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Reading Seed Catalogs

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reading seed catalogs



If your mailbox is anything like mine, it's full of gardening catalogs this month. It seems as if every day another tempting, colorful catalog arrives to inspire dreams of spring.  Catalogs offer nearly unlimited choices among the many organic and non-GMO varieties of flower, vegetable and herb seeds.  As you peruse the pages, however, some of the graphics, terms, and abbreviations placed next to the plant descriptions may puzzle you.  Here's how to read a seed catalog (or website) and order with confidence.


Terms: Heirloom, Organic, Non-GMO

Organic gardeners must ensure that the seeds ordered are organic and non-GMO (genetically modified). Heirloom seeds should be non-GMO, but may or may not be organic.

Heirloom refers to seeds that are from plant varieties approximately 50 or so years old or older.  There's really no hard and fast rule of age to determine whether or not a plant variety is considered 'heirloom', but generally, the seed have been passed along without hybridization for about 50 years.  Such plants offer natural hardiness and resistance to many diseases and blights. Many heirloom vegetables such as the "Brandywine" tomato are considered tastier and juicier than their contemporary counterparts, too.

Organic seeds are harvested from plants that have been raised using organic gardening methods. Most, if not all, are non-GMO, but double check if that's of concern to you.

Genetically modified (GMO) seeds are more prevalent in commercial agriculture than in home gardening catalogs but they're creeping in everywhere. Some are genetically modified using genes from other plants, but others are problematic to those living the raw food lifestyle, such as plants with fish or other non-plant genes spliced in.  Scientists do this to confer additional insect and disease resistance to plants, but the resulting genetics do not conform to anything found in the natural world. There are hints that by eating such plants, we're inadvertently harming such important species as the bacteria lining the human intestinal tract – the good bacteria responsible for keeping bad bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms in check (see the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation Journal, Summer 2009, for a thorough discussion with citations on this topic.)

When seed shopping, seek organic seeds. Heirloom seeds are a bonus and offer interesting possibilities. Avoid GMO seeds.


Light and Zone

Two other icons appear next to seed listing. A small picture of a sun showing the center circle clear, half-black and half clear, or entirely black placed next to the plant variety indicates how much light the plant requires.  An open (clear) circle means that the plant needs full sun, defined as six or more hours of bright, direct sunshine each day. If the circle is half-black and half clear, the plant requires three or more hours of direct sunlight per day.  An entirely black circle means that the plant likes shady. Nearly all fruits, vegetables and herbs require full sun.  You can get away with green beans, lettuce and a few herbs such as oregano in partial shade, but none like shade. 

Lastly, look at the hardiness zone or gardening zone. It's a range of numbers that indicates whether the plant is suitable for your area.  The Arbor Day Society offers a free interactive box on their website where you can type in your zip code and the website provides you with the number corresponding to your hardiness zone.  The USDA developed hardiness or growing zones for gardeners to use as general guidelines of what and when to plant.  The lower the number, the colder the climate.  The higher the number, the milder and warmer the climate.  Hardiness zones should be used as general guidelines. Once you begin gardening regularly, you'll understand your own particular location better and can choose plants accordingly.  The USDA hardiness zone lists my garden as a 7B, but because my farm is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it tends to be slightly cooler than the map indicates. Cold air pools at the base of hills and mountains, and not only is the overall terrain lower here at the foothills of the mountains, but my farm is at the bottom of a 'holler' or small depression in the landscape, with a creek at the bottom of a hill.  Cold air flowers from high points down hillsides to pool at the lowest point, which means that the area in certain points in my garden is a few degrees cooler than in other points.  Now that's not something you really need to worry about when you're starting a garden, but as you grow various plants, let the garden teach you what to grow and what not to grow.  I know, for example, that root crops thrive in my garden, with bumper crops of sweet potatoes, carrots and garlic a plus, but the cucumber beetles are so voracious that I can't get one single organic squash or zucchini from my garden.  There are just too many and they're too hungry.  Let your garden teach you what to grow.  If you listen carefully, the message will be clear!




About the Author

Jeanne Grunert is a writer and marketing consultant who moved from New York City to a 17-acre organic farm in rural Virginia. She writes about gardening, health and raw foods for many publications, and her gardening book, Get Your Hands Dirty – A Beginner's Guide to Gardening, is available from her website, http://sevenoaksconsulting.com/GetYourHandsDirty.aspx

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These statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration.  The preceding information and/or products are for educational purposes only and are not meant to diagnose, prescribe, or treat illness. Please consult your doctor before making any changes or before starting ANY exercise or nutritional supplement program or before using this information or any product during pregnancy or if you have a serious medical condition.


Written by:  Jeanne Grunert
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