Selecting new varieties, remembering what worked (and didn’t) last year, and tips for wading through the stacks of seed catalogs.
So, its January 2018. Here, in Wisconsin, is is cold (subzero kind of cold), snowy, and there is nothing to do in the garden but stare at it and start making mental notes of all the things that have to get done as soon as it bloody gets warm enough. While this is its own kind of fun (I do this nearly daily and the mental notes increasingly look more like the rantings of a lunatic), it doesn’t feel very productive. The seed catalogs came in hot and heavy between holidays- which seemed SUPER early- but have only had a cursory look and are only lightly maimed with dogears and highlighters.
But. Now is the time! Time to make decisions, try to remember what worked (and didn’t) last year, and put in orders for this year. Onward!
Full disclosure, I’m AWFUL at consistent journaling. My garden journal is a smattering of bullet points, semi-coherent blerps, and cautionary notes (“Trelis with something stronger!” “DON’T PLANT THIS” etc) written over the course of the whole season but in total taking less than 15 minutes.
Even if you don’t want to do it, you should really have something or some way to keep track of the highlights. Honest. Whether its an Evernote or Notes file on your phone, old fashioned pen and paper (that’s me!), or a Word document on your computer- give yourself somewhere to make notes to your future self.
Here are the things I think are worth keeping track of at a minimum:
- What veggies worked well and/or tasted good/were worth the effort (Keep!)
- What veggies didn’t work well and/or didn’t taste all that great or didn’t produce well (Toss!)
- The things you didn’t do (or didn’t do well enough) that you don’t want to repeat next year (Teachable Moments)
- Things you noted that you wanted to try differently for next year
Anything after that is just icing on the cake. And trust me when I say you WILL NOT remember these things like you think you will. So jot it down and thank yourself this time next year when you are reviewing last year’s note before you dive into this year’s seed shopping.
Make Smart Seed Decisions:
If you are anything like me, you love some paper catalogs. More so, I love the pages full of the unknown, the possibilities, and the faint idea that there is something within that I’ve been searching for- and that this will be the year of the most amazing melon (or tomato, whatever) EVER.
However, I must also remember that I have a box full of dried rice and vegetable seed packets. I don’t need to reinvent the garden every single year even if that is what my inner Magpie says. This is where the list of what worked and what didn’t comes in handy. ID the things that didn’t work and look for better replacements. Ignore the things that did work so that you don’t end up with 12 varieties of fava beans (unless of course you love them so much you or you want to grow more than you did last year).
For What Didn’t Work:
Figure out why it didn’t work and use that information to pick a new variety. Just like dating.
Seriously, its just like dating.
If it took too long to mature/didn’t ripen? Look for something with a shorter time to maturity (90 days vs 105 days) or “early” varieties.
If it took over your space and drove you nuts? Avoid the term “vigorous” and look for “compact” and “tidy”.
If it didn’t produce much? Look for “productive” and “high yields”.
If you had lots of bugs or disease? Look for versions that are disease or pest resistant.
If you didn’t like how it tasted? Find the description of the plant you didn’t like, figure out what adjectives are being used to describe the flavor and then search for something that lacks those descriptors. (Acid vs sweet, strong vs mild, pungent, meaty, delicate, firm, soft… you get it).
And lastly, DO NOT BE WOOED BY THE BEAUTIFUL PHOTOGRAPHS. That’s like choosing Brad Pitt even though you know he’s all wrong for you. It always sounds like a good idea, but never ends well.
For New Varieties of Something You Love:
Pick varieties that are different enough from what you have to justify it (mostly to yourself since there are no garden police that I know of). Tomatoes are the best test of this theory in my garden. If I’m going to pick something new, it has be be different enough in preferably two of these three categories: Taste, Color, Shape.
But, lest I sound like Scrooge himself, if it sounds awesome, fun, unique, tasty, whatever and it tickles your fancy, GET IT AND GROW IT. Because life is too short to not try out a $3 packet of seeds. Seriously.
The only other thing I find daunting when searching for seeds is should vs. want.
I watch a lot (A LOT, I’m obsessed) of fancy British gardening and the shows are full of spectacular veg gardens full of things like Rocket and Chard. They are beautiful and I, too, think I should have these in my garden. But we don’t eat Rocket or Chard. So when I let myself be swayed by what I think I should be growing, I end up losing garden space for things that I want and love growing.
Even though we love the process, the tending and the weeding and the caring for these plants, at the end of the day (or season) it is quite a lot of work to grow your own veg. Make sure your time and efforts are put into things you love, food you salivate over, and plants that bring you joy (head, heart, and belly).
Good luck and may Mother Nature be on your side!