Small Space Gardening: Learning How To Read Seed Catalogs And Packets And The Difference Between Perennials And Annuals

Small Space Gardening is a series of garden articles for both new and experienced gardeners.

Small Space Gardening: Learning How To Read Seed Catalogs And Packets And The Difference Between Perennials And Annuals

Editor's note: Small Space Gardening by Diane Dryden is a series of garden articles that will run the entire summer with information for both new and experienced gardeners from choosing a site to harvesting the crop.

Read the 1st article in this series: Small Space Gardening: Sun Patterns And Soil Types

Now that you've checked the sun patterns in your locale and have decided on your planting site, whether in the ground or in a container or raised bed, it's time to check out the seed catalogs. Or the seed packages that are starting to show up everywhere.

If you're looking at a seed catalog, the first thing you need to check is the company's location on the back cover.

If you're just ordering vegetable seeds, the catalogs are all pretty much the same no matter where they originate. Some beans may take 67 days to maturity, some 85, but both will do well in Northern Wisconsin.

Cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, beets, etc., don't vary much across the U.S. Plants like ginger are different. These plants will be in many seed catalogs, but unless you check the small print, you won't notice that these are for zones 8-11, and they are perennial.

Speaking of which, PERRIENIALS are planted once, and they come up year after year. ANNUAL plants last for one season only. They do not come back.

I can't think of a single vegetable that's a perennial. Flowers can be, yes, but I'm pretty sure vegetables are all annuals. Let me know if I've missed something obvious.

Reputable seed catalogs will give the number of seeds in each package. When you're buying seeds in packages in a store, you can feel the package to know how many are in them. Seed packages seldom list the seed count.

I've found an amazing new seed catalog this year that I actually purchased at a big box store. Regular seed catalogs are almost always free and come in the mail. This seed catalog I bought is a full inch thick and awash of seed history and stories, as well as the most clever seeds to buy and plant.

Unable to resist the description of their seeds, I ordered lots of them. Most of the seeds came with the required number of seeds listed. Most but not all.

They offered their "Best-tasting tomato!" and I fell for the picture of what was listed as "Brad's Atomic Grape Tomato. 75 days. Large, elongated cherries in clusters. The color and flavor is a full-blown assault on the senses-lavender and purple stripes that turn to Technicolor olive/green, red, and brown/blue stripes when fully ripe. Really wild! AMAZING! Pkg. $4.50"

That's right, I have no idea how many seeds I'm getting. After that glowing company write-up, even if I only get 2 seeds, it will be worth it to me. Naturally, I'm growing regular tomatoes too, but this will be my "planter's fling" this year.

Out of curiosity, I went to Google and discovered that 20 is the number of these new tomato seeds that other growers put in their packets. I also found out that these seeds are INDETERMINANT, which means they have no height restrictions, and I should be prepared for them to grow easily to five feet tall and beyond.

DETERERMINANT tomatoes stay around three feet tall and are great to grow within commercial tomato cages in the garden or in containers. This tomato information is something else that seed catalogs and packets don't always tell you at the store, so check them out online. And make sure you read the tags well if you buy tomato plants in a store or garden center.

A fellow garden buddy comes in handy at seed time. If you're growing in a small space, which isn't a bad idea for your first garden, you're not going to use all the seeds in the package. That is unless you're planning on a one-crop-only site.

A garden buddy may be interested in extra seeds. Zucchini comes to mind. There are usually quite a few seeds in a packet. If you plant the entire package, you will have enough zucchini to open up a garden stand at the end of your driveway. These plants are heavy producers and go from a delicate 6-inch summer squash to baseball bat size seemingly overnight. They are also garden pigs taking up lots and lots of room as they wander wherever they want, running over everything in sight. Two plants are usually plenty in even a large garden unless you have a penchant for zucchini bread and cake and stir-fry, and have lots of room in your freezer.

If you over-plant, you might find yourself driving through public parking lots looking for unlocked cars to share your bounty. If you get caught, though, don't mention my name.

Most seeds left unplanted are still viable the following year, so don't despair. If you're thinking of planting year-old seeds, you can always do that experiment your second-grade teacher may have taught you. Dampen a paper towel, roll a few seeds up in it, and put it in a plastic bag. Place it somewhere warm, and after a week, unroll it to see if anything sprouted. If not, throw it away. New seeds are cheap.

I've seen resealed seed packages in the Little Free Library boxes and think it's a clever way of not wasting anything as long as they're this year's seeds.

If you're reduced to container gardening, don't be discouraged. These containers are easily double-planted with things like lettuce or spinach or herbs under-planted with tomatoes.

Potatoes can be grown in the plastic bags that once held fertilizer or dirt or pet food. Make a few drainage holes in the bottom of the bag. Fold down the top edge a few times for stability and plant a single potato (a seed potato from the grocery store) in about twelve inches of soil. As the potato plant grows, cover the plant with dirt until only the top leaves are showing. Soon it will be at the top of the bag.

When the plant dies, harvesting consists of dumping the dirt out of the bag and collecting the spuds.

Whatever you decide would make an excellent container for planting, make sure it has drainage. If you have broken pieces of those brown clay pots or broken dishes, put them over the drainage holes to keep the soil in before adding the dirt.

If you don't have the pot pieces, coffee filters do great. You don't even have to use new filters; recycled ones will do. So will the recycled coffee. It's high in nitrogen which is good for all plants, but it makes the soil lighter.

Next time we'll discuss plot planning and starting bulbs indoors.

Questions or comments? everywheregarden7@gmail.com

Last Update: Mar 19, 2022 9:38 am CDT

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