Archives For Fruit & Vegetable Garden

Demystifying Seed Catalogs

Get seed catalog savvy

Lisa Hilgenberg —  February 16, 2017 — 6 Comments

The arrival of seed catalogs in mailboxes ranks as one of the most hopeful times in a gardener’s year, as it provides us with a welcome link to spring.

February is the perfect time to plan next spring’s vegetable garden. One of the first considerations is deciding what to grow. This can be answered by simply listing the veggies or asking your family to name the veggies they like to eat. There are a few other considerations before placing your order for next year’s garden—such as deciding if you should plant seeds or transplant vegetable starts. Seeds of many vegetables can be sown directly in the garden, including root vegetables like carrots, radish, and beets. Peas, beans, and squash are also best directly sown. Cabbage, tomatoes, and peppers are better given a head start inside first, and then transplanted into the garden as small plants, because they need a long, warm growing season.

Brassica oleracea 'Blue Wind' broccoli

For spring plantings, set broccoli transplants out two to three weeks before the last spring frost date.

PHOTO: Planter potted up with edible greens.

Edible spring planters can be harvested and repotted with next season’s veg.

Timing is important in the vegetable garden, and knowing that our growing season has approximately 170 frost-free days helps guide decisions on which plants to plant and when to plant. Our risk of frost is generally from October 15 through April 27, but can vary two weeks in either direction. Understanding that vegetable varieties have varying tolerances to frost helps you plan your planting calendar. For example, those very hardy plants like collards, kohlrabi, kale, spring onions, pea, spinach, turnip, and cabbage can be planted out four to six weeks before our last frost date. Those called “half hardy” or “frost tolerant”—such as beets, Swiss chard, carrots, cauliflower, and mustard—must be planted a bit later; two to three weeks before the last frost date.

The best seed catalogs will help decipher a gardener’s questions, and help plot, measure, and sort out the seed math needed to get started on a vegetable garden. Most seed is available in organic and non-organic options, with the latter usually the least expensive. Good catalogs provide keys to help decipher the icons (vegetable resistance codes) in plant descriptions. After all, a seed company’s success is based on a gardener’s success with their products.

As our nutritional consciousness rises, the taste and the health benefits of growing your own organic produce is a pursuit worthy of winter afternoons spent planning.  

Here are a few of my favorite seed companies:
(Consider going paperless; all of these catalogs are available online.)

Johnny’s Selected Seed
www.Johnnyseeds.com (877) 564-6697

Johnny’s Selected Seed is a 43-year-old, employee-owned company in Maine, recognizing that “good food is the basis of our well-being.” Widely used by home gardeners and small market farmers, the seed selection includes hundreds of vegetable, flower, and herb varieties in organic and non-organic (options) seeds. The catalog provides grower’s information for the novice to advanced gardener—it’s a virtual garden education. Johnny’s provides well-tested tools for garden tasks from bed prep to trellising, to season extension, and cover cropping. Comparison charts like the one on leaf lettuce help gardeners select seeds based on their specific growing conditions. Charts and photos compare length, width of mature veggies, and harvest windows.

High Mowing seed catalogHigh Mowing Organic Seeds
www.highmowingseeds.com (866) 735-4454

High Mowing Organic Seeds simply provides 100 percent certified organic, non-GMO Project Verified vegetable and flower seed to organic growers. The helpful seed catalog key on page two of the new 2017 catalog includes a tutorial on how to read the individual variety descriptions that follow. Seed definitions of open pollinated (OP), heirloom, and hybrid seeds are aptly explained and marked throughout. Crop types are headed by general cultural information or the “how to” grow beans for example. Then each listing is complete with the days to maturity (based on conditions in Vermont where HMO is located), disease resistance and any special attributes of the plant including breeder credit. Don’t miss the invaluable planting chart on the last page. High Mowing Organic Seeds is an excellent resource for passionate organic growers.

