But how do you decide what to grow? There are numerous vegetables to consider, just as many seed catalogs to choose from, and countless varieties to try. The possibilities are endless!
There’s no reason to allow this step in the process to become overwhelming. We asked some of our friends for their seed selection tips to help us get through this challenging process.
You don’t know what you don’t know
It’s an obvious statement but if this journey has taught us anything it’s that the learning process reveals just as many questions as answers.
Dave is planting his garden now in AZ for the third year. It must be nice to have warm weather! He’s been in the same city for all three years so he’s actually starting to identify the varieties that grow well in his climate and those that he and his wife really enjoy eating.
I have two years under my belt as well but this year is my first at nearly 5000 ft in northern Wyoming with a short growing season. So I am essentially starting over.
It wasn’t until we reached out to our more experienced friends and some seasoned gardeners that we discovered just how much we didn’t know. But don’t panic. This post captures so much knowledge from those that have already faced the same questions that it makes us feel confident that this year’s garden will set a new standard for years to come.
We wanted to know how to choose the right varieties, the best seeds, and most importantly, how to approach the entire selection process.
And as you might expect, it all starts with the seeds.
Heirloom, Organic, Hybrid, and Non-GMO
It’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting in a seed packet. It’s nearly impossible to feel confident that those seeds will deliver the bumper crop that you’ve been dreaming about all Winter. But with a little understanding of the terminology and format used on the seed packets you can get a pretty good idea of origin of the seeds.
Reading a seed packet
Dave dove head first into the seed packet rabbit hole to figure out exactly what each line meant and how to derive as much information as possible with just a quick look. This image is a good reference to start with but we dive deeper in How to Read Your Seed Packet.
What are the definitions, differences, and why does this matter?
Right now you’re thinking “Great story bro, tell me more”. Patience grasshopper! Dave and I discussed what he discovered about seed packets and their labels but one question remained. What is the difference between heirloom, organic, hybrid, and non-GMO seeds and which one should we be buying?
We reached out to Jared from J&J Acres with that very question and, as expected, he had a very insightful answer.
“Heirloom seeds are open pollinated varieties that have been around for some time and have established themselves – they have been tried and tested. Open pollinated means that the plant will produce seed/fruit/vegetable that is exactly the same as the seed/fruit/vegetable that the seed you planted came from.
Organic seed is nothing more than seed that has been harvested from a plant which was grown under the requirements of your country’s organic certification agency. The seed itself may still be heirloom, open pollinated or hybrid.
Hybrid seed is produced from careful selection and pollination of plants, by a human, in a controlled environment. Big companies do this, but so can the backyard gardener. There is nothing genetically modified about this process. Rather, it is “speeding up” natural selection. The “catch” with Hybrid seeds is that if you harvest the seed from the plants you grow and then re-plant that seed it will not grow the same plant that it was harvested from. It will be edible, but it will not have the same traits as the parent plant.
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. The seeds are also known as GM Seed, or GE (Genetically Engineered) Seed. These seeds are produced by a person in a laboratory injecting DNA genes from one species (such as a bacteria or animal) into a seed for the purpose of making the seed resistant to a chemical, insect, disease or other traits. Similar to hybrid seeds, GM seed that is harvested and replanted will not produce plants with the same traits as the parent.
What matters to an individual person will vary, but for me I prefer the idea of being able to harvest and replant my own seed, so I chose open pollinated varieties, most of which are heirloom. This also allows my plants to become more stabilized to my climate and soil, which results in healthier plants with a higher yield.”
Linda Ly, the Chieftess behind the hugely popular lifestyle blog GardenBetty.com, added:
“It’s generally accepted that a variety is considered an heirloom if it’s at least 50 years old. While I prefer heirlooms since I love the history behind them and all the beautiful and unconventional varieties you can find, I’m not opposed to hybrid seeds as long as they haven’t been genetically modified.”
Our takeaway: We share Jared’s preference for open pollinated varieties. Afterall, our goal is to find the varieties that we love to eat, grow well in our respective climates, and produce bumper crops (however each of us defines that). It’s important to know where and how that seed was sourced but it’s also imperative that we cultivate varieties that will produce year after year and perhaps even improve.
Best seed catalogs
Now is the time of year when the seed catalogs start landing in the mailbox and eager gardeners – talking to you Dave – start ordering packets, some even plant early because it’s just so damn exciting! Again, Dave I’m talking about you.
I personally have seed catalogs from Burgess, Botanical Interests, Seed Savers Exchange, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. And I think there may be a few more on the way. I have hundreds of pages of seed choices and no idea which one is best.
Should I choose one source and get all my seed from them? Do seed companies specialize? If so, how do I determine which company to select for each variety?
I needed answers so I asked a half dozen seasoned gardeners where they bought their seeds. Surprisingly, ALL but one responded with the same answer. We no longer buy seed, we save seed each year.
DUH! Of course. It felt slightly embarrassed that I even asked that question.
