How to Decode a Seed Catalog

 
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Reading seed catalogues just isn't what it used to be.  Seems like every year, a few more cryptic terms, abbreviations, and secret codes creep into to seed sellers' description of something as simple as a cucumber.  Here are  translations from my latest crop of seed catalogues, and what they mean to you.

Let me say up front - concrete and clear definitions can be very hard to find.  Consider double-digging into your seed seller's web site for more information.



Heirloom
IMHO "Heirloom" is the most misused, misunderstood term in gardening.  There is no legal (or even universally accepted) definition of an 'Heirloom' plant variety.  I remember when,  "Heirloom" referred to any plant variety that had been on the market for a long period ( usually at least 40-50 years) of time.  But this definition has morphed.  In most seed catalogs today,  "Heirloom" and "Open Pollinated" mean the same thing. 

Open Pollinated
 
An Open Pollinated plant variety is pollinated as a result of a natural process such as honeybees, wind, motion,  and humans imitating nature (think hand-pollinating a small backyard plot of corn).  Seeds saved from an open pollinated plant WILL "breed true", producing offspring (and fruits/vegetables) similar to parents.

Hybrid
 "An F1 hybrid (or filial 1 hybrid) is the first filial generation of offspring of distinctly different parental types" (Wikipedia). Seed catalogs often designate hybrid varieties as "F1" (Filial), "F1 Hybrid", or  simply "Hybrid".  Plant breeders develop a hybrid variety in order to achieve certain commercially valuable characteristics such as disease resistance, transportability, color, etc.  Seeds saved from Hybrid varieties WILL NOT "breed true".  For example, a seed saved and planted from a hybrid tomato will produce unpredictable/unreliable results. Under the Federal Seed Act, seed package labeling must clearly indicate if the contents are "Hybrid". 

GMO - Genetically Modified Organism

Using biotechnologies,  scientists can create a  GMO plant variety by transferring selected genes from one organism to a target organism. These organisms are not necessarily similar. The resulting GMO variety will have characteristics  of the combined genetic material. A recent example is the "Roundup Ready" gene developed my Monsanto for their soybeans.  Because of the introduced genetic material, a Roundup Ready soybean is not affected by Roundup Weed Killer.

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NOP  or OG (Organic) Seed Coating
 
Some sellers offer seeds with coating.  This coating helps gardeners when planting very tiny seeds like lettuce and carrots.  National Organic Program (NOP) compliant coating is clay based and is certified organic.

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PVP - Plant Variety Protected
 
PVP is a complicated and controversial subject.  Under the Plant Variety Protection Act a plant breeder may "protect" plant varieties meeting four important criteria.  The saved seeds from a PVP certified variety may not be used/sold/resold for commercial purposes.  Seeds may be saved for personal use only.  Reimer's Seeds Lumina Pumpkin is a PVP example. 

Utility Patent
Plant breeders may obtain a utility patent on a plant variety based on certain criteria.  This is similar to a device or process patent.  For these varieties, seeds may not be saved under any circumstances - not even for non-commercial,  personal use.  An example of a Utility Patent is Johnny's Selected Seeds "SalaNova" lettuce collection.

HR, IR, Disease Resistant Codes, and Genes
In some cases, a plant name will be followed by an alphabet soup of mystery letters.  This is usually:  A) a list of resistant diseases; or B).  certain beneficial genes present in the variety.  Some catalogs simply state a plant variety is Resistant for listed diseases. Other sellers use “HR” (High Resistance) and “IR” (Intermediate Resistance) followed by disease code(s) to indicate a degree of resistance.  A tomato seed product with “HR: VFF IR: EbLb” has High Resistance to Verticillium Wilt (V) and Tomato Fusarium Wilt (FF), and Intermediate Resistance to Early Blight (Eb) and Late Blight (Lb).  To make things even more confusing, some catalogs base their disease codes on a Pathogen List published by the International Seed Federation. Other sellers use their own disease codes. So, disease codes can vary from catalog to catalog.   One last, and very important, thing to remember.  "Disease Resistant" does not guarantee Disease Immunity.

MT<number>
Mosaic Viruses can infect a large number of garden plants.  Specific virus resistant varieties are available (usually hybrids).  'MT' followed by an code indicates results of a Mosaic Virus test.  Here's an example for tested lettuce.  MT0 30 indicates 0 seeds out of 30,000 tested positive for Lettuce Mosiac Virus (LMV).  NOTE:  Buying a "Mosiac Resistant" lettuce seed, will not be effective if the crop is attacked by a non-resistant Mosaic Virus strain.

DM: <Downy Mildew races if known>
 'DM' indicates Downy Mildew resistance.  Races are specific forms of the mildew spores.  DM: EU 23 - 27 indicates Downy Mildew resistance for Races 23,24,25,26,27 of Eustoma.  Keep in mind, Powdery Mildew and Downy Mildew are different conditions.