The Cook’s Garden
www.cooksgarden.com (800) 457-9703

Burpee acquired The Cook’s Garden more than ten years ago, and it has helped nurture America’s love affair with healthy, delicious food by offering the best gourmet veggies, greens, and herbs from around the world. The catalog offers seeds and plants for gourmet gardeners, with vegetables and fruits often pictured in recipes alongside culinary tips. Offering well-curated collections of helpful horticultural gadgets, you’ll find ash-handled tools, trellising supplies, rain gauges, and garden hods (flat, wood-handled basket) to make harvesting a snap. The Cook’s Garden catalog offers a wide range of quality products to indulge your inner gardener-chef when produce arrives in the kitchen. They’ve got canning, preserving, and dehydrating supplies covered. If the ultimate luxury is having the right tool for the job, check out the herb snips, the strawberry huller, and my current obsession, the new pickle slicer.

Seed Savers Exchange
www.seedsavers.org (563) 382-5990

Seed Savers Exchange helped start the heirloom seed movement by locating and preserving almost 20,000 varieties by growing them and seed banking at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. The not-for-profit’s mission is to conserve and protect America’s culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing open pollinated seeds and plants. The catalog contains an anthology of stories and fascinating anecdotes connecting the reader to plant history, and has a comprehensive roster of vegetable seed many of which are certified organic. Be sure to check out the heirloom flower seed, garlic, and seed potatoes. It’s a great resource for seed saving supplies and helpful guides to get started planting and seed saving.

Pinetree Garden Seeds catalogPinetree Garden Seeds and Accessories
www.superseeds.com (207) 926-3400

Pinetree has been a year-round source for the home gardener for more than three decades. Their product lines go well beyond a fairly complete line of gardening gear, including soil kits and amendments, and animal deterrents. Also offered are natural bath and hair products, kitchen gadgets (I want the tortilla press), and bee, bat, and bird products. If you’d like fragrant oils and herbal teas to go along with your vegetable seeds, look no further than Pinetree. There is a comprehensive compendium of some of the best gardening books that I’ve seen.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
www.rareseed.com Fax: (417) 924-8887

Baker Creek offers 1,800 vegetable, flower and herb varieties claimed to be the largest in our country.  A focus on preservation, it not surprising they have one of the largest selections of seeds from the nineteenth century. The fittingly named Rare Seed Catalog is like the Vogue magazine of the vegetable world. It wins the prize for the most beautiful photographs of the most avant-garde produce collection, complete with nutritional factoids and culinary inspiration. Stories from seed collecting expeditions around the world—recently Thailand, Myanmar, and India—are in the Heirloom Gardener, an associated and nationally distributed magazine written as a tool to not only promote and preserve our rich agricultural history but as explanation of why we need to care about it. The Rare Seed Catalog provides a selection of 78 varieties of melon and 20 types of okra. Baker Creek has a limited but diverse availability of live plants to ship. If goji berries, ginger root, and dragon fruit tickle your fancy (and you either live in the subtropics or have a greenhouse available) look no further, they’re in the Rare Seed Catalog. Baker Creek encourages political activism, and the catalog is written with an underlying ripple that we’re reaching the tipping point in the struggle against GMOs.


Specialty catalogs

Vermont Bean Seed Company
www.vermontbean.com
Bush or pole? Round, broad, or flat-podded? Shellers or runners? Golden, purple, filet, or lima—Vermont Bean Seed Company’s catalog for home gardens has them all. 

Filaree Garlic Farm
www.filareefarm.com
Garlic immersion is made possible by paging through the Filaree Garlic Farm catalog. A certified organic garlic grower in Washington State, Filaree encourages placing early orders of favorite rocaboles, porcelains, and purple stripe garlic.

Totally Tomatoes
www.totallytomato.com
Whether you are growing tried-and-true tomato varieties or venturing on to new releases and heirlooms, Totally Tomatoes offers hundreds of tomato varieties to the avid tomato grower. Categorized by size, shape, and color, Totally Tomatoes is a veritable rainbow for the tomato connoisseur. Focusing on Solanaceous crops, dozens of pepper varieties are included, too. 

PHOTO: A basket of garlic, with each bulb labeled with its cultivar name.

