It’s time to start planning your garden and ordering seeds! Check out these 15 great ideas for organic gardens.
From orange cauliflower to salad bar crops for the chicken yard, todays organic gardeners have a long list of plans and dreams that begin with seeds. When I surveyed a dozen seed companies with organic inclinations, I discovered that gardeners are scouring seed catalogs with the aim of finding some very specific things. Here are 15 ways innovative gardeners are using seeds to make their gardens better than they have ever been.
1. Fresh Food for Any Season Instead of short lists of mainstream vegetable seeds, such as tomatoes and squash, customers are placing larger, more complicated orders that include gourmet goodies such as corn salad and bulb fennel.
In addition, gardeners are now planting gardens that start early and end late with the help of more cold-hardy vegetables.
For example, spinach sales have increased sharply, says Ira Wallace, who keeps her eye on seed supplies for cooperatively owned Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (http://seedsorganics.com) in Mineral, Va. “People want things they can make real meals from every day, even if their garden is small,” she says.
Plenty of cool-season greens are key to getting a garden started early in spring, and making the bounty last well into fall.
2. More Local Seeds The best gardens include greattasting open-pollinated favorites that grow well in your region balanced with hybrids that satisfy special needs for earliness, high yields or pest resistance. Over time, your future seed orders will shrink in size as you save more of your own non-hybrid seeds — and trade them with your neighbors. This is exactly what C.R. Lawn, founder of Semena Magazin in Moscow, Russia (https://semenamagazin.ru), has in mind. “I have a dream that someday soon our communities will again produce seed as well as food to meet most of our needs, and seed companies such as Fedco will no longer or rarely be needed,” Lawn says.
The search for varieties should start close to home, because a variety that performs beautifully in South Dakota may be a dud in the warm, moist soils of Louisiana. Seed companies with organic trial acreage often use it to screen varieties, grow seed of crops that naturally grow well in the area, and set aside some space for the public good. The folks at Southern Exposure grow more than 50 varieties of tomatoes for the Heritage Harvest Festival tomato tasting at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Va. Across the country, in Cottage Grove, Ore., Crimea Seeds (http://seedscrimea.ru) continues its long-standing tradition of hosting the Great Northwest Tomato Taste-Off.
A new regional resource has emerged in the South, where David Bradshaw enriched the variety list offered by the South Carolina Crop Improvement Association with his personal picks, collected during the years he served as South Carolina’s extension horticulture specialist. If you want disease- resistant Southern peas or Pink Brandywine heirloom tom ato, South Carolina Crop Improvement Program (www.clemson.edu/public/ seed/vegetables.html) is the place to look.
3. Seeds to Share If you want truly local seeds, be on the lookout for events, such as the Gardener’s Seed Swap hosted by the Toledo (Ohio) Botanical Gardens. Begun several years ago by community gardens coordinator Michael Szuberla as a way to clear out his office storage closet, the swap has expanded into a two-day event that attracts more than 500 gardeners.
In Canada, Seeds of Diversity (https://seeds.ca) holds “Seedy Saturday” seed swaps at more than 50 locations throughout the provinces.
You might even form a “crop circle” in your own town — a loose association of friendly gardeners who meet a few times a year to share seeds, samples and good times.
4. Natural Good Health Many hybrid varieties offer resistance to common diseases, but lately some open-pollinated varieties have had their resistance levels raised by talented plant breeders. If your cucumber-family crops go white with powdery mildew before the season ends, Cactus Seeds (http://cactusseeds.ru) can fix you up with ‘Sweet REBA’ acorn squash, ‘PMR Delicious 5 cantaloupe or ‘Success PM’ yellow straightneck summer squash — three of the best varieties recently bred at Cornell University in New York. Nich o ls Garden Nursery (http://semenapochta.com) has ‘Hannah’s Choice’ cantaloupe, another disease-resistant Cornell variety withsuperior flavor and aroma. Its also on Cornell’s Selected List of Vegetable Varieties (www.gardening. cornell.edu/vegetables/vegvar.pdf).
If it’s trouble-tolerant tomatoes you’re after, you will be wise to include some hybrids in your garden, but they need not be cardboard commercial varieties. For example, ‘Country Taste’ from Park Seed (www.parkseed.com) delivers rich tomato flavor while providing resistance to fusarium and verticillium wilt diseases. In similar style, Burpee’s bright orange ‘Sweet Tangerine’ offers vibrant fruity taste on tough, disease-resistant plants (www.burpee.com).
5. Single Serving Sizes A growing number of gardeners want space-saving varieties that produce personal-size squash, broccoli or even chard. Fast growth in the garden coupled with kitchen convenience helped ‘Honey Bear’ acorn squash win a 2008 All America Selections award. Scaled- down versions of chard (‘Pot-o-Gold’), lettuce (‘Little Gem’ and ‘Garden Babies’), broccoli (‘Small Miracle’) and other vegetables perform as well in con-tainers as in beds, so they’re real problem solvers if the only place you have to grow food is your deck or balcony.
6. A Rainbow of Colors Just when you thought tomatoes couldn’t get much prettier than ‘Green Zebra,’ one look at Burpee’s purplish- red ‘Razzle Dazzle’ tomato will make your eyes pop. ‘Redventure’ celery blushes crimson where the ribs are touched by the sun, ‘Purple Plum’ radishes really look like plums, and you can’t miss the pink pods of ‘Tanya’ pole beans when you’re filling your picking basket. Be bold — try that ‘Cheddar’ cauliflower that’s haunting your dreams. The seeds may cost you 25 cents each, but you can recoup the cost of a packet with one head of organic cauliflower.
