There are zillions of gardening books, and websites, and videos, and methods out there. They all purport to tell you how to best put some seed in the ground/pot and grow something.
Most of them are either hogwash or so specific that unless you’re interested in that exact small niche thing it’s sort of useless.
This is what I know about seeds and gardening, and I say all this because I have done it for years and I have done it successfully, at least sometimes.
First, there’s seed.
You know all those fabulous seed catalogs that come in January in the mail? They’re beautiful. They sit there on the kitchen table and cause the viewer to literally salivate.
I can sit for hours with them and plan the most fabulous garden on paper.
And the ones we all have a tendency to like the best are the ones with the biggest, most gorgeous color photos of the veggies and fruits and flowers.
I have learned over the years to take those catalogs and toss them in the trash. Those are not the companies I want to deal with. And here’s why.
Seed retailers, like Burpee and Park Seed Company and Baker Creek, don’t grow seeds. They buy their seed from farmers who grow it and then sell it to wholesalers who then sell it in smaller quantities to seed companies.
A farmer grows a field of, say, tomatoes, one certain variety. Let’s use one of my favorites: Amish Paste tomatoes. That’s a nice heirloom tomato (more about heirlooms in a moment), easy to grow. To harvest the tomato seed, the farmer does not pick the tomatoes when they are ripe. He picks them when they are very overripe.
He then processes them. Processing tomato seed involves letting the seeds sit in the tomato until well past the point where you would want to eat it. They then have to be washed and washed and washed because they are covered with slime, dried thoroughly, tested for viability and then they are sold, probably by the pound, to a seed company like Baker Creek.
Let’s say that Baker Creek buys 50 pounds of Amish Paste tomato seeds. (I am totally guessing here – I have no idea how much they sell in a season) Baker Creek prints up a bazillion beautiful little envelopes and puts 25 seeds in each one and sells them for a whopping $2.50 each.
[By the way, notice that if you happen to want 50 seeds, you have to buy two of those little envelopes?]
On the back of each of those little envelopes, it says clearly “Packed for 2017.”
And that’s all great.
But what happens in September, say, when nobody is buying tomato seeds because the season is winding down and they’ve sold 40 pounds of seed in those little envelopes and they’re staring at ten pounds of seed? Do they toss it? After all, they bought it for 2017, didn’t they?
They do not toss it.
They store it for next year. Some of them store it under really good conditions. Some of them less so.
Before they sell it the following year, they do a viability test on it. They take X seeds and sprout them and see what percentage grow. If that percentage is XX, they then put 25 of those seeds in a beautiful little envelope that is marked “Packed for 2018” and sell it to you.
The federal government has a little say in all this. It’s called the Federal Seed Act, and it’s been in place for 78 years. It was passed to protect farmers from unscrupulous seed sellers and to prevent noxious weeds from being spread all over hell and half of Georgia.
It also dictates exactly what percentage is the minimum allowed so that Baker Creek can put those 25 tomato seeds in a beautiful little envelope and sell them to you. For tomatoes, that percentage is 75.
That means that 1/4 of those 25 seeds could be deader than a doornail, and it’s still okay for Baker Creek to put them in the beautiful little envelope and sell them.
And every year that Baker Creek stores that seed, the percentage of viability goes down. After a few years of this, they have to toss the seed and start over.
And you, of course, as the customer and home gardener, are the end of the chain. You get the seed. You plant it, all 25 of those little seeds. And only 19 of them come up.
Did you do something wrong?
Probably not. Probably that’s all that were actually alive in the first place.
Seed companies know that home gardeners are typically dumber than a box of rocks. They know that most of us have no idea what we’re doing. They know that we’re going to most likely blame ourselves if our seed doesn’t come up, or if only half of it comes up. Sometimes it really is our fault.
People plant stuff all the time in the wrong place, under the wrong conditions, or don’t care for it properly and it doesn’t make it.
But sometimes, they simply have shitty seed in the first place. They have Amish Paste tomato seeds that are four years old and have only 75% viability. And viability does not necessarily correlate with vigor.
So, what is the best course for a home gardener?
First, don’t try to save seed very much. Mostly plan to buy seed every year. If you simply cannot bear it, and want to try, then fold up the seed packet (yeah, I know the picture is pretty, but fold it up anyway) and put it in a glass jar with a tight lid and store it in the fridge. The key things here are cool, dark and very dry.
But then, where to buy seed in the first place?
I will tell you where I go for seed and why.
I buy seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
I have no stake in the company. I don’t know anyone who works there. I just buy seed from them for a very good reason.
I do it because I think they have a pretty high turnover.
This is from Baker Creek’s online catalog. As I mentioned, you have to buy those seeds, 25 at a time, to get them.
Who is Baker Creek’s average customer?
It’s somebody who wants 25 tomato seeds. John Q Homegardener. That’s who. The person who is terribly impressed by the beautiful photographs and the glossy catalog.
Here’s the same tomato in Johnny’s catalog. A packet, they tell us, is 40 seeds, not 25. Costs a little more than Baker Creek.
But look at the rest. Look at your options. Do you need 25,000 seeds? They can be yours for $143.25.
Who in the world is Johnny’s average customer?
There is a nursery near our house, up in the Mennonite community. Every year, they grow a bazillion vegetable starts and sell them by the flat. Some of those starts are Amish Paste tomatoes. I do not know where they get their seed, but I bet it’s from a place like Johnny’s. They don’t buy beautiful little packets with 25 seeds. They buy 500 seeds.