Try growing different garlic varieties to find the flavor you like best.


Varieties/cultivars and tips for direct seeding into spring gardens

It’s hard to resist a list of a few of my favorite varieties to directly sow into the spring garden. Knowing how much seed will sow a 10-foot row and the days to maturity (when the harvest can be expected) is the type of garden math that tangles up many a gardener, but quality catalogs will provide vegetable grower’s guides to help to sort out how much seed you’ll need. 

Radish: Direct-sow spring radish as soon as the ground can be worked, or four to six weeks before the last frost. Radish is best grown quickly in cool, damp conditions. It’s easy to grow, and requires only 28 days from planting to harvest. Try these spring radish cultivars: ‘Early Scarlet Globe’, ‘Rudolf’, and ‘Crunchy Royale’.

PHOTO: Beets.Beets: Nothing says spring like tender, freshly harvested baby beets. Sow about two weeks before our last frost date and thin to 3 inches between seedlings. Fertilize with liquid seaweed. Beets have great culinary versatility, so plant a combination of gold and red. ‘Detroit Dark Red’, ‘Bull’s Blood’, and ‘Burpee’s Golden’ are great choices.

Swiss chard: We love ‘Rhubarb’ and ‘Five colored Silverbeet’. These greens can grow through the entire gardening season. By harvesting just the outer leaves with a harvest knife, the plant stays in place and the integrity of your design stays intact.

PHOTO: Carrots.Carrots: The sweetest, juiciest, and most flavorful carrots are the French heirlooms. Sow two weeks before the last frost date. Carrot is slow to germinate, so have patience. Our favorite varieties for Chicago growers: ‘St. Valery’, ‘Paris Market’, and ‘Scarlet Nantes’.

Spinach: One of the earliest-germinating cool season vegetables, spinach can be direct sown in 2-inch bands or rows four to six weeks before the last frost. Plant ‘Corvair’, ‘Tyee’, or ‘Donkey’ for the most reliable spring crops.

Lettuce: We love ‘Tennis Ball’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, ‘Rouge d ’Hiver’, and ‘Winter Density’. One gram of seed will sow a 15-foot row.

Spring greens: Try mache, arugula, or mizuna; 30 to 50 seeds will seed one foot of row when sown as a cut-and-come-again salad mix.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Are you staring at the glorious color wheel of peppers at your local grocer or farmers’ market and salivating over your peppers growing at home?

If so, you are a pepper lover, and while you hold yourself back from buying every type you see on the shelf, you also know that this feeling is fleeting.

PHOTO: pickled peppers.

Savor the flavor—pickling lets your harvest last longer and tastes amazing.

Those beautiful colors and unusual varieties are in their prime now, when the hot summer days and good strong rains are perfect support for a fruiting pepper plant. In just a month or two, the number of varieties will start to dwindle and your hot spicy recipes will taste bland again.

Fear not! You can preserve that color and flavor easily with pickled peppers! But even Peter Piper couldn’t pick a peck of them. You have to pickle them yourself. Luckily, pickling peppers is perfectly painless.

PHOTO: Use gloves when seeding hot peppers.

Play it smart! Wear gloves when seeding hot peppers.

Note: Be careful when handling hot peppers; don’t rub your eyes as the capsaicin will migrate and can really irritate them (and be detrimental to contact lenses). One way to avoid this is to use disposable gloves. Wash your hands thoroughly after removing the gloves as well.

Hot or not:

Just how spicy do you want your peppers? Go ahead and take a bite. If it’s too hot, it’s not too late. Before you pickle, core your peppers (removing the seeds and inner ribs). This removes some of its spiciest elements. You can also run them under water once they are cored to lessen the heat.

PHOTO: Coring peppers removes some of their "heat."

Coring and removing the ribs and seeds takes a lot of the heat out of the pepper. Like the pepper hot? Leave them in.

If you like it hot, leave your peppers whole. Just poke or slit holes in the side of the pepper to expose the inside to the pickling liquid.

Be sure your pickles are tender, firm, crisp and not showing any spots, wrinkled skin, or decay. Also, wash them well before pickling.