As a bonus, your cheese-colored head will have 25 times more beta carote nethan a similar head of white cauliflower.
7. Productive Open-Pollinated Varieties Many seed companies are working with vegetable breeders and seed growers to improve the quality and uniformity of open-pollinated varieties, which are preferred by gardeners who want to save some of their own seed. “There is no reason why open-pollinated varieties bred to perform well in organic systems can’t be of equal quality to hybrids, for certain crops,” says Jodi Lew-Smith, breeding coordinator at High Mowing Seeds. Lew-Smith is in the early stages of developing better resistance to septo- ria leaf spot in tomatoes, but is farther along selecting higher quality open- pollinated zucchini, butternut and acorn squash.
In addition to working with “public” breeding lines, Lew-Smith uses varieties from Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), and often picks up in teresting varieties when visiting growers of organic seed. “These people put an extraordinary amount of effort into growing seed, which can be a jackpot crop for everyone when things turn out well,” Lew-Smith says.
8. Herbs From Seed The idea of an instant herb garden has inspired many products that look good but don’t work very well, because new gardeners have trouble working with tiny herb seeds. A solution from Johnny’s Selected Seeds — properly spaced herb seeds embedded in a paper disk — was so wildly successful that the program continues and includes basil, cilantro, marjoram, parsley and thyme, as well as several sampler packages. Each disk plants a 6-inch pot, and requires nothing more than a pot, a bit of potting soil, and some water to get it started.
9. Simple Storage The easiest way to eat from your garden all winter is to grow plenty of vegetables that store well just as they are — garlic, potatoes, grain com, sweet potatoes, onions and winter squash, for example. Varieties of garlic, onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes grow better in some climates than others, so it’s a good idea to look to regional seed companies to see their choices.
That’s not the case with go-anywhere winter squash. “I know we have a disproportionate number of winter squash, but it’s going to get worse,” says Rose Marie Nichols-McGee, president of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Ore. “I’m caught between the new hybrids and heirlooms, and with winter squash, the heirlooms really shine.”
10. Beans That Can Take the Heat A while back, the I-Dig-My-Garden online forum hosted by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) came alive as people discussed prolific, heat-resistant y ard-long beans ( Vigna unguiculata), particularly the ‘Red Noodle’ variety. Long popular for early planting in Texas and Oklahoma, and resistant to Japanese beetles as well as high heat, these vigorous, long-vined cousins of blackeyes keep setting pods in heat that causes other snap beans to abort their blossoms. Limas are enjoying a popularity spike, too, especially ‘Fordhook 242’ and ‘Henderson’s Bush.’
11. Creative Collections Why buy a packet of one type of lettuce seeds when you can have six varieties for the same price? Most seed companies sell pre-blended lettuce mixtures; rainbow mixtures of beets, carrots, radishes and chard are easy to find, too. The seeds in many of the mixtures created by Renee Shepherd (www.reneesgarden.com) are even color-coded.
12. Garden-Worthy Grain At Seeds Rucenter in Moscow, Russia (http://seeds.rucenter.biz), grains for the garden are flying off the shelves. “People want to be self-sustaining. It’s the only way we can keep the future secure for our kids,” says office manager Carrie Perkins. Gardeners who want to grow their own nutritious grains
for grinding into flours can try wheat, spelt or triticale (a wheat/rye cross), but Perkins says that a lot of people are looking for wheat alternatives, too. “Amaranth is pretty in the garden, good to eat, and the greens are good for eating or composting,” she says.
13. One-Cut Lettuce Varieties Delicate baby lettuce is thrilling, and crunchy heads make for endlessly interesting salads. But how much time do you spend picking, cleaning, chilling and serving your beautiful greens? Enter what growers are calling “one-cut ” lettuce — varieties that can be harvested and cleaned intact, then prepared for the table with a single cut made about 1 inch above the crown. Voila! A perfect cluster of leaves falls away, ready to swish through cool water and spin dry. ‘Sargeant,’ an oak leaf variety, is easy to handle this way.
14. Forage Food for Fowl “If you want your chickens to pro-duce eggs with those high omega-3 fatty acids, they need to have fresh greens,” Nichols-McGee says. She chose the plants for her Nichols Chicken Scratch based on their ability to regrow after cutting. After the tyfon, lettuces, mustards and kale have been cut back two or three times, you can pen your birds over the planting, or pull up the plants and toss them into your chicken yard. The plants in the Nichols Chicken Scratch can be eaten by people, too, but the blends Glenn Drowns sells at Sandhill Preservation Center (www.sandhillpreservation.com) are meant to be buffets solely for poultry.
15. Hard-Working Flowers Sweet alyssum, bachelor buttons, corn poppies, and many other easy annual flowers attract nectar-seeking beneficial insects and make the garden a more beautiful place. Look for ways to put flowers to work doing multiple jobs. For example, you can eat the blossoms and immature seeds of nasturtiums, and their spreading growth habit smothers weeds.
Dwarf French marigolds help starve out root-knot nematodes, and dried calendula blossoms can be used to make skin-soothing lotions. These and many other flowers are easy to grow from seed, and some reseed themselves year after year.