The Garden in Winter: Ordering Seeds

Even in January, the garden is never far from our minds.  Particularly this January, when much of Marjorie’s Garden is littered with pine branches and fallen trees.  Now two weeks into the January thaw that followed the storm, most of the ice and snow melted, the damage is too evident, the cleaning up to be done pressing too hard on my mind to ignore.  I dread discovery of damage to the smaller trees and shrubs, those we planted over the years, like the summer sweet clethras beneath the old pine at the corner of the porch steps.  During the storm, the power out, we huddled in the dark by the wood stove, flinching at the thud each time one of the old pine’s branches hit the ground in a clinking rain of ice-coated needles.  I need to get those branches off the clethras, pile them into shelter for winter birds.

We use the long January evenings to put together the vegetable and flower seed orders, a process that begins with inventory of leftovers from last year.  Old seeds of any of the alliums are tossed out, their germination rates declining substantially after the first year, but seeds of many vegetables, including legumes, brassicas, and cucurbits, remain viable for up to six years with minimal loss in viability, assuming they are kept cool and dry.  We tend to toss out any seeds that are more than two years old, unless they are hard to come by.

Having made the list of crops we want to grow during the coming season, we peruse the seed catalogs that have accumulated since December, looking for sources of our favorite varieties, placing orders online.  Our vegetable garden does not offer enough room for trying new varieties, of which there are always enough to fill the first ten pages of most catalogs, but each year I do pick one crop for variety trials, like last summer’s “cucumbers other than green” project, eight different varieties of white-skinned cukes growing in large nursery pots, the vines supported with A-frame trellises.  This year’s trial group will be Romana pole beans, the flat-pod Italian beans, another space-efficient crop.

Harvested after they drop to the ground, pineapple tomatillos make for great snacking while working in the garden.

Harvested after they drop to the ground, pineapple tomatillos make for great snacking while working in the garden.

Among the seeds of plants that we must order every year are those of pineapple tomatillo.  Not at all like the golf ball-size Toma Verde variety used in salsa, ripe pineapple tomatillos are about the size of a large blueberry and taste like pineapple.  We sow the seeds indoors at the same time we sow tomato seeds, both timed for transplanting when soil temperatures have settled into the 60s, usually early to mid-June.  We plant an entire bed to tomatillos, spacing the plants about six inches apart so that when the low-growing plants start to flower in July, we can’t see the soil beneath the canopy of leaves.  The fruits, each wrapped in a papery husk, are fully ripe only after they have dropped to the ground, their husks turned brown.  I contend that they taste sweeter if they are allowed to rest on the ground for a few days before harvest.  While they can be used for pineapple salsa, chutney, or simply tossed into salads, most of the harvested tomatillos, like blueberries, seldom make it to the kitchen.

Sweet peas growing on the vegetable garden fence

Sweet peas growing on the vegetable garden fence

Seeds of sweet peas are always on our seed orders, a tradition that goes back to our beginning when sweet peas arrived as summer gifts from Marjorie’s Garden, small vases of nodding slender-stemmed flowers, bouquets of red, pink, purple, and white.  I would set them in a sunny window of the house where I lived alone and enjoy the smell of orange blossoms and honey for days.  Now we cut sweet peas together, often at the end of a summer day when their colors glow in the garden’s last light.  For days on end, the rooms we share are filled with the scent that can only come from sweet peas.

Early edible-pod peas are always on the list, the variety Sugar Ann which requires only minimal staking.  They are the first seeds direct sown into still chilly garden soil, fresh-cut birch branches pushed into the ground between each pair of closely-spaced rows to serve as a trellis.

Spinach is a must each year, although I’ve all but given up on spring crops because the plants bolt too early, even the so-called bolt-resistant varieties.  We get three or four cuttings from a bed of late summer-sown spinach, a variety named Persius from Territorial Seeds that actually prefers growing in autumn.  But before I totally abandon spring spinach, I am waiting to see if seeds of Bloomsdale Long Standing, sown this past October in a cold frame and producing seedlings only a few inches tall before the first hard freeze, will resume growth early enough in spring to produce more than one cutting before bolting.  I was skeptical at the start, but the seedlings went through the first wave of extreme cold with the cold framed covered by a blanket of snow, and they are still green.

Seeds of Bee Plants

Along with vegetable seeds, we order seeds of our favorite bee plants, the annuals that we grow in pots scattered among the vegetables, along the edges of the garden’s beds, and along the garden fence, summer-flowering plants that ensure the pollinators will be there when we need them.  The list includes calendulas, a favorite of the small solitary bees, and cosmos, which keep the bumblebees and butterflies happy through the summer.

Grow self-sowing calendulas in the garden to attract native solitary bees.

Grow self-sowing calendulas in the garden to attract native solitary bees.

The calendulas are self-sowers, but they don’t always come up in spring where we want them, so we scatter a few seeds along the bed edges to replenish those areas.  We’ve also had success transplanting cosmos seedlings from within beds to the edges.
The cosmos go into a narrow bed along the outside of the vegetable garden deer fence, so we start them indoors early, usually in mid-March, for transplanting the first of May.  They have to be staked two weeks after planting and grow to four feet tall by summer’s end.  Perennial butterfly

Grow cosmos to attract bumblebees to the summer garden.

Grow cosmos to attract bumblebees to the summer garden.

weed, Asclepias tuberosa, also grows in this bed and two vines, the perennial sweet pea, Lathyrus latifolius, and my favorite morning glory, Heavenly Blue, climb the fence.  In all, this little bed is a mecca for pollinators all summer.

And no summer would be complete without a large terra cotta pot of Nicotiana sylvestris ‘Only the Lonely‘, a tall and wonderfully fragrant flowering tobacco, sitting all summer on the old tree stump by the perennial bed, close enough to the fire pit to smell the heady fragrance of its long tubular white flowers and watch hawk moths sip their nectar in the gloaming.  All that is missing is a recording of Roy Orbison crooning his “Only the Lonely”, playing softly nearby.

Favored Seed Sources

Ordering seeds brings all of this to mind on winter evenings, seed catalogs filled with dreams spread out on a card table in front of the wood stove.  Here is a list of our favorite seed houses:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds,
Fedco Seeds,
High Mowing Organic Seeds,
Johnny’s Selected Seeds,
Territorial Seed Co.,
The Cook’s Garden,
Renee’s Garden,

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: