It’s catalog time.

After the hectic rush of Christmas and the slightly more low-key New Year, this is the time I like to sit down and peruse seed catalogs to see what is being sold and glean any other insights.

As I have become more of a buy-local person, I limit myself to looking at catalogs from companies based in Maine, namely the Fedco seed cooperative in Clinton, Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester and Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater.

I enjoy seeing the new offerings in each of the catalogs, and, as a counterpoint, the seeds and other products that have been dropped.

Fedco depends mostly on small, individual farmers to provide its seed. The catalog notes that in the 20 years Nikos Kavanya has been coordinating the co-op’s seed program, 2019 was the worst for seed failures. For its Maine seed producers, the cool, damp spring combined with early fall frosts resulted in failures for at least nine lettuces and some tomatoes and peppers. At the same time, squash bugs decimated squash crops. In Idaho, one of Fedco’s bean-seed providers lost his entire crop – acres of beans grown for seed. The catalog did not blame climate change, but it’s hard not to think that the worldwide crisis is involved somehow.

Because of the challenging seed-growing season, some specific varieties of seed will be scarce or not available at all. Fortunately, plenty of good alternatives exist.

I was surprised by one other seed that Fedco dropped, but I might be the only person who cares. For at least five years, I have been planting Iona Petit Pois, which produces the smaller peas favored by the French. It has been discontinued, apparently because of slow sales. I now wish I’d saved some.

While Fedco gets its seed from small suppliers, Wood Prairie Farm in Aroostook County produces itself all the seed potatoes it sells. All are organic, and the farm carries several varieties of potatoes I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Home gardeners may want to follow the lead of organic farmers and plant cover crops, like this crimson clover. TFoxFoto/shutterstock

In the past few years, Wood Prairie has expanded beyond potatoes into seed for other vegetables and cover crops. Not only are the farm’s vegetable seeds organic, but they are non-hybrid, open-pollinated varieties, as well.

Open-pollinated seeds offer several advantages. First, if you save, then plant, seed from open-pollinated vegetables, the seeds will produce the identical vegetable that you grew the first time around. If you spend enough time and do everything right, you might never have to buy seed again. (In practice, saving vegetable seed takes a lot of time and is not always cost-efficient.)

Wood Prairie stresses that all its seed is tested to ensure that the seeds have no genetically modified components. Lucky for us, all of the Maine-based seed companies avoid genetically modified seed.

Wood Prairie’s cover crop offering is larger than I remembered, and the catalog notes that many of the most successful organic farms put more than half their seed budget into cover crop. So cover cropping is something home gardeners might consider.

Old catalogs from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Morning Sentinel archive photo/ JEFF POULAND

Johnny’s Selected Seeds is the largest and slickest of the Maine catalogs, and it understandably gives prominence to the many varieties it breeds itself – including three new varieties for this coming year.

The one that grabbed my interest is the Starry Night PMR acorn squash, and not just because I am awed by the Van Gogh painting of that name. It has a pixelated color pattern, from which it gets its name, and, says the catalog, extra flavor and a longer shelf life. PMR, by the way, stands for powdery-mildew resistant.

The Citrine, a crack-resistant orange cherry tomato, also should do well, mostly because Sun Gold, the most popular orange cherry tomato on the market, is delicious but tends to crack as the season progresses. The Citrine sounds like a great improvement.

One idea I like, on the inside back cover, is a page of recommendations for proven performers from last year’s new releases. Yes, the new releases are always exciting. But this page shows the ones that succeeded in the field.

Another note: Last year, Johnny’s did not sell Sugar Snap pea seeds because the seed had been producing a lot of off-types. They’ve been working with the son of the original breeder to re-introduce the original Sugar Snap pea. It is offered this year solely by Johnny’s.

Pinetree Garden Seeds has expanded its organic seed selection and put them right up front, in the first four pages of the catalog, as well including them scattered within the catalog. Home gardeners who like Pinetree’s smaller packets and want to go organic may find the layout helpful.

In announcing the change, the family-owned company asked catalog readers what other changes customers would like – small companies can often make such changes quickly.

So take your time, stay warm and browse the catalogs. The actual time to plant is still many weeks away.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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