The Federal Seed Act
The labeling of vegetable seeds is regulated by the Federal Seed Act as well as a host of individual state regulations.  "The FSA requires that seed shipped in interstate commerce be labeled with information that allows seed buyers to make informed choices."  This includes specific notation on the seed package label as well as record keeping requirements for the seller.  See the FSA site for details. 

No doubt about it - seed buying for humble backyard gardeners is becoming more complicated. If we want to know what we are buying, we’ll have to keep up with seed catalog jargon. I’m pretty certain, these annual translations will only get harder as years pass.

Indeterminate vs Determinate Tomatoes. So Why is this a Queston?

 

 

Determinate -  Produce one crop of tomatoes per season, then die.

Indeterminate - Produce tomatoes (in theory) all season until killed by frost.

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The normal reasons for planting (and not planting) determinate tomato varieties are easy to find. Determinate varieties tend to grow smaller, and so are better for containers and small spaces.  This also means less trellising and smaller cages.  These varieties are predictable, producing one big harvest per season (about 45 days after setting out).   

 

Then there are the determinate detractors.  Tomato purists (some of my best gardening friends) insist determinate varieties simply aren’t as tasty as their indeterminate cousins.  Reasons given range from sensible to strange.  Fewer leaves (sensible) means less nutrients are delivered to the fruit.  All determinate varieties are F1 hybrids (strange), and so could not possibly taste as good as open pollinated/heirloom varieties.  Personally, I have never found a fresh-off-the-vine determinate tomato anything but totally scrumptious.

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So much for a quick-and-dirty pros and cons review.  You can find lots more for-and-against arguments with minimal Googling.  I grow determinate tomato varieties for the usual reasons, and then some:

A).  The Summer Salsa Payload
A large crop of tomatoes ripening at about the same time means only one thing at my house -  homemade salsa Valhalla .  If only someone would develop a deterministic jalapeño.

B).  Dog Days
I live in north central Texas.  Yesterday (June 2) the high temperature was 100F degrees with an official heat index of 111F.  Things will only get worse.  Tomatoes will not produce fruit at temps higher than about 95F.  So even though indeterminate varieties theoretically produce fruit all year, in my neck of the woods, blossoms get cooked off the vine from late June to September and I am way too lazy to build a shade canopy.  If the plants make it through the summer, I find the vines are usually too stunted to produce much of a fall crop.

C).  Chemicals
I strive to stay as chemical free as possible.  Unfortunately Blight can be a big problem for small gardens - especially if the tomato plants are spaced too close for adequate air flow.  With a good determinate variety, I can usually get a decent crop before the Blight outruns my ability to cut off infected leaves.


Bottom Line -
Determinate/Indeterminate should never be an either-or choice.  I would never abandon my favorite indeterminate varieties.  Instead, my tomato strategy will be to mix the two types.  So, consider planting a few determinate plants for all the usual reasons.  But don’t stop there.  Determinate varieties provide you all the salsa you need for football season as well as buy you a little time in the race against heat, blight, and who-knows-what.

Afternotes
The determinate variety shown in the photograph is BHN1021 from Johnny’s Selected Seed.  Indeterminate varieties shown are Damsel and Jasper, also from Johnny's.  All plants were started indoors from seed in February.

Soil Test Report

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Reached in my mailbox and there it was (FINALLY) – soil test results for our new garden at The Orchards.  IMHO the report looks pretty good, especially to those of us used to fighting the black clay goo in Dallas.  My eyes went right to ‘Textural Class:  Sandy Loam”, and I said a little Thank-You-Prayer.

I see two very small concerns.  One is the pH of 7.6 – not quite acid enough.  Although this is a smidgen off for growing veggies, it shouldn’t cause concern.  As you can see, we are also a little short on nitrogen.  Adding compost to boost the nitrogen will slowly bring down the pH.  If 7.6 really bugs you, sprinkle in some sulfur.

Number two is the salinity test.  Too salty.  I guess this goes along with the story of cowboys who worked around the Brazos.  It is said each one carried a salt shaker so when they traveled on a long cattle drive they could always salt their water so it tasted like home.  ‘Conductivity’ is the key value here.  Values 0.00 to 0.75 is considered ‘Safe’ with anything over 3.0 pegged as unsafe.  Considering all the bio-diversity we have around us,  I’m pretty sure our veggies will be OK.

 

Brim Seeds

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Here’s a hidden Texas treasure – Brim Seed Company down by Waco.  We first met these fine folks a few years back at Dallas’ Fair Park during an Earth Day celebration.  I bought a pack of their Southern Zipper Peas on the spot.
 

No, they are not one of the Big Guys.  They don’t have a big fat catalogue stuffed with glossies and marketing propaganda.  Brim’s garden seed offering is solid and well rounded.  And I really like their Southern Acclimated line of seed.  These are seeds taken from plants, regionally adapted to our southern climate (think ferocious Texas summer).  Those Southern Zipper Peas I bought make a great summer crop.  And of course, they offer several varieties of Southern Acclimated Black Eyed Peas (not always easy to find).    That’s good for us because just about the only thing I’ve found that will live and produce in the middle of a Texas summer is Okra, Jalapenos, and Blackeyed peas.

