Starting plants from seed is one of the most rewarding experiences I can think of. After many years of gardening, I still get excited when I see life spring out of a tiny, seemingly inert thing that I had placed in the soil and watered. It’s certainly the most economical way to grow your veggies, but even after I win the lottery, I’ll still enjoy planting seeds for the way it feels.
It used to be more common for homesteaders to collect printed seed catalogs that piled up alongside holiday greeting cards every fall and winter as we made plans for next year’s gardens. The catalogs and greeting cards are mostly online these days, and planning is often done on a computer or smartphone, but this is still a great time of year to reflect on what worked and what didn’t in last year’s garden, and to start thinking about what to try the next time around.
Browsing through a seed catalog, whether it’s online or on paper, is a fantastic way to jump-start your imagination, but it’s easy to get intimidated by the bombardment of options if you’re new to gardening or growing from seed. Between the countless catalogs and thousands of varieties, the number of choices can seem overwhelming. Thankfully, narrowing them down gets easier as you learn some of the terminology and browse with your gardening goals in mind. Reputable seed companies clearly post their standards and practices on their websites and in their catalogs; look for this page before you go any further to make sure that their seeds are produced to your standards.
One thing to remember is that most seed catalogs weren’t written with Baja Arizona’s growing conditions in mind. If you want to make things easier for yourself, start your seed-sourcing close to home. Check with local nurseries and seed companies for varieties that are known to be great performers in our region. We’re lucky to have some excellent resources when it comes to buying seed locally.
One of these resources is Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit seed conservation organization located in Tucson. Native Seeds/SEARCH has been working to preserve the agrobiodiversity of arid crops since 1983, and many of their selections have stood the test of time here in the Sonoran Desert. These enduring crops have been grown in Baja Arizona and similar environments for generations, so it’s hard to go wrong when ordering from a Native Seeds/SEARCH catalog. You’ll grow something distinct and delicious and, if you save some seeds, you could also help to save and spread the genes of arid-adapted crops that might play an important role during the dry conditions that have been forecast for our future.
There are other fantastic seed companies in Baja Arizona that carry well-known varieties for our area, and local nurseries do a great job of stocking only the best performing varieties from trusted suppliers. Ask your gardening friends where they get their seeds, and you’re likely to get different answers from each of them. We all have our favorite sources, and most of us have more than one.
Of course, not all of our favorites are local; there are plenty of notable and trustworthy nonlocal seed companies who sell all kinds of things that we can grow here. Regardless of what the catalog or seed packet says, if the seeds came from a nonlocal source, you’ll want to refer to your local county extension for information on heat and sun tolerance, suggested planting dates, harvest dates, and watering requirements. Our growing seasons are likely to be quite different than those of the package or catalog’s intended audience.
When regionally specific information is unavailable, try to choose varieties that mature quickly, also called early ripening. Our optimal growing seasons are relatively short, especially in the low desert, so the faster our gardens can produce results, the better.
With tomatoes, for example, gardeners in the arid Southwest often have an easier time with smaller varieties that ripen more quickly, sometimes producing several harvests before colder weather sets in. Unless you start seed indoors or in a greenhouse, some of the larger, slower varieties may not have enough time to produce much fruit before the weather turns, and there are more opportunities for things to go wrong while you wait for them to do so.
Resistance to pests and diseases is a good attribute for your seeds to have, as well as drought and heat tolerance. This type of information can often be found in the written description of the variety. Many catalogs rely on pictorial, alphabetical, or numerical codes that follow the written description to communicate suitable growing regions, resistances, and other important details about their selections. This makes it quick and easy to identify which varieties will work for you, but you may need to refer to the catalog’s glossary or key the first few times you use it.
While you’re browsing through selections, you may notice that many of the varieties boasting the best resistance or largest crops are hybrids (sometimes identified as “F1 hybrid,” or “F1”). This isn’t a coincidence; hybrids are “superplants.” Simply put, hybrid seeds are the results of precise crosses between two parent species or varieties. This deliberate combination of genes provides hybrids with desirable attributes from each parent, but you’ll have to buy more seed if you want to grow that same variety again. Hybrid plants can produce viable seed, and gardeners who love to experiment will collect and plant them, but the seedlings aren’t likely to ever possess the same qualities that you admired in the parent.
Collecting seeds from your own garden is the least expensive way to keep it going from year to year. If you want to collect your own seed, but also want to know exactly what type of plant you’ll be growing, look for seeds marked as open-pollinated (sometimes marked “OP”) or heirloom. To be open-pollinated means that the parent plant was pollinated by insect, wind, mammal, or other natural means. Heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down for a number of generations. Most sources define an heirloom as a variety that has been in circulation for at least 50 years.
Seeds collected from heirloom or OP varieties will grow into plants very much like the parent with only slight variations, as long as the parent wasn’t cross-pollinated with another variety or species. Beans, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes are the easiest veggies to keep from cross-pollinating; they all pollinate themselves. Other plants will need to be separated by distance or time to keep the varieties pure.
If you enjoy collecting and sharing seeds from your garden, you might also look into local garden clubs to see if and when they have seed exchange events. Many libraries, including the Pima County Public Library, now offer a seed exchange program, too. You can check out seeds with your library card, and bring some seeds back to the library after you’ve harvested. Keep in mind that homesteaders aren’t always as careful as seed companies to prevent cross-pollination and mixing of seed stock. You may end up with something unexpected from time to time, but that’s all part of the adventure! One of the wonderful things about a garden is that it’s never finished; it’s always a work in progress, and there are always different seeds to try next time.
When I called the Native Seeds/SEARCH retail store to ask what they’re excited about growing this winter, Melissa Barrow was enthusiastic about this honorary native chard that they’ve recently added to their selection. Jesus Garcia’s family grew this acelgas for generations in Magdalena, Mexico, and he was kind enough to donate some seeds to NS/S. It was planted at the Mission Garden in Tucson as part of their Father Kino-inspired traditional winter garden in 2012, and now the seeds of this Sonoran chard are available to everyone through the NS/S store or online catalog. Barrow and the rest of the team at NS/S are looking forward to hearing what chard lovers think of this new-to-us heirloom variety.
Planting recommendations: Transplanting can be difficult, so direct sow in the garden or into a planter. Like most of our leafy greens, Magdalena acelgas is a cool season crop that appreciates good compost. The stems are shorter than what we’re used to, and they’re not as colorful as the ever-popular rainbow chard, but it keeps producing through the winter and summer if you provide a little bit of afternoon shade when the heat is on. ✜
Amy Belk is a garden writer and photographer, a certified arborist, and a certified nursery professional who has been learning from her garden for 15 years. She and her husband homestead on a little piece of the desert in the heart of Tucson.