January dreaming

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Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog arrived in December. Although many seed catalogs are still sent through the mail, and many more are available online, I tend to stick with Johnny’s for seeds, tools, and supplies.

The first part of practical January dreaming is to sort seed packets from last year, make a list of the seeds I have on hand, and mark them in the new catalog. Pelleted seeds supposedly don’t store well, so I try to use all pelleted seeds within one season. This has been mostly lettuce seed. I haven’t actually tried to use pelleted seeds for multiple years, so I don’t know but what they could be used a second year, but it’s not advised.

On the other hand, the regular non-pelleted seeds seem to stay viable for multiple years. Since my vegetable garden space is limited, I tend to use the same packet of, say, tomato seeds for maybe three or four years. But it’s easy to plant a few more seeds as they get older and thin them as necessary, thus ensuring an adequate number of plants.

When I first started gardening, I had a difficult time thinning young plants properly. Poor little things. Too nice, too perfect, to waste. Surely I can find room for them all. Then I read Earth to Table, by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann. In it, a farmer who raises vegetables for Crump’s restaurant explains to him that a turnip thrown onto the compost pile isn’t wasted; its nutrients are simply being recycled for another year and another crop, maybe another turnip. So now, I feel OK about thinning seedlings and throwing them into the compost pile. This just isn’t their year. Maybe next year.

Back to my seed strategies. Never plant the seed of a vegetable that you aren’t excited about. You must feel that it’s worth the effort of weeding, watering, harvesting, storing, and using in recipes. After all, that’s a whole bunch of work. If a bush bean plant produced poorly last year, or tasted inferior to the pole beans you adore, add those leftover seeds to the compost bucket with a blessing to their nutrients for another season. Limited space and time do not permit planting seeds that seem mediocre to you. Also remember that it costs money to water a vegetable garden. Don’t waste time and money by planting seeds that you aren’t excited about.

After marking all my leftover seeds in the new catalog, I now have the sheer luxury of choosing the new seeds. This task can brighten several cold and dreary January days. My garden is always at its perfection in my January dreams–only beneficial insects, weed-free, fertile soil, perfect sunshine, the exact amount of rain at exactly the right time. Kind of like Camelot. Some of the chosen seeds will be repeats from previous years when leftover seeds are used up. Fortex pole beans are an example. I can’t imagine ever finding a better pole bean. Favorite tomatoes always get reordered when leftover seeds are gone. Matt’s Wild Cherry is a good example. But Johnny’s has new varieties that are tempting. Of course this is true of all seed companies. In my early days of gardening, I would order from many different catalogs, plus picking up seeds randomly from the local nurseries. This became frustrating when it came to reordering. Where did I get those incredible habanero pepper seeds? I don’t want those awful bush beans again, but what were they called anyway? Find a seed company that pleases you and stick with it for awhile. Make that catalog your bible for growing information. My gardening life is much less frustrating now that I figured that out. On a cost-saving note, placing one big order from one seed company can save money on shipping. This year, Johnny’s offers free shipping on orders over $200. This may sound like too much money for a home gardener, but after factoring in the cost of leek and onion plants, some alfalfa and clover seed for ground cover, and one or two new tools, it’s a fairly realistic amount. Just don’t order new stuff in July unless it’s a dire necessity. Instead, start making a mental list for the next January. It’s called discipline. Good for me..

In Second Nature, Michael Pollan has an entertaining chapter on the class distinctions of seed companies. The chapter is entitled “Made Wild by Pompous Catalogs,” a quotation from Henry Ward Beecher in the nineteenth century. Although Pollan’s book has a copyright date of 1991, many of the seed companies he pokes fun at are rather amazingly still around—from the high-end White Flower Farm to “low-brow tabloids” like Gurney’s. Pollan puts Johnny’s Selected Seeds in a “counterculture” category: product of the seventies with a rural flavor stressing organic practices; environmentally scrupulous; out-of-date. But I think the twenty-first century Johnny’s has disproved Pollan’s assessment of it. Their catalog and web site are both excellent sources of gardening information. Their customer service is a joy. Their online videos and email marketing are useful. It is true that they focus on commercial customers, mostly organic truck farms and farmer’s marketers it seems, but I’ve never found the provided information to be irrelevant to a small home gardener. Well, you may not choose Johnny’s as your favorite seed company, but whichever one you choose, I hope you have as satisfying an experience as I am having with Johnny’s.

A word about tools. Each year I dream about which tool I want to order. Two years ago, I ordered the 27” wide traditional broadfork for $209. That’s big money for me. I was really afraid I had overreached on that one. Was it too heavy? Was it too much tool for my small area? Would it stand around unused as a reminder of my foolishness? But, happily, it has fit nicely into my seasonal soil preparation routines. I have raised beds in the vegetable garden, 3’ by 3’ mostly, but a few 3’ by 18”. They are all 10″ high. Between crops, as well as part of fall cleanup and spring prep work, I use the broadfork to loosen the soil in each bed without disrupting the layers of soil and bringing weed seed to the surface. I use it after scattering a layer of compost on the beds as well. Its balance is remarkable, making it easy to pick up and carry by the middle of one handle. An indispensable tool. I’m not always that lucky with my choices. An electric shredder hasn’t been out of the shed in several seasons now. This year my big tool order ($129) is a direct reading soil tester that measures pH and moisture without using a buffer solution. Sounds too good to be true. Stay tuned.

Last point about ordering big in January. Seed companies do run out of supplies. Popular seeds, exciting new seeds, leek and onion plants, all tend to go quickly. In January, seeds can get back-ordered and it doesn’t really matter. In the spring, a back-order usually means disappointment and thinking about substitutions. Not fun. Nor is that red line at the bottom of an item—Out of Stock. Not fun at all.

After marking all the chosen seeds and other items in the catalog over several January days, I go online to place my order. That gives me one more chance to look at my options and make last-minute changes. Then I muster my courage and press the Submit key.

So my January order is placed. $315. Oh, golly. Now I can start thinking about where I will plant stuff. Rotation. Companion crops. Sunny end of garden versus shady end. Enlarging the space. The January days slip by what with all the dreaming.

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