But when pressed, a few of them conceded that they order seed for things that they are growing for the first time when seed from a local friend isn’t available. In those cases, they said they turn to Seed Savers Exchange, Sustainable Seed Company or Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Linda at Garden Betty was the one outlier on this question:
“I’ve long been a fan of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds ever since I started gardening, but I also source from a few other small seedhouses, such as Kitazawa Seed Company, Renee’s Garden, and Botanical Interests. Baker Creek carries thousands of varieties of heirloom seeds from all over the world, one of the largest such catalogs that I’ve come across, and Kitazawa specializes in Asian seeds. I used to source from all over the country and from family and friends overseas. Now, I love being able to find all my childhood favorites in one place!”
Here’s the kicker. If you’re a new gardener or perhaps someone just now getting really serious about it you are likely still in the discovery phase. You’ve identified a couple favorites but you’re still searching for the varieties that you like for the majority of your staples.
Last season, as I mentioned, was a transition for me with the move to Wyoming in the middle of the summer. But the first thing I did was make friends with 4 local organic farmers. I supported them with my business directly and at the farmers market which allowed me to discover a handful of really great varieties that I plan to grow this year including Yellow Taxi Tomatoes, Muncher Cucumbers, Sakura Honey Grape Tomatoes, and Parisienne Carrots.
My plan is to buy those seeds this year – knowing that they do well in my region – and save the seed for next year. If all goes well, I could be just like our mentoring gardeners in a year or two. You can too.
- Irish Eyes Garden Seeds – potatoes and garlic
- Dixondale Farms – onions and leeks
- Kitazawa Seed Company – Asian heirloom seeds
- Territorial Seed Company – broad offering with a large selection of tomatoes
- Johnny’s Select Seeds – broad offering with a little of everything including organic and heirloom varieties as well as medicinal herb seeds
- Botanical Interests – broad offering with a little of everything and lots of organic and heirloom varieties
- Seed Savers Exchange – massive selection of heirloom varieties with history
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – substantial offering of 19th century heirloom seeds
- Hudson Valley Seed Library – substantial offering of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds
Our takeaway: Dave introduced me to Hudson Valley Seed Library last year with a surprise delivery of their popular Edible Landscapes Gift Basket. I’ve grown most of the greens with tremendous success and have more in the plan for this year. Seed Savers Exchange offers a ton of options and their mission is compelling. And Botanical Interests, located in the Rockies (as I am), was my first seed provider as they distribute through Whole Foods which was my local grocery store for years (while we lived in Las Vegas).
The bottom line…look for the varieties that interest you, those that others in your area have had success growing, and try a few different seed companies. Then keep seed from your favorites and rely on the seed companies you like best for the new, different, and interesting varieties that you want to try. Start by testing several seed companies and narrow down as you go.
How do you determine what to grow each season?
Both Dave and I are currently renting. To facilitate our respective relocation efforts (Dave is headed to Lake Tahoe and I moved my family to Wyoming last summer) we both sold our homes and moved into rentals. One of the downsides of renting is that you are more restricted in how you can modify the property, particularly the backyard.
In fact, our landlord was more concerned about the yard than the house! So with limitations on how we can plant – think containers and raised planters – it is less likely that we will be able to grow ALL of the vegetables that we would consume in a year between harvests.
With that limitation hanging over me, my answer today would be to grow SOME of what you eat. The farmers I now have relationships with are my primary sources and the gardening effort this year will be focused on growing two things: my favorites from last season (history of success) and varieties that I can’t get locally (fingers crossed experiment).
I determined what would go into my planters and beds by looking at what we consume the most. That’s tomatoes, salad greens, and peppers, followed by onions, beans, and cucumbers. With limited space, things like squash and corn just don’t seem feasible and the varieties that my farmer friends grow are outstanding. So I will continue to buy or trade with them for those things and grow the vegetables that we eat regularly or can’t get in our backyard garden.
But am I approaching this the best way or should I be thinking differently about what I choose to grow each year?
Tracy Fredrychowski, the voice behind Our Simple Homestead, shares many of the same sensibilities. Their goal is to save seed but they buy seed for new varieties when something doesn’t perform as expected.
“Every year we try to grow something new or if we have one variety of seeds that did not perform well we try and replace it with another. Overall we have gathered a set of seeds that continually do well for us and stick to that. Our canning schedule and family vegetable needs stay the same from year to year and we determine what to grow by our personal needs. We live in South Carolina and have multiple growing seasons, so it does allows us to rotate varieties to try new things in each season.”
Linda at Garden Betty has the benefit of a year-round growing season in southern CA which gives her more flexibility and opportunity than folks in colder climates with shorter growing seasons. She uses that freedom to explore and experiment.
