, remember that as delicious as they are, they are notoriously time-consuming to shell. You don’t want to find that at harvest your time is limited and there are way too many peas to pick and use quickly and easily and a considerable portion of your harvest ends up in the compost pile.

If it does, you will have defeated the purpose of growing them in the first place. Thus, plan your purchases accordingly.

Here are my general rules of thumb for a successful growing season:

● Read up on the various vegetables and make sure you can provide suitable growing conditions for what you want to grow. Consider your growing zone, also known as the hardiness zone, choosing only seeds for plants that are hardy to the zone you live in. Also, keep in mind that seeds of many varieties need to be started indoors a good eight to 10 weeks before you plant the seedlings outdoors.

● Another important climate consideration is the temperature the vegetable prefers – warm or cool. Warm-season crops need adequate heat to germinate the seed, set fruit, and ripen. Cool-season crops can tolerate moderately heavy frost and can be grown throughout the winter in milder climates, but do poorly in the heat. For the most part, with warm-season vegetables you harvest the fruit (tomatoes, melons, peppers, eggplant, etc.) and with cool-season crops, you harvest the leaves, roots, or stems (lettuce, spinach, sorrel, broccoli, etc.)

● Grow only those varieties that you want to eat fresh. Of course, everything tastes better when eaten freshly picked, but there are some veggies that taste best consumed fresh out of the veggie patch. My list includes tomatoes, lettuce, peas, corn, asparagus (if you have the room), kohlrabi, corn salad (mache), and herbs, especially basil and thyme.

● Plant small amounts. As a beginning gardener, I planted 20 tomato plants one year. When the harvest came in, I found myself overwhelmed with tomatoes. Cutting that number by half still gives me plenty of tomatoes to eat fresh, can, share with friends and donate to the local food pantry.

● If space is limited, grow only what you can’t easily – and reasonably – purchase at the supermarket or farmers' markets. My list would include: rainbow colored carrots, multicolored beets, young leeks, numerous peppers, baby turnips, melons, okra, purple cauliflower, sorrel, a variety of radishes, interesting zucchini, edible flowers, and of course, various varieties of tomatoes – such as yellow, orange, pink, and a few heirloom.

● Finally, be adventurous and try something new each season.


Betty Earl, the Intrepid Gardener, blogs regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest.” She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy. To read more by Betty, click here.

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