And when they plant them, it’s obvious to them if half the seeds aren’t germinating. They know how to plant seeds. They know it’s not their fault.
And the next time they buy seed, they find a new supplier.
Another potential customer (apart from large scale farmers, who buy most of their seed from seed companies directly) is the guy who grows a very large mixed vegetable garden and sells produce at the farmer’s market or to local restaurants. He also knows when half his seeds don’t come up that it’s not his fault.
I want to buy from the guy who sells seed to those guys.
So I do.
They don’t have beautiful little envelopes. They all look just like this one.
And that leads me to “organic,” and “heirloom,” and “non-GMO.”
This is fad shit, folks. Fad shit. Fad.
Let me repeat that. It’s a fad. All of it is a fad.
Even Johnny gets in on the act with the “organic” crap. I buy non-organic if possible because it’s cheaper and the seeds are identical. I would go so far as to say it’s probably the exact same seed, but I don’t actually know that for certain, so I won’t.
I do know that some of Johnny’s customers are people who grow for the restaurant trade and they have to do “organic” for business reasons, so that the restaurant can advertise that, and it’s all fine, but it’s bullshit and a fad and a reason to make things cost more.
“Heirloom” sounds so nice and homesteady, doesn’t it? It simply means that it’s an old variety that is not a hybrid. If you save the seed from an Amish Paste tomato, provided you do it right and the seed sprouts, it will breed true and the resultant fruit will look just like the parents.
The alternative is hybrid seed, generally labeled as F1 hybrids.
Hybrid seed is generally better.
Think about this for a minute and you’ll see why this is so.
Plants inherit genes just like people do. The process is not much different. With Amish Paste tomatoes, all the genes are the same. That’s why they all look just alike. So Daddy tomato has identical genes to Mommy tomato, resulting in little kid tomatoes with identical genes.
Is this a good idea in people?
It’s not because it increases rather dramatically the likelihood of genetic defects. It’s such a bad idea that there are generally laws about incest.
The same thing applies to cattle. Artificial insemination is a marvelous thing and has revolutionized the cattle industry, because it makes a much wider gene pool. The dairy doesn’t have to rely on three local bulls to inseminate all their cows and end up with every cow on the place closely related to every other cow. There are still some inherent problems related to the fact that all their dairy cattle are Jerseys, but it’s still better than having a limited pool of bulls.
Hybrid seed generally has more vigor. It generally produces better. Note I said “generally.” Please don’t come back at me with “I grow heirloom whatevers and they are way better than the hybrid ones.” I know that’s possible. I already said that I often grow Amish Paste tomatoes and they are heirloom and I like them.
However, I am aware of the drawbacks in doing so. They, unlike most hybrids, are prone to wilt and blight and all the icky bad things that tomatoes get. It’s a gamble, one I’m willing to take because I like them. It’s a Roma tomato but much larger than the conventional Roma. One day I might try a really new hybrid Roma and see it I like it better.
A hybrid is simply cross-bred. An F1 hybrid is the first generation of seed from two distinctly different parents. You can’t save the seed, or rather, you can but if you do and plant the seed (called F2), you’ll get some strange offspring.
Some of these open-pollinated (heirloom is just the term for an open-pollinated variety that is older than the person writing about it) varieties have actually been bred very carefully and do exhibit some resistance to some diseases, but most of them are not. You gamble a bit when you plant them.
I plant a mixture. I like Amish Paste because I make spaghetti sauce and ketchup (that takes a ton of tomatoes). I also usually grow a hybrid to eat, and I often grow some sort of cherry tomato.
And now for the last fad thing: non-GMO.
I’ve already gone into the whole GMO bullshit thing, but this is about vegetable seeds.
There is no such thing as a GMO vegetable seed that you can purchase in beautiful little envelopes with 25 seeds in the packet. No such thing. Anywhere in America. It does not exist.
Read that again. Go back.
Nobody has them. Baker Creek doesn’t have them. Johnny’s doesn’t have them. Nobody does.
They don’t because if you really want to buy GMO seed, you have to get it in bulk from a seed supplier that sells directly to farmers. That’s because GMO seed (most of it, right now anyway) is patented and that evil Monsanto wants to know who in the hell is growing their patented seed. Otherwise, how will they know who to sue?
Oh, wait. No.
It is patented. That much is true. And the company that owns the patent does require the farmer who buys it to sign a contract which spells out the terms. It’s Monsanto’s (or whoever – I don’t know who owns the patent on GMO sugar beets) seed. They can make any conditions they like on the use of it while that patent is good. And one of those conditions is that the farmer agrees not to save the seed. If you didn’t sign a contract, you didn’t buy GMO seed.
That’s one reason they don’t sell 25 seeds in a beautiful little envelope to Susie Homegardener.
The other reason is that it would be the dumbest thing in the world to do.
Tomatoes don’t count because there are no GMO tomatoes. But there is GMO corn, although the overwhelming majority of it is field corn, and Susie doesn’t want to grow field corn. But let’s say that Monsanto’s GMO sweet corn was available to Susie in those beautiful little envelopes, and she planted it in her garden.
And the weeds came up. And Susie wanted to get rid of the weeds, so she went to get her trusty little Roundup spray bottle and went out there and sprayed the hell out of her corn.
All the weeds died.
And so did her entire garden except for the corn.
Don’t pay any attention to any seed supplier that puts out a disclaimer that they don’t sell GMO seeds. It’s silly. Nobody does for the home garden.
And coming next, what to do with that little packet of seeds once you get it.