“I divide my growing season into cool weather (fall through winter) and warm weather (spring through summer). I always have my standbys each season, like lettuce, peas, and beets in the cooler months and tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in the warmer months, but the varieties change every year. I’ll repeat a few favorites that are cooking staples (like slow-bolting cilantro and oversized Italian parsley) but for the most part, I like to introduce new vegetable varieties to the garden. Trying something strange and wonderful helps expand my palate and forces me to be creative in the kitchen.”
And Jared finds some of his inspiration for what to plant at J&J Acres from fellow farmers as well as what is dictated by the needs of his primary crops.
“I grow what I know my family will eat and the support plants for those varieties, be they nitrogen fixers, nutrient miners, bug deterrents, etc. However, I do grow new things each year. Most of the new items come to me from other growers.
For example, this year I will be growing an okra variety known as Beck’s Big Buck, which has a fun story behind it. I will also try out a melon known as Ha’ogen, or Israel Melon. Both of those are available in seed catalogs, but I received the seeds I will grow from people who also grew the seed, and carrying on that tradition matters to me.”
Our takeaway: Grow what you like to eat, what those plants need to be as productive as possible (think pest control and pollinator attractants), and what others in your area are finding successful. Think about soil health by planting covers and rotating even if you’re using planter boxes and containers like we are.
In the end, the effort is only worth it if you can grow things you will enjoy seeing in your garden or on your plate. So be daring!
How do you choose the variety?
At this point I felt great. I now know that I want to save seed but I’ll need the seed companies to help me get there. Time for a seed order.
I want to grow lots of tomatoes and peppers (primarily) because that’s what we eat, what grows well here in northern Wyoming, and can be grown in containers or small planter boxes.
It started to feel like a mistake when I sat down with the stack of seed catalogs and no seed bank of my own to draw from. What was I thinking when I ordered all these catalogs! Analysis paralysis is very real and completely debilitating.
Past experience, climate profile, suggestion of a friend, or sheer curiosity will help narrow down the options but the task can still be very daunting. So I once again reached out for guidance. It pays to know people with years of experience this early in our journey that are willing to lend their expertise and share their time.
Garden Betty’s front girl, Linda Ly, embraces her whimsy:
“Since I usually grow heirlooms, I’m lured by the stories that often come with them in seed catalogs. While many people probably look for “perfect” fruit, I like varieties with stripes and flecks, ribs and warts, unusual colors, and other traits that set them apart from things I can find at the farmers’ market.”
Tracy at Our Simple Homestead suggested that we think about conditions:
“We determine what the end product will be used for. For example, we went through a variety of green beans before we found one that had a heavy yield and would withstand our hot climate. Successful gardening is all about finding those varieties that mesh well with your specific growing conditions and then sticking to what works for you and your garden.”
“I know most of you are probably thinking that it’s simple, but there is certain terminology that you should be aware of to make sure that you are getting exactly the plant and produce that you want. You’ll want to know what things like determinate and indeterminate mean, or shelling and wax.”
And Jared of J&J Acres suggested we start with proven local varieties before tackling more challenging out-of-zone varieties and focus on our end use to determine the best options:
“My #1 suggestion for a new gardener is to make sure you only grow what is supposed to grow locally. Yes, as experience and knowledge increase you can go out-of-zone from the package recommendations, but that takes understanding on why a plant isn’t considered to be viable in your zone and how to create micro-climates that will facilitate its growth. For now, stick with the local varieties.
Everyone has a favorite and sometimes that is based on flavor, use, productivity, and ease of maintenance or many other traits. One person might be fine with high maintenance if it means getting that 1 special fruit, others would rather have no maintenance and get dozens of good fruit.
Others may want a specific tomato because it is known for producing amazing paste, but some may not care about processing tomatoes into paste.
Here is a general guideline:
- Respect your climate
- Select for your use
- Try 3 varieties that sound good
- Re-plant the one that did the best next year
I have grown many different varieties from seed, from leafy greens to veggies to fruits. Their “success” is only limited to whether or not the guidelines above are followed. If you follow those then you should be picking varieties that will grow well in your garden and be a success for you.”
Our takeaway: Dave and I both approach much of our gardening as the development of ingredients. Often, that means that onions end up in the refrigerator as canned balsamic caramelized onions. Peppers are jarred after roasting with olive oil and sherry or cider vinegar. But because much of what we grow is consumed straight from the garden it’s important that we choose varieties that taste great fresh AND also fit our preservation recipes.
That list is growing quickly as we develop new recipes. Some are simply blanched and frozen to later be conveniently added to soups, stews, or stirfry recipes. Others are canned like roasted tomato sauce, purees and pepper butter.
So for this year, the goal is to find those varieties that both perform well in our respective climates and fit the profile we need for our preservation methods. A nice spectrum of peppers – sweet to hot – will make for some really tasty batches of candied peppers!
It’s your turn
If you’re planning to grow a garden this year, what will you grow? Is there anything in this Q&A that changed your plans? Do you have any tips that we haven’t included?
This Q&A is a living and breathing resource so feel free to contribute your knowledge or questions in the comments to keep it going.