Selecting Seeds and Varieties for Direct Sowing at Home

In last month's blog post, Sourcing Your Own Organic Vegetable Seeds we discussed where and how to acquire organic vegetable seeds that can be planted in your garden at home.  This week we are going to talk about how to pick the right vegetables and varieties for "direct sowing" or planting outdoors directly into your garden.

Direct sowing is one of my absolute favorite garden activities.  Not only do we get to participate in a totally miraculous and unbelievable process, growing vegetables from seeds also has many benefits that can lead to healthier, happier, and more productive plants.

In this blog post we will: outline which vegetables grow best from seeds (rather than from nursery starts), demystify the often complicated language of seed packets, and finally, we will discuss how to evaluate if different varieties are appropriate for your garden!

Deciding Which Vegetables to Grow From Seeds

Its not surprising that many home gardeners forgo seeds altogether in favor of buying and planting vegetable starts purchased from local nurseries.  Growing a vegetable from a tiny seed is no small feat.  It can feel like nothing short of a miracle sometimes.  Getting seeds to germinate is the first challenge, and once they germinate, baby seedlings are delicate, needy, and extremely vulnerable.  Nursery starts enter the garden with clear advantages over tiny seedlings. 

So with all these challenges why grow from seeds at all?...

While many vegetables grow well when "transplanted" or grown from starts, some vegetables do not.  Root vegetables are highly intolerant of being transplanted, and should always be grown from seeds!  The single taproots that characterize most root vegetables are very delicate.  While vegetables with more fibrous or branched root systems have many pathways by which to get their nutrients, taproots have only one!  When taprooted vegetables are transplanted, they often suffer overwhelming trauma to their roots that result in stunted growth and poor plant health!

 Root Vegetables like carrots, have very delicate taproots that are traumatized and damaged when transplanted.  For this reason, root vegetables are  much  happier being grown from seeds.

Root Vegetables like carrots, have very delicate taproots that are traumatized and damaged when transplanted.  For this reason, root vegetables are much happier being grown from seeds.

When any plant (root vegetable or not) is grown as a seedling in a container and transplanted into a new environment it inevitably suffers from "transplant shock" as its delicate roots are disturbed.  Even though growing vegetables from seeds has its challenges early on, I believe that well tended veggies grown from seed are stronger, healthier, and more resilient than veggies grown from starts.

The other significant advantage to growing vegetables from seeds is that you get to choose which varieties you plant in your garden!  When you purchase vegetable starts you are constrained by the selection available at local nurseries.  Don't get me wrong, Portland has exceptional diversity and selection when it comes to vegetable starts.  Nonetheless, the abundance and diversity encountered in the quest for seeds is hard to beat!

To simplify the question of what to grow from seed in your garden, I created a little chart which I offer to you now! 

Should I Grow from Seeds or from Starts???

Understanding Seed Catalogs and Seed Packets

Choosing seeds can be an overwhelming process.  Seed catalogs and seed packets present a dizzying range of information.  Before you can make informed decisions and pick your seeds, it is important to understand the information available to you.  Here is a small glossary of terms you may encounter in your seed quest.

Days to Maturity (DTM): Estimated number of days required from planting to reach harvestable size.  ***Note: This number is extremely variable depending on climate, temperature, weather, season, and other conditions.  Take it with a grain of salt***

Germination rate or %: Percentage of seeds in a batch that germinated under controlled conditions.  If germination rate is low, consider oversowing.

 Seed packets provide a lot of information that can be overwhelming if you aren't familiar with some terminology!

Seed packets provide a lot of information that can be overwhelming if you aren't familiar with some terminology!

F1: Indicates that the seed is a hybrid.

OP: Indicates that the seed is open pollinated, meaning that seeds can be saved and replanted

Date: The date that the seed was harvested and stored.  Most seeds will remain viable for 2-3 years though some will only last 1 year while others can last for many depending on how they are stored.  For more information on seed viability check out this great chart from High Mowing Seeds

Seed Depth: How deep the seed should be planted for best germination

Seed Spacing: How far apart seeds should be spaced from each other within a row

Row Spacing: How far apart rows of a given vegetable should be from each other for optimum growth

Choosing Your Seed Varieties

Once you understand how to read seed packets and seed catalogs you are ready to choose the seeds for your garden!  The criteria you use in picking your seeds is very personal and unique for every garden and gardener. 

You might be choosing seeds solely based on flavor as it is described in a seed catalog.  If you are in a partial shade situation, or early in the season you might look for varieties that are quick to mature, or if you have had problems with fungal disease on your summer squash, you might look for varieties that are resistant to powdery mildew. 

...You get the idea.  This is the fun part!  Even after all my years of farming and gardening, I am still trying new varieties, and I do so with the same giddy excitement as from the beginning.  So don't get overwhelmed by all the information.  Just dive in and get some seeds!

Nonetheless, here are three basic guidelines to follow in choosing your seeds:

1. Be practical:  If you have adverse growing conditions, whether soil, climate, sun exposure, or pests and disease, look for varieties that will stand a chance in your garden.

2. Be Adventurous:  I know this sounds contradictory.  But growing a diversity of varieties even for the same vegetable will increase your chance for success and for learning.  Don't be scared to try something different.

3. Be Proactive:  Some of the best varieties are very popular and in limited supply, so use the winter time to do your homework and order your seeds early!  Or you may miss the boat on some of the best varieties.

Now you have everything you need to select and acquire your own seeds for direct sowing in your garden! And its already February, which means its time to put those very first sugar snap peas in the ground!!! Waste no time, for Spring is right around the corner.  In the meantime, keep your eyes out for a special blog post in which we share some of our very favorite varieties for home production.

- Ian Wilson

Owner and Founder, Portland Edible Gardens, LLC