Growing some of your own food is more than a hobby that can give you warm thoughts in the colder part of the year. We are living in an age of frequent nutritionally defunct dinners. With studies linking processed food to obesity and all the ailments that come with it, and research associating pesticides with lower birth weights, developmental problems, diabetes, and even weight gain, it's no wonder that last year, tens of thousands of backyard gardeners decided to grow some of their food themselves.
Whether you were one of them or you're thinking about having a garden for the first time this year, your garden starts with your seeds. "One of the reasons to buy now is you get a good choice of seed, and some things can even be started soon, like your onions," explains Eileen Weinsteiger, regenerative garden design specialist at the Rodale Institute, leaders in organic farming and gardening research. But before settling for just any old seed, or grabbing whatever's on the seed rack at Home Depot or some other big-box store, invest in a little planning to make sure your garden flourishes with delicious varieties throughout the growing season. "A reason to grow your own crops from seed is you know what you're getting. You know how it was grown, you know you didn't use any chemicals, and you get the varieties you know you want," says Weinsteiger.
In fact, the 2008 tomato blight outbreak that devastated Northeast farmers was said to come from box-store operations.
Read on for some advice on selecting this year's seeds.
Here's what you need to know about buying vegetable-garden seeds.
• Visualize your garden. Literally map it out, so you can get an idea of what you'd like to grow, and where. "You want to think about what you want," explains Weinsteiger. "That way you get an idea of how much seed you need." Once you've done that, many seed catalogs will help you run the numbers to figure out the quantity of seed you'll need.
If you're a beginner gardener, you'll also need to learn about frost dates in your area to determine the different planting dates for your vegetables. Visit the USDA Hardiness Zone Map to find that info.
• Go old-school. Heirloom seeds have been saved and passed down from generation to generation, often because the seeds are of high quality and the food tastes delicious. Conversely, mass-market seed sellers often choose varieties that last longer so they can make cross-country deliveries to your supermarket, but that don't necessarily taste the best. Other research suggests that older varieties, although not always picture-perfect, are richer in certain nutrients and phytochemicals. Another bonus? You can save heirloom seeds from harvest to harvest, so next year you can use your own seed to replant.
But perhaps there an even more noble reason to plant heirlooms. To prevent extinction. "We're losing a lot of our old varieties, but by planting them in our gardens we can keep them in the loop," says Weinsteiger.
Some heirlooms may even be more resistant to disease. The Rodale Institute research found that Striped German heirloom tomatoes held up better during the 2008 tomato blight than newer varieties. You can find a nice variety of heirloom vegetable-garden seed to choose from at Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Johnny's Selected Seeds, Seeds of Change, and Fedco Seeds. You can also look to seed swaps. (Johnny's Selected Seeds is marketing the Defiant PhR as a new tomato variety traditionally bred for late-blight resistance, too.)
• Opt for certified-organic. Just as certified-organic food is free of chemical pesticides, so are the seeds. Definitely stay away from seeds treated with chemicals. Speaking from past experience, Weinsteiger warns against it. "I would not use anything treated because years ago, every time I would touch that stuff, I would get a headache and feel totally ill." Many companies that carry certified-organic seed also mention that they do not knowingly carry genetically modified seed.
• Take care of your seeds. It's a joyous day when your seed packets arrive in the middle of winter. But to make sure they germinate well when it's time to seed them, it's important to make sure you keep your stored seeds out of humid, hot areas. Some seed (parsley, onions, and endive, for example) is only good for a year, but if you save what you don't plant this year in a sealed container and out of high light and humidity, they may have a shelf life of three to five years.
• Plant those seeds. Once you have your seeds in hand, visit OrganicGardening.com for a more in-depth look at simple seed starting. The time to start them varies depending on where you live, but if you count the weeks that they take to germinate and the indoor growing period, you may be surprised at how soon you can start your seeds to get them in the ground this spring. In Pennsylvania, Weinsteiger is set to start onions in a greenhouse this week. And by the end of February, she'll start members of the brassica family, such as broccoli and cauliflower.