Choosing garden vegetable varieties for 2013

It’s not too early to start planning and selecting next year’s vegetable garden variety.

There are a lot of factors that will contribute to the success or failure of starting to plan next year’s garden. Seed selection is one of the most important. Before opening the early arriving catalogs to begin the search for new delights, you should conduct an inventory of existing seeds that remain from previous purchases and decide what to keep and what may be too old. If possible, try to use existing stock before investing in more seeds. Seed prices are really going up; many hybrid seeds are selling for $4 or more per packet now.

How long old seed is viable is dependent upon the type of crop, age of seed and conditions in which the seed has been stored. Onion, parsley and parsnip seed are good for only one season; corn leeks and peppers are good for two years; broccoli, spinach and celery can last up to three years; cauliflower, tomato Vegetablesand squash four years; and lettuce seed up to six years.

Ideal storage conditions are cool and dry. Longevity can be decreased if the storage conditions are unfavorable. Seeds packed in unopened, aluminum packets will last longer than seeds stored in paper packets due to their exposure to variations of humidity. If you plan to keep seeds from the current season, put them in a sealed, rodent proof container and keep them in a cool, dry place. The bottom of the refrigerator is ideal if space is available.

Most gardeners grow hybrid seed for their higher and more uniform yields, disease resistance and other factors, but as I mentioned earlier, the seed is becoming quite expensive. In some cases, a hybrid seed packet may contain only 10 to 15 seeds.

An increasing number of people are turning to older varieties, some of which are considered heritage or heirlooms. These vegetables are mostly non-hybrids (also called open pollinated), have been in the trade for up to 100 years and are widely accepted as having good to excellent flavor. The price of the seed is very reasonable. They can cost 50 percent less than many hybrids. Since they are open pollinated, meaning the pollination process is uncontrolled, the seed can be collected and saved for future use. If the plants are isolated (no other plants of the same type are nearby), seeds saved will be very similar to the parent plants. If another cultivar is near and pollen is exchanged, the resulting seeds will produce plants with greater genetic variation. Non-hybrid seeds can be a challenge to grow because they may be more susceptible to certain diseases and the resulting fruits may be less uniform, but that may not be the highest priority of a home gardener.

I often enjoy listening to people talk about the largest tomato plants they have ever grown. They brag about vines reaching 8 feet and compare them to the 3-foot plants of the previous year. With a smile on my face, I tell them that it probably wasn’t their gardening prowess, but that they grew an indeterminate tomato variety and that the previous year they had a determinate type. Determinate tomatoes grow to a certain height, usually around 3 feet, while the indeterminate vines keep growing until the frost kills them. If you don’t like staking tomatoes, grow determinate types, but be advised that many heirloom types are indeterminate.

There are literally 1,000s of vegetable varieties to choose from. What is a person to do? One good place to start is recommended varieties published by a university Extension Service. Most universities publish a list of varieties that grow well in their regions. For Michigan, Michigan State University Extension has a publication titled Home Vegetable Garden Variety Recommendations for Michigan.

Another great source is the All-America Selection award winners. These are new varieties (hybrids) and are considered to be the best of new vegetables coming onto the market. Winners for 2013 include ‘Harvest Moon’ watermelon, cherry tomato ‘Jasper’ and piel de sapo melon ‘Melemon.’ For additional information on these and past award winners, visit the All-American Selections website.

Whatever you decide to grow, always try something new in your garden, even if they are heirloom varieties that have been in the trade for many decades. Don’t forget to record the names of those that perform well and have great flavor. Keep records of your favorites; a list will be very helpful when it is time to order again. If they are heirlooms, collecting seed for future use will reduce next year’s seed bill.

Photo credit: Joy Landis, MSU IPM Program

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