When the nights are long, and the days dark and cold, gardeners seek inspiration from online and mail order seed catalogs. Looking at the colorful pictures of vegetables and flowers stimulates optimistic ideas for the spring garden. This is also a fine time of year to connect with fellow gardeners to share seed recommendations.

These friends may want to order seeds together, thereby saving on shipping and handling fees and perhaps splitting large packets of seed.

When envisioning your vegetable garden and flower beds in the season ahead, here are some tips to consider when getting your seed order together:

1. Plan your garden for the whole year

Many gardeners have reported seed shortages last year, which is an indication of the growing popularity of backyard vegetable gardening. If you wait until summer to buy seeds for fall planting, the varieties you want may not be available. You can avoid disappointment by having a yearlong garden plan and ordering seed well ahead of planting schedules.

We made a chart of all the raised beds in our garden, and then made photocopies so we could record each year what we planted and what soil amendments were added. These ‘maps’ have a history of the crop rotations so we can identify planting conditions in each vegetable garden bed. This makes it a lot easier when it comes time to order seeds because we know the rotation plan and schedule. For example, the map reminds us to avoid planting potatoes in last years’ heavily limed broccoli bed, or tells us when beds currently in cover crops will be ready to seed.

Our annual seed list always includes seed for cover crops, or ‘green manure’, which we plant between crops to condition and fertilize the soil. Cover crops occupy about ¼ of the garden space throughout the year. And don’t forget seeds for winter gardening. In milder climates some vegetables like kale, leeks, garlic and broccoli can grow all winter without protection. In early spring they ‘take off’, providing a very early and welcome spring harvest.

Vegetable seed packets

2. Evaluate what you planted last year to conserve seed money and your efforts

What did your family really enjoy or dislike? Instead of growing huge peppers, consider faster maturing small peppers so you can enjoy them sooner. Planting more beans might enable you to give pickled dill beans for Christmas presents. If the kids ignore green zucchini, grow just one plant, perhaps one with bright yellow fruit. Because we often have late wet springs, we will buy three times as much seed for spring planted crops to allow for seed loss. Instead of six different varieties of tomatoes at $3 per seed pack, we now grow just one or two each of beefsteak, cherry and paste tomatoes.

3. A full-size harvest can often be achieved with fewer seeds

The quantity of harvested produce does not always correlate with the number of plants in the ground. You may be able to save seed by growing fewer plants but giving them enriched growing conditions. For example, in years past we would plant about 8 winter squash plants which each produced about 5 squash. Last year, we planted only 4 winter squash plants, but each produced about 10 squash. The yield was the same using half the seed. By spacing plants further apart, giving them access to the same amount of nutrients as the larger planting, each plant was more productive. Because they had access to more space and nutrients, they produced more.

4. Check the viability of seeds and order larger packets of long-lived seeds

Assess your remaining seeds from last season. If you liked a variety, continue to use the seed. Because seed can last for years if properly stored, it is often economical to buy larger packets at reduced prices.

Here is a general list of seed viability for common vegetable crops:

Short-lived seeds (1 – 2 years)

  • corn
  • leeks
  • onion
  • parsnip
  • spinach

Medium-lived seeds (5 years)

  • squash
  • pumpkin
  • peas
  • eggplant
  • parsley
  • beans
  • carrots
  • celery

Long-lived seeds (over 5 years)

  • broccoli
  • lettuce
  • collards
  • cabbage
  • cauliflower
  • brussel sprouts
  • kale
  • tomato
  • radish
  • cucumber
  • melon
  • peppers
  • turnips

5. Choose seed companies in your climatic/geographic region

Regional seed companies want you to be a successful gardener and will promote plants which thrive in your climate zone. Their catalogs and websites are often brimming with cultivation information specific to your zone.

Our favorites for northern coastal regions are Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Windsor, Maine, and Territorial Seed Company in Oregon. For a more extensive list of organic seed suppliers, see our page Where to Find Organic Seeds.

6. Preserve your seed investment by labeling and proper storage

When your seeds arrive by mail, be sure to label each packet with the current date. This is very important, yet easily overlooked. Then store the packets in resealable plastic bags or airtight containers to ensure they keep dry. For extra protection you could add desiccant packs to absorb any moisture in the storage area. Store the seeds in a cool, dry, dark location (but not in the freezer), preferably in a temperature range of 40 – 50 degrees F (4 – 10 degrees C). Proper seed storage is the most important factor for reliable seed germination.

7. Maintain a garden folder to collect seed receipts and planting information

Over the years we’ve lost or wasted a lot of vegetable garden seed just by being disorganized. I now keep a garden folder where seed order duplicates are kept and garden charts, planting information and plant tags can be found. I recommend keeping a notebook journal or using garden ‘maps’ where you record when you plant, what the various conditions were, and how well your seeds did. After visits to other folks’ gardens, jot down their observations and advice. We think we can remember the garden ideas we learn from friends, but if not written down in the garden folder it is easily forgotten. Plus, someday your children might find a 30 year gardening journal useful to them!

Vegetable gardening is rewarding on so many levels, but it all begins with the seeds. Learning from past experience and shared information from friends can help you get the most value for your seed buying dollar, and help bring your mid-winter garden vision into a vibrant vegetable garden through the spring and summer months. Happy gardening!

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