I spent the early days of January 2023 thinking about the vegetable garden I won’t be planting until March. I’ve ordered my seeds, and I’ve gone so far as considering drawing a map of what goes where. (I may not get beyond considering, though it would be smart if I did—see below—but planning in two dimensions is always hard for me, and I’m pretty good at knowing how much I can grow in my 400 square feet, just not necessarily where exactly it’s going to go.) There is absolutely no need to start all this quite so early, but I like knowing that the seeds I want won’t run out before I get to them, and I had the time and enthusiasm, so there we are.
Since I don’t have room to grow everything I might want to, I have to make some choices. When I was a newbie gardener, I always bought too many seeds, and… okay, I still buy too many seeds, but at least I have a method now! So I thought I’d share it in case it’s of help to anyone.
Just ask yourself a series of questions!
Anything new or different to consider this year?
Changes in your garden or your life may dictate what you choose to grow. Maybe you’re taking a long trip that means the garden has to go dormant or be tended by someone else; maybe you’re committing to regular food donation or preservation; maybe you want to grow veggies to cook as part of a particular culinary tradition or special diet. In my case, for reasons too complicated to explain here, I’m changing around the structure of my garden plot so that some areas that used to be bed will be path, and vice versa. This will likely produce some areas of compacted soil that need extra loosening and may not bear as well. I will let this year’s crops decide what the exact bed arrangement will be, while keeping in mind strategies for crop rotation in later years. (I probably should draw a map.)
What seeds do I already have?
The first step in buying new seeds is making sure you need to. I always go through my current seeds, which are organized by crop family or type (brassicas, nightshades, root crops, etc.). First I throw out anything that’s too old (generally over three years, though I will keep some seeds such as beans a bit longer). Then I set aside seeds that are still good but that I don’t want to plant anymore, for seed swaps. (There are always some that don’t make the cut, because they didn’t produce well enough or resisted disease insufficiently, or I just didn’t like how they tasted. But hey, they might work for someone else with different tastebuds or growing conditions.) And then I look at what’s left.
What seeds do I need?
Next step is making a list of gaps and ideas. What’s in the plan, and are there enough of the right seeds to make that happen? What do you have to have every year, and what are you trying again or for the first time? For me, this is partly a matter of experience and partly of inspiration (which often comes from reading all those seed catalogs).
I haven’t grown carrots for several years, and only had one rather elderly packet of seeds left, but while pulling perfect carrots out of a raised bed at the Derwood Demo Garden last year I got inspired, and so they went on the list. Tomatoes are on the list every year, but I try to use up the seeds I have rather than go crazy with the new and exciting. This year, almost all my seeds were too old, so I got to order fresh ones! But only a few kinds. Lettuce seeds are only good for a year or two, so I needed more. I want to try scallions, and also Thai eggplant.
Peppers have been really successful for me in recent years, so I did get a few new kinds despite probably having enough seed already. I may rotate some out that didn’t thrill me, however. Since the heatless jalapeño ‘Nadapeño’ was a bit boring, I’m going to try one called ‘Tam’ that promises to be half as spicy as usual. I will report back!
As previously discussed here, I can only grow cucurbits that are resistant to watermelon mosaic virus, and my squash and cucumber seeds were all too old, so I perused the catalogs for more. It’s a good idea to make notes at the end of a gardening year about what problems you had with diseases, pests, and environmental conditions, so you can fix the issues next year. Disease-resistant varieties are often available, as are plants that grow well in high heat.
Downy mildew-resistant basil is almost a necessity around here now, and again my remaining seeds were getting old, so I ordered more ‘Prospera’—and was excited to see that there’s now a red basil version! Of course I got that one too. I also got some cinnamon basil even though it’s not resistant, since I like to dry that for tea (just need to get it in before the mildew hits!).
And you should always choose something new and something fun. For me, that included a type of tomatillo I’d never seen before, and some of the Lime Queen series of zinnias that I’ve been admiring for several years.
Where should I order the seeds from?
I have a whole post on how to select a seed catalog, but there’s still lots of room for choice after that. For me, it usually comes down to availability and price. That ‘Tam’ jalapeño was in only one of the catalogs I received, so I chose more seeds from that place to make up a viable order. But they didn’t have the basil I wanted, so I had to get that somewhere else, and that place was expensive for some of the more ordinary seeds, so… well, everyone has their own method, and mine does sometimes involve paying shipping costs for too many different sources. Not every year; some years I strike things off the list instead.
I didn’t grow potatoes last year, but decided that this year I would cut back on spring brassicas and use the space for spuds instead. I’ll use the standard trench method, and make that part of my soil revitalization project in the areas that are being converted from path to bed. And I’ll cover the plants with floating row cover to keep off the potato beetles, since the community garden is full of them. Ordering potatoes is always a bit of a challenge, because I don’t have room for huge quantities, and also want both a reasonable price and a choice of varieties beyond what I can get at the supermarket. Of the catalogs I was already ordering from, one sold in units of 2.5 pounds (which is near the limit of what I can fit, allowing me only one variety), was pricy but had a potato I craved—but then I looked closer and realized they shipped in mid-April, which is really late for starting potatoes here. Another catalog sold in units of one pound, which meant I could get two or three different kinds; it was a bit expensive but not too bad. But when I went to the website, the potatoes were not yet available to order, and I wanted to get it over with. So I went with the third choice, which has lower prices and fewer options, but I was able to get two types for a total of three pounds, and order them now for shipping in February/March. I’m sure I will enjoy them no matter what!
In the end, there is no one method for making garden plan decisions. You just have to work out what is best for you. Balancing the amount you’re spending on seeds with the success of plantings can be tricky, unless you are lucky enough to have no problems with disease or environmental pressure. Some people like to take care of ordering early; others are willing to wait for a chance at swapping seeds with friends and neighbors or at an organized event, or buying whatever is available at local stores. This year I looked at the pages of tomato varieties and chose a few seed packets to order, but decided I’d also pick up a plant or two in the spring, or trade plants with friends. I don’t have to grow everything myself!
So I’d say there’s a rule and a guideline: look at your stored seeds before you start choosing new ones (the rule), and don’t order more than you have room for in your garden (the guideline, because there’s no way we make that one a rule). Oh, and you should really draw a map.
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.