How to be a savvy seed shopper

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Now is the time of the year when seed companies send out their catalogs, presenting food gardeners with something of a problem.

Think of a seed catalog like a supermarket. If you go to the market to buy a box of breakfast cereal, there’s a whole aisle full of choices. All the packages are pretty, having been slaved over by art departments in big advertising agencies for a lot of money.

How do you even choose from a multitude of options?

Now look at your seed catalog. Let’s say you want to plant pumpkins for a fall jack-o-lantern or maybe pumpkin pies. Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Johnnyseeds.com) lists 11 varieties of jack-o-lanterns, two kinds of giant pumpkins, six kinds of white pumpkins, two kinds of pie pumpkins, nine kinds of heirloom edible pumpkins, and 26 varieties of specialty pumpkins that are both ornamental and edible.

Each entry describing one of the pumpkins has been labored over by someone at the seed company. There may not be a great deal of difference between Valenciano and Moonshine white pumpkins, but the copywriter needs to find one. And so Valenciano is “clearly the whitest pumpkin, unique for doorstep decorations” while Moonshine is a “very uniform, smooth-skinned pumpkin perfect for decorating or carving.”

While the descriptions purport to tell you about the variety, they really are little sales pitches designed to make you want that variety.

You will not find a seed catalog that says, “After two months, this bean is worthless. Even if you harvest all its beans, it will still shut down weeks before any other bean. Not only that, but it’s really susceptible to powdery mildew, turning the beans tasteless.”

So what’s the home gardener to do? Here are some suggestions to make your life easier and your seed selection more reliable.

Avoid seeds that need to be coddled with bottom heating pads, lights on timers, and other expensive equipment. Focus on seeds that pop right into the good garden soil and grow where they’re planted. Right now you can plant spinach, Chinese vegetables like tat soi, English peas, lettuce, and radishes. You live in one of the most blessed climates on earth. Take advantage of it.

If a hard freeze does threaten, just throw an old sheet (cheap at thrift stores) over the bed overnight.

Many of our summer staples are native to the Americas, especially the tropics. So, don’t rush planting of squashes, cucumbers, beans, and peppers. The seeds will just sit there in the cold, wet soil and either rot or come out of the earth at a slow crawl. Wait until May, when the soil temperature has warmed up. Then your plants sown from seeds will come roaring out of the ground.

Do you find yourself going back time and again to Rice Krispies and corn flakes in the cereal aisle because that’s what mom fed you as a child and you at least know that you like them? It’s the same with a seed catalog. Read past the hype and think about your ideal bean, or tomato, or sweet pepper, or whatever you want from the vegetable in question. Look for varieties that seem to meet that promise.

And here’s the most important recommendation: deal with seed companies you trust. That means, shop seed companies that select seeds for our coastal climate. For example, the Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, Oregon, (TerritorialSeed.com) specializes in varieties that do well in the Pacific Northwest, including northern California. The company has a “Safe Seed Pledge” in its catalog that says, “We do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. All of our seed is untreated,” and many seeds of their varieties are organically grown and marked as such.

Another reliable seed company is Renee’s Garden Seeds (reneesgarden.com) in Felton near Santa Cruz. It’s run by Renee Shepherd, who thinks like a gardener. Shepherd says she seeks out the most skilled sustainable and organic growers to produce high-quality, high germinating seeds.

There’s no guarantee that an open-pollinated, heirloom variety will be better in taste or performance than a hybrid bred by a large company, but there is a reason that heirlooms exist, having been passed down through generations because people liked their flavor. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) offers hundreds in its print catalog, online, and at the Petaluma Seed Bank at 110 Petaluma Blvd. N.

If you like driving yourself nuts with choices, check out the Tomato Growers Supply Company (www.tomatogrowers.com), where you’ll be overwhelmed with tomato varieties. Tomatoes are the one crop that you might consider starting early, simply because by the time you get into the Petaluma Wind Gap and West County, cold nights and summer fogs push tomato ripening times well into the summer (if at all) and you might want to get a jump on the season.

There are other good seed companies out there if you feel like browsing. The Natural Gardening Company in Petaluma is the oldest certified organic nursery in the country, and selects its seed for quality and not quantity (Naturalgardening.com).

Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds (www.kitchengardenseeds.com) has an interesting catalog, as does the W. Atlee Burpee company (burpee.com). And if you want to go deep into this subject of seeds, check of the Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org). It preserves heirloom plant varieties through regeneration, distribution, and seed exchange. It is one of the largest nongovernmental seedbanks in the United States.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer who can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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