Skin off:

Pickled pepper skin can be unpleasant and rubbery. If you are thinly slicing your peppers (or your peppers are very thin-skinned), you may choose to leave the skin on. However, if you are pickling your peppers whole, remove the skin now by blistering the outside of the pepper on the grill, in the oven, or with the broiler. Once the skin is blistered on all sides, let the pepper cool and the skin will slide right off.

If you don’t want to heat up the kitchen on a summer day, use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin (preserve as much of the flesh as possible).

PHOTO: peppers on a roasting rack.

A brief roast will blister the skins of your peppers, making them slide right off when cool.

PHOTO: skinning peppers with a vegetable peeler.

You can also skin peppers with a peeler.

Sterilize your jars and make pickling liquid.

Use glass jars that can vacuum seal (MasonÂź or BallÂź jars work great). Wash them well, then heat them in the dishwasher or fill with boiling water until the glass is hot. Pour out water just before you fill them with peppers and brine.

A basic brine for a 1 pint jar contains the following:

  • 2 cups vinegar (white distilled vinegar preserves the pepper colors best)
  • 1ÂŒ teaspoons canning or pickling salt
  • Âœ tablespoon of sugar or honey (*may be left out if you prefer)

PHOTO: Ingredients for pickled peppers.

Dill, onions, garlic, and peppers: this is going to be awesome.

What to add?

Onion, garlic cloves, peppercorns, mustard seeds, dill seeds, sesame seeds, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and many other spices can add flavor to the brine. For a true Chicago hot dog, add two garlic cloves and a pinch of mustard seed. For a sweet approach, add 2 tablespoons of honey and some chopped onion. For Thai Chilies, add sesame seed for richer tasting pickles.

TIME OUT TO TASTE TEST!

Take a sliver of your pepper and a bit of your pickling liquid and set to the side. Let the liquid cool and then taste them together. Hold your nose—the vinegar will be strong! This is not exact, but gives you can idea to the flavors you’ve mixed. Adjust your spices as you may need.

PHOTO: packed jars ready for pickle brine.

Leave space to pour the brine in, and for the jars to seal properly.

Pack your jars:

Bring the brine to a boil; reduce heat and cook just long enough for the salt to dissolve in the vinegar (about 2 minutes). Pack your garlic cloves, extra dill, or other ingredients with your peppers into the hot jars, leaving 1 inch of air (called headspace) in the top of the jar. Then, ladle the hot pickling brine over the peppers until the brine is œ inch from the top of the jar.

Put on your lids and rings and close gently. Don’t turn as tight as you can—you want the lid to be easy to loosen later.

Store:

If you plan to use your peppers right away, put the jars into the fridge for two days and start eating!

If you want to hold on to you peppers longer, you will want to can them. Place your newly packed jars into a canning pot filled with boiling water. The water should sit 1 inch above the jars. Keep the water boiling for 10 minutes. Then lift the jars out of the water and let them cool on a towel (not touching each other). After they have cooled overnight, press the center of the lid down with your finger. If the lid doesn’t move, it has sealed and your peppers will keep for up to a year! If the lid pops up and down, the jar didn’t seal and should go into the fridge for quick eating.

Don’t forget to have fun! Play with different color and flavor combos or chop the peppers for something spreadable. As long as you use the right amount of vinegar and salt, the sky is the limit!

Already perfected pepper pickling? Then make giardiniera!

Use half the recipe above and add carrot, celery, onion, cauliflower, green olives, and garlic to the jars. Also add 2 tablespoons oregano, 1 teaspoon celery seed, 1 teaspoon ground pepper, and 3 cups of olive oil to the pickling liquid. Rather than canning, let the jars ferment in your fridge for at least two days before eating for the best flavor.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It happens every year—like Groundhog’s Day—and I have the same dĂ©jĂ  vu annually!

Each winter for the past 20-plus years, I have supervised and worked on the pruning of the apple orchard at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Since pruning has such a great effect on an apple tree’s health, it became an annual duty of the Plant Health Care Department (that I manage) many years ago.

