For those of us who love gardening, seed shopping in the winter can make us feel like kids in a candy store. Whether you order from catalogs, purchase from local stores, or save and share seeds, it’s exciting to peruse offerings and plan new things to try this year. Generally, varieties developed in or adapted to the southeastern US will perform well in our climate, though those of us gardening at higher elevations may select varieties suited to more northern areas.
Seed packets often have important planting and management tips, and it is wise to heed these suggestions, particularly if you are growing something for the first time. These may include timing of planting, ideal temperatures for germination, and recommendations on sowing seeds directly versus starting them indoors and then transplanting. Seed packets typically list a germination rate, such as 85%. This is the average percent of the seed that is likely to germinate under appropriate conditions.
Use this number to guide how many seeds you sow to achieve the number of plants you want. Seed packets also indicate a packaging sate, such as “October 2016”, or they may say “Packed for [a certain year]”. Only purchase seed packed for the upcoming gardening year. Some seeds may also be “pelleted”, which means that they have an inert coating that makes them easier to handle. This can be very helpful for sowing small-seeded plants and it does not affect plant growth.
Many seeds will also have a descriptor such as “heirloom” or “hybrid”, which tell us a little bit about the history of that particular variety and whether we can save the seed. Heirlooms are varieties that were developed over 50 years ago, and have not been altered significantly since. These are often beloved varieties that remain popular because of beauty, flavor, or cultural significance. They may have been selected for improved yields or disease resistance since their original development, but their essence- appearance and/or flavor- has not changed dramatically. Examples of popular heirloom vegetables include Cherokee Purple tomatoes, Kentucky Wonder beans, and Georgia Candy Roaster squash.
Open-pollinated seeds will pollinate on their own to produce viable seed, through natural means such as wind, water, or with the help of pollinator insects and animals. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms- some excellent varieties have been developed more recently. Open-pollinated seeds can be saved by gardeners provided the plants are appropriately separated from other varieties of the same plant. For example, if you want to save tomato seed, you must separate each tomato variety by at least 10’ to prevent crossing. If you save seed from varieties planted close together, the seed will likely produce strange looking fruit, not true to any variety you grew the previous year.
Hybrid seeds are intentional crosses made between two varieties of the same species, or in a few cases, between two closely related species. A seed packet will indicate that the variety is a hybrid by saying “Hybrid”, “F1” or “Hybrid F1”. To generate a hybrid variety, a plant breeder crosses two ‘parent’ varieties by growing them at the same time and ensuring that their pollen is shared. The resulting seeds or ‘offspring’ are a different variety with traits from both ‘parents’. Hybridization is a separate breeding process from genetic engineering. Popular hybrid vegetables include Big Beef tomatoes and Silver Queen corn. Hybrids express beneficial traits from each parent- for example, they may carry the disease resistance of one parent but the good flavor of the other. Hybrid seeds often produce more uniform plants and fruit, and often larger plants and yields. Hybrids tend to be more expensive because producing the seed requires more labor. However, hybrid seeds cannot be saved and replanted. Recall Mendel’s experiments with peas. When he crossed plants with purple and white flowers, he produced one generation with all purple flowers. However, when he saved seed from the purple generation, the next generation contained both white and purple flowers.
Some seed packets contain more seed than can be used in a home garden in one season. But don’t let that keep you from ordering your favorite types or trying something new. Store what you don’t use for future gardens, start extra transplants to give away as gifts, share unused seed with neighbors, or split a seed order with friends. Seeds vary in longevity, but many store well if they are at a relatively uniform temperature. For best results, store seeds in the refrigerator but keep them away from spots where they could freeze. Seeds need to be kept dry but now allowed to dry out, so consider storing them in plastic bags, or store your seed packets in a sealed plastic container. If you are concerned about moisture, you can add 1-2 tablespoons powdered milk to a seed packet, or keep a packet of silica gel in a container where you are storing seeds. If you repackage the seeds, label them with variety and year they were saved. If you develop your own library of stored seeds, consider organizing them by plant family or type- such as herbs, flowers, peppers- to make them easy to find when you’re ready to plant.
If it is berries you are hoping to add to the garden this year, you’re in luck! The Caldwell Extension Center is holding a fruit sale this spring and will be selling a few varieties of strawberry, blueberry, and blackberry plants. Ordering from us means you will get plants from reputable nurseries at below-retail prices, and recommendations on varieties to suit your needs. Orders are due by February 24. Stop by the Caldwell Extension Office (120 Hospital Ave NE Suite 1, Lenoir NC) to pick up an order form. For more information on seeds or gardening, contact us at 828-757-1290 or stop by the Extension Center, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.