Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Best Gardens Grow in January

A privet shrub in a neglected hedgerow
This doesn't look like a garden to most people, but I have a gardener's eye on this privet; in my January garden, it is the beginning of a hedge that when it flowers quietly some June night, will mystify the neighborhood with an intoxicating scent.  I intend to make cuttings of this one as soon as  the weather breaks, but for now, it's a part of all the gardens that I grow in January when everything is still possible.
 The Victorians used to call this "castles in the air".
An actual January Garden

We are encouraged to think this way by seed pornography, cocaine to a junkie....which began arriving in my snail mail box the week of Thanksgiving.  After a couple of decades of January gardening, I have some advice to offer.

First, the catalogues themselves.  Dear Reader, most of these are marketing tools, not horticultural manuals, and their text is not meant for you in growing zone 5 or 7 with a garden on the south side of an arborvitae hedge between a driveway and the crabby  know-it-all neighbor next door. (There a few exceptions to this-more about that later)  Someone with bills to pay knows that you are indoor crazed, color deprived, over watering your poor geraniums who are still trying to have a winter's sleep without wet feet, and that you are likely to believe any fool thing.  Consider the following recommendations:

*Most seed is grown by contracted farms-not necessarily a bad thing- and most of the seed companies obtain their seed from these growers.  So unless your chosen seed company specifically and clearly states that they developed and produced the  Super Amazing Envious Neighbors Tomato seed, they got it from the same grower that every other seed house did.  And you are likely to have the same results-really depends on you anyway- in your garden, no matter which company you got the seed from, or how pretty the seed packet picture is.  There are very few privately owned seed houses remaining in America  who still do their own research and sadly, many of the most familiar names can trace their behind the scenes ownership to the Big Agriculture Conglomerates.  So read the catalogue text and pay attention.  (I will fess up to my seed supplier recommendations later)

*Seed names are like paint color chips.....very romantic but possibly startling in the real world.  Just as it is a good idea to cover up the name of the paint for the dining room lest you fall in love with the idea of  raspberry pudding and silk ribbons only to find that you are stuck with pepto-bismo chalk and faded t-shirt pink, so it is wise to be cautious about seed names.  The seed is often named to invoke a narrative, a bed time story, not the sort of performance that you can count on when the July pests and diseases arrive:

     -A tomato seed named Mortgage Lifter may indeed lift someone's mortgage, but not yours.

     -any seed named Amish-fill-in-the-blank.  Why should you trust that a  18th century religious cult has a        wisdom inside their cocoon that is helpful to us in the New Millennium?

     -consider carefully all varieties with commercial food producer's names, ie-Heinz etc.  This means that the
     plant will produce a crop suited to industrial processing such as ripening all at once as in the case of the
      Heinz paste tomato, which is fine if you are planning a canning marathon or gassing green tomatoes,but  not so good if you want a few every so often for a pasta sauce.

     - seeds with foreign names always tempt me even though I know better.  Every January, I remind myself
        that nearly all the crops grown in America came from elsewhere...even our native varieties were
        world travelers, sent from the New World to Europe for an Old World fussing up before being
        marketed back to us.  Every new wave of immigrants brings their seed from home-thank you!-and
        now there are so many Asian plants to try-which I haven't the space for-that I sometimes grow the
       plants to give away so that I can evaluate them in a neighbor's garden.  And I still  have more fun

       writing the wooden labels with "rouge vif tempe"  even when I know that it's the same plain old
        Cinderella pumpkin.  (This pumpkin is not plain looking's one of the most beautiful crops
       you will ever grow- fat, glowing red and wanting only six white mice to illustrate a fairy tale)

After decades of seed catalogue seduction, I recommend:
     *Johnny's Selected Seeds   I first ordered from JSS in the late 1970's when
they were a brand new hopeful seedhouse and have ordered every season since.  They've grown tremendously, and have developed many new varieties that I try with total confidence.  The catalogue is a textbook in home and commercial growing and even if you never ordered their products, you should have it as a resource .  Lightening fast service and an excellent sales staff who seem to know everything there is to know and are happy to share.
    *Seeds Saver's Exchange    All open pollinated heirlooms here, each one with a story.  I grow a few heirloom veggies and flowers every year and save the seed to add to my own seed bank which is how I combat my despair about the future of the Humans from Earth.  Well, I think to myself on those grim midnights, there will be peppers, nasturtium, sorghum if there's anybody left to grow them.  The photographs are nearly garden pornography.  
    *Stokes   Stokes will educate you on every seed starting detail and is very honest about which varieties are recommended for  commercial growers or your Victory Garden.

     *Also, Seeds of Change, Sandhill Preservation (experts on Northern sweet potatoes and more) Southern Seed Exposure, Landreth Seeds, Native Seed SEARCH....all of these have hard to find heirlooms and open pollinated varieties, superb customer service.


  1. Oh, I love the scent of a blooming privet hedge. Planting one is on my list once we have the slope on the northwest side of the property leveled out a bit.

    Thanks for the catalog recommendations. Johnny's I knew of, but had forgotten that Stokes had a great catalog.

  2. Yes, the seed catalogs are plant pornography.....and hard to resist. The pictures are helpful for planning purposes before heading out to my local community garden for a seed saving swap. For beginning gardeners, it's helpful to be enticed with hope.
    Are you advocating we give up the Diva cucumber and other non seed producing hybrids?

  3. There are reasons why we say "hybrid vigor" and I would never take them off my seed list. Because it is self-pollinated, a variety like "Diva" is helpful in organic gardening. (You can keep floating row cover on much longer thus annoying the hordes of cucumber beetles lusting after your plants) Plus, I love to try all the newest geeky stuff, argue, analyze, criticize. But the curtain has fallen on our efforts at civilization over and over in a deeply depressing pattern, and I have no confidence whatsoever in the future of about half of us who are likely to thrash around and endanger the rest of us. So I keep a seed bank, grow some of it out every year and urge everyone to do so. Just in case.


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