Hands-On Gardener January 23, 2014

by Miriam Hansen

January is the month for ordering seeds, and this year is no exception. I’ve been ordering from catalogs as long as I’ve been gardening—about 35 years. The catalogs have changed from Gurney’s and Stoke’s to Fedco and Johnny’s, but the basic process has remained the same. Go through my seed box and jettison onion seeds over two years old and most other seeds more than three or four years old. Pore over scrumptious photographs of tomatoes and sweet corn, petunias and zinnias and try to restrain my seed-buying alter ego, Rosalina, the impetuous, insatiable aspect of myself that is difficult to control when it comes to buying seeds.

Apparently Rosalina is not alone. A friend with a very small garden who buys her seeds off the display shelf in garden centers recently admitted that even though she can’t really eat radishes—they upset her stomach—every year she buys a couple of packets: “I just get to thinking, they come up so fast and look how beautiful they are. Maybe this year I’ll be able to tolerate them.” Every year she grows them and every year she throws them away.

I’ve gotten somewhat better about restraining Rosalina when it comes to vegetables. There have been years I’ve grown three or four varieties of Brussels sprouts, even though I’m the only one in the family who enjoys them. Seven kinds of onions, four kinds of cabbages—the list goes on. All right, I have to admit I ordered three kinds of broccoli this year. But some are extra early; some produce huge, domed, ultratight heads; some have so many side shoots I’ll be amazed! You get the picture.

This is called marketing, and it works. I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to figure this out. Something about buying seeds makes gardeners feel so virtuous, so allied with nature and all that is right with the world. Surely the mere fact that we are planting and growing our own food, making gardens of flowers, entitles us to splurge a little, go hog wild? Maybe it is time to rethink this.

Johnny’s is selling ‘Cheyenne Spirit,’ 25 seeds of gorgeous coneflowers (Echinacea) in colors that range from orange to purple, scarlet to cream. Rosalina thinks she has to have them, but even if only 10 germinate, where is she going to plant them? After years of moving perennials around, I’ve begun to understand why landscapers begin with a design and only start shopping for plants when the design is complete and the beds are prepared.

For 35 years Rosalina has had free rein. Maybe it’s time to exercise a little restraint. I won’t buy that packet of Echinacea seeds. Instead, I might see if my neighbor, who surely has her own Rosalina to contend with, might be selling a pot or two of the Echinacea she’s grown from seed. She has some in every hue and shade! Then, too, instead of cramming every inch of the garden with vegetables and flowers, this year I will leave a third fallow, plant a cover crop and let the soil rest and renew.

I feel remarkably virtuous. That said, I’ll confess to ordering two kinds of radishes (‘Cherriettes’ and ‘French Breakfast’), two kinds of pole beans (‘Fortex’ and ‘Northeaster’), three kinds of bush beans (‘Provider,’ ‘Maxibel’ and ‘Montpellier’), four kinds of broccoli (‘Arcadia,’ ‘Fiesta’ and ‘Belstar’)—the list goes on.

Rosalina and I are still debating whether to buy one seed packet of dwarf ‘Twinny’ snapdragons or three: if you buy three you get a price break. As you can see, it is not easy to talk sense to a wild monkey when it comes to ordering seeds.

I would suggest the following guidelines. Consider the amount of space you have to plant in. Think about the requirements for the plants you think you’d like to grow. Fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant really do need sun to produce well. Do you have a sunny spot, a dappled yard or full shade? Do you love to garden or do you just want to grow your own spinach because you’re tired of spending four or five dollars on a bag of greens? Really be honest with yourself about what you are trying to achieve.

That same friend, who can’t resist a picture of radishes, told me she grew something she couldn’t identify when they matured. She finally figured out she had grown beets! She’d forgotten she planted them and by the time they were full grown realized there were too many for her to eat. Think about this when you plant. Each seed when it germinates really will become a plant that you will either transplant outside or, if started in the ground, will grow into a plant you will need to either eat or process in some way.

I am still interested in producing enough food for my husband and me and the twenty-somethings who continue to dip into our larder. I will continue to grow enough extra to sell and give away, but I think this might be the summer and fall to do some traveling. Maybe I don’t really need to be a commercial grower. At least that’s what I’m telling Rosalina this year.

Happy ordering!


Miriam and her husband, David, live in East Montpelier, where they grow most of their own vegetables, berries and meat on less than one-quarter of an acre. Your questions and comments are welcome. You can reach Miriam at freshair460@gmail.com.

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