It’s like Christmas in January for gardeners. Every day Santa, disguised as the mailman, delivers seed catalogs. They pile up by the bedside or on the coffee table. Highlighter in hand, we mark new varieties we would like to try and old favorites we can’t go a season without. Pages are dog eared; lists are made.
Gardeners with well-worn green thumbs read the language of seed catalogs with ease. Years of experience, other gardeners, or the school of hard knocks have taught us the meanings of terms used by horticulturists who write the text.
As I began flipping through the pages of colorful photos and mouth-watering descriptions this year, I wondered if this customary winter pastime so joyous for experienced gardeners is as fun for beginning gardeners. Is some of the language of seed catalogs overwhelming?
If you know the meaning of these terms it will not only help you make more informed purchasing decisions, it will make the seed catalog time of year a lot more fun!
A hybrid plant occurs when plant breeders select two different types of parent plants with specific desirable traits to create a new improved plant, or hybrid, with its own set of characteristics. Hybridizers of vegetables often cross-pollinate in search of better disease resistance, vigor, better yield, early maturity, and color. Hybrids often grow more vigorously and are more resistant to diseases. Seed savers avoid hybrids because their seeds will not produce plants true to its parent. New seeds must be purchased every year.
Open-pollinated plants result from pollination by bees, insects, wind or itself if the plant has both male and female flowers (ex: cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and melons). Seeds of these plants often come true to type, but because pollinators spread pollen among plants in close proximity to each other, they can be quite genetically diverse. Open-pollination can also be accomplished by gardeners as they hand pollinate vegetables to promote a better yield.
Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated plants that are more than 50 years old. Most heirloom varieties have been passed down through generations of a family, community, or region of the country. Heirlooms have been selected by gardeners for specific characteristics and believed by most to have better flavor. The growth and harvest produced by heirlooms is less predictable.
Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are the genetically engineered offspring of two completely different species. They are created in laboratories using high-tech processes. Examples of GMO crops include RoundUp Ready corn and soybeans. At least for now, you will not find GMO seeds in garden centers or seed catalogs.
Organic seeds are grown without the use of synthetic materials like chemical fertilizers and pesticides. To be certified organic in the United States, plants must be grown on land that has not had prohibited substances applied for at least three years before harvest.
Treated seeds are coated with a fungicide. Peas and pumpkins are two examples of seeds that are often available to order either treated or untreated.
Seeds planted directly in the garden or in containers outdoors are direct sown. Cool season vegetables like beets, carrots, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, radishes, and spinach can be planted outside when temperatures are still cool. Warm season vegetables like corn, cucumbers, pumpkins and squash can be direct sown after the soil has warmed and there is no longer danger of frost.
Some vegetables need more time to reach maturity than the growing season provides. Seeds of these plants should be sown indoors and then planted outside as transplants after the danger of frost has passed. Additionally, most vegetables are available as transplants at garden centers for gardeners who don’t want to start their own seeds.
Some seeds are tiny – barely larger than specks of dust – and hard to handle. Pelleted seeds have been coated with an inert clay material. These larger seeds make correct spacing easy. Pelleted seeds are also easy for children to plant. Carrots, lettuce, onions and parsnips are often available in pelleted form.
Often used when describing the growth habit of tomatoes, determinate varieties do not require pruning; may or may not require staking; and the tomatoes ripen over a genetically determined period of time.
Opposite of determinate varieties, indeterminate varieties grow very tall; require support of stakes, trellises or cages; need pruning to achieve the best results; and the tomatoes ripen over many weeks in summer.
What are those capital letters in tomato descriptions?
You will notice abbreviations in tomato descriptions. They represent the diseases to which the variety shows resistance (EB-Early Blight; F-Fusarium Wilt; LB-Late Blight; V-Verticillium Wilt). It doesn’t mean the variety can’t succumb to the disease, but is less likely than its cousins. Seed catalogs provide a key.
Enjoy the seed catalog season, with highlighter in hand, and then get ready to garden with me!