PHOTO: Tom Tiddens and Tom Fritz pruning the apple orchard.

Tom Tiddens and Tom Fritz pruning the apple orchard.

PHOTO: Closeup of pruning.

Cutting in the right location ensures speedy healing, and a good shape when finished.

To prune the north orchard (about 43 trees) it takes three people about two weeks. We wait until late winter/early March to begin pruning and complete the work before the buds begin to plump and open, as this is the optimal window to prune apple trees for plant health. Over the years I have been in every tree many, many times. Some are easier to prune than others, and some are downright intimidating. The one tree that is the most difficult to prune has been named “The Spirit Breaker,” and we always draw straws to see who gets to prune that one—it takes a full day! Overall, I very much enjoy this late winter pruning project, as it has become an annual rite of passage into spring for me.

Our current style of pruning strikes a balance between ornamental pruning and conventional orchard pruning, which focuses more on production (and which can be very aggressive) and less on plant health. The difference is that every cut we make is carefully made by hand back to a branch or bud, without violating the basic ornamental pruning rules. These carefully made cuts allow for healing without the dieback that can promote disease and other problems. We also work on developing proper branch angles, and thin the tree for better light penetration; another goal is to keep the height down. When pruning is complete, our orchard from a distance looks similar to conventional orchard pruning, where the older trees are kept low, but when you look closely, you can see the difference. 

PHOTO: The apple orchard before pruning.

Before pruning

PHOTO: The apple orchard after pruning.

After pruning

Why is it so important to prune an apple tree annually as we do to our apple orchard?

  • Proper annual pruning will increase harvest quality.
  • Pruning lessens diseases such as apple scab, fire blight, and leaf spot. It increases air circulation and allows the tree to dry out more quickly; moisture promotes disease. 
  • Keeping the trees thinned out (and not so tall) allows for better spray coverage for insect and disease treatments. (All treatments at the Garden are organic products, such as sulfur [mineral] for disease suppression.)  
  • Pruning regulates the height of the trees for easier harvesting.
  • Pruning allows for better light penetration for more—and higher quality—fruit.
  • Pruning allows for branch directional training that will increase production and lessen apple weight-load breakage in late summer.

PHOTO: The apple arbor in bloom, April 2012.

The apple arbor in bloom, April 2012. New whipstock was planted on half the arbor a few years ago, and the new trees should soon look this good again.

Being that the orchard is on the far north side of the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, I feel that many visitors miss out on the experience of walking through the orchard. Experiencing a walk through the orchard in the spring when the apple trees are in full bloom, with the fragrance saturating the air, is a sensory overload and a must-do! In the summer, the outer walk becomes almost tunnel-like, and you feel as if you are on another planet. It’s also fun to watch the fruit develop throughout the season, although please avoid the temptation to pick, as the fruit needs to be harvested at the proper time (which is different for each variety), and we use the harvest in many ways. Next time you are visiting the Chicago Botanic Garden, make it a point to “walk the orchard.”

As for me, I am closing this year’s book on “time to prune the orchard;” 2016’s orchard prune is complete!

Special thanks to Thomas Fritz and Chris Beiser (plant health care specialists and certified arborists) who worked diligently to get the orchard prune completed this year.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Attention, fellow seed swappers: it’s mid-March, and that means it’s time to pull out all those amazing seeds you got at Seed Swap (what a fun day!) and start growing transplants indoors.

My “aha!” moment at Seed Swap happened when I stopped by at horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg’s seed-starting table, and picked up a copy of her Seed Viability Chart. It’s not only a useful tool about the average “shelf life”—or viability—of veggie seeds, but also an eye-opening reminder to check the dates on seed packs before I start growing this spring. Some seeds last longer than others!

Click here to download a PDF of the chart. (Proper seed storage conditions are in a cool and dark place where temperature and moisture content will stay relatively stable.)

Ready to start sowing? We’ve got lots of good tips and info about how to start seeds on our blog and website:


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Seed Swap is timed perfectly. As I type this blog, there is snow covering the ground. We’ve not had our mail delivered in days (this is, after all, Raleigh, N.C., where snow is a dirty word). But indoors, armed with seed catalogs, vials, and notebooks, gardeners everywhere are immersed in planning and planting.

That’s why I am so excited to be bringing my tomato stories and seeds to the Seed Swap.

As always, I hope to learn as much from the audience, fellow bloggers, and swap participants. One of my favorite things about gardening is the ability for all who partake to learn new and exciting things to share. It is one of those unique pursuits that no one can do perfectly or predictably. The renewal of each season fires up hope and optimism, and helps us to keep going year after year.

PHOTO: Heirloom tomato harvest, with cultivars labeled.

January: the time when we dream of heirloom tomatoes.


Sign up for my free lecture at the Garden on February 28. Don’t live in the Chicago area? Find more National Seed Swap Day events nationwide in January and February.

Seed swaps are just marvelous events which represent far more than just entering into a fun, interactive way to build seed collections. Seeds are the future—as in flowers, vegetables, or herbs for your garden. Seeds, perhaps even more significantly, are the past. They are a direct way to pass on a bit of history, as well as a bit of your own effort, if the seeds happen to be those that you saved yourself. When passing on seeds, be sure to also pass on whatever history and information that you’ve accumulated along the way.

PHOTO: Heirloom tomato seed collection.

Part of the Craig LeHoullier heirloom tomato seed collection housed with my go-to books.

I’ve got a “small” collection of seeds saved and sent through my 35 years of gardening (if you call more than 5,000 samples of seeds small, that is). There will be some fun, interesting, historic varieties among the packets that I will bring to share at the swap event. I like to tell people that it recently came to me that heirloom tomatoes chose me to be one of their ambassadors. How else can I explain the unsolicited gifts, in the form of letters with packets of seeds, which populated my mailbox in and around 1990? Among them are Anna Russian, Mexico Midget, and two varieties that came to me unnamed—Cherokee Purple and Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom. It is a role I relish, and serve gladly and enthusiastically. I am joined in this by so many—Carolyn Male, Amy Goldman, Bill Minkey, and Calvin Wait, just to name a few of those whose books and/or seed-saving efforts have been but a small part of making this perhaps the very best time for tomato enthusiasts to paint their gardens with such an array of colors, shapes, and sizes.

PHOTO: LeHoullier's garden, covered in snow.

The LeHoullier backyard tomato garden—it doesn’t look like much now, but wait until August!

The challenge of planning is that there is always more to grow than can reasonably fit. Some succeed better than others at narrowing things down. It is a good thing that tomato seeds will keep germination for at least a decade; it helps to ease the pressure of over buying. Hey—how about swapping for some of those extras! Whoops—that means I will then have even more to choose from. Great!

Sources for Craig’s seeds:

As far as what to grow, how does one navigate the confounding waters of tomato choices? Part of that answer lies in the intent of the garden—primary food source, tomato playground for testing or projects, or just one part of a greater whole with many other types of crops. There are choices of heirloom or hybrid, indeterminate or dwarf, and then the more fun projections such as colors and flavors. It all adds up to some pretty intense dreams—both during the day, and for me, occasionally while I sleep.

And so, Chicago, here I come. From lunching with bloggers and sharing gardening ideas and battle scars to my main talk where I can entice you with pictures of my conquests (and challenges, because they are unavoidable), and finally some time to swap seeds and stories, ask and answer questions. I will be happy to share the list of my favorite varieties and why. And stories—lots of stories, because many of the tomatoes I cherish, most have wonderful stories. Each summer, as I cast my eyes over my garden, I envision the faces and names of those who sent me seeds just as much as the appearance of the plants and the excitement of the tomatoes to come.

PHOTO: Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier.

Purchase Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier in the Garden Shop!

In the meantime, come on along on my journey by checking out my website at craiglehoullier.com. I will soon be blogging about seed starting, making choices, and anything else that pops into my mind. There is info about my books, my upcoming events, and the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, from which some swap samples will be made available.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org