Brim Seeds is part of Homestead Heritage; a Christian based community of farmers and craftsmen.   Visit the Village and see weavers, ferries, potters, and woodworkers.   Don’t miss this their mill – especially when they are handing out free cookie samples.

The Right Light

In 2015 EYE Hortilux began manufacturing a 48 inch full spectrum fluorescent bulb specifically designed for indoor growing. These bulbs - the PowerVeg series - would deliver a a Full and Ultra Violet Spectrum (UVA and UVB) closely approximating sunlight. For last year's seed starting, I used two PowerVeg FS-UV (full spectrum, ultra violet) 48 inch bulbs in the outside slots of a four bulb lamp. I used two ‘grow light bulbs' from another company in the two inside slots. I was very surprised at the results - strong plants with good color that transplanted well into the garden.

This year EYE Hortilux expanded their PowerVeg series. They still sell the FS-UV bulbs, but their new bulbs let you build a customized visible light spectrum for your plants. Why? Good old fashioned sunlight is made up of different light spectrums. Each of these spectrums - think colors - has different effects on plants. More blue light encourages the growth of more foliage. Red light can trigger plants to bloom. Some plants respond to UV spectrum by producing more oils and germinating faster. Each of these new PowerVeg bulbs, produce selected wavelengths of the ‘sunlight spectrum’, so you can give you more control over the light colors reaching your seedlings. You can see the full line of PwerVeg bulbs HERE. along with some suggested bulb combinations.

PowerVeg Bulb Arrangement
(note cap color)

 

Like many home gardeners, I start certain veggie seeds indoors so I can move my transplants outside as early as possible. I want lots of leaves, but I don’t want my seedlings to put on blooms indoors. So this year I’ve changed my grow light configuration. I still use a 48 inch, four bulb, lamp. My two PowerVeg FS-UV bulbs are still in the outside slots, but I’ve put a PowerVeg Blue and a Violet bulb into the inside slots. This produces more blue (and a little more yellow) light. So far (two weeks after planting) I am super impressed with the results - especially with peppers and tomatoes.

Notes

  1. PowerVeg bulbs are T5s. This refers to bulb size - about the diameter of a dime. If you already have a fluorescent lamp, be sure these bulbs will fit.
  2. The dangers of UV Light to humans are well known. If you use four FS-UV bulbs, be sure to limit exposure to your skin.
  3. Buying these bulbs online is iffy. Some online vendors have lousy packing (you end up with broken bulbs) and/or send the wrong product. I would strongly recommend Flora Hydroponics. These folks do a great job packing a very fragile product, and they mail orders out quickly.
  4. No doubt about it, these bulbs are pricey - around $33.00 each. Through the years I've used cheaper grow-lights and raised OK veggie starts. I've just never ended up with seedlings this healthy this fast.
  5. Plants' use of light is a complex science. Different plants use different light spectrums in different ways. It pays to research your specific goals before configuring you grow light setup.
  6. Optimal grow-light height above seedlings is ten to twelve inches.

MIY (Mix It Yourself) My Seed Starting Mix

Starting your veggie seeds indoors? Here’s my recipe for a cheap-and-easy seed starting mix. Three things you should know. Number One. This mix gives the seedlings enough nutrients so you only have to transplant them once - into the garden. No additional fertilizer is needed. This reduces the chance of damaging tender roots. Number Two. The mix is fluffy and won’t form a surface crust. Seedlings can easily break on through to the other side. Number Three. Perlite and Vermiculite deliver a good balance of water drainage and retention.

I’ve used this recipe for a long time (admittedly with tweaks here and there over the years) and have always had good results.

The Mix
8 Cups Sifted Compost
4 Cups Sifted Peat
2 Cups Earthworm Casings
2 Cups Perlite
2 Cups Vermiculite
2 Tablespoons Azomite (provides trace minerals)

Notes.

  1. This mix is based on a recipe first published by Organic Gardening Magazine, though I can’t remember when.
  2. Always buy the highest quality peat you can.
  3. You can make a your own soil sifter out of hardware cloth (just Google), although I bought mine online here.
  4. If you can’t easily find Azomite or earthworm casings try Amazon.
  5. When you’re ready to plant: fill your containrs; pack down lightly; then soak with water. Drain well. You want the mix to be moist, but not soggy. Plant your seeds and cover lightly with dry mix. Spritz. Sit back and wait for the miracle to happen.

Three Bugs

 Leaf Footed Plant Bug
Many varieties ranging from dark brown to black.  Sometimes called stink bugs because of the foul odor produced when handled.  Kin (and often mistaken) to squash bug.  Some species partial to citrus fruit.  Cause chlorosis in leaves.  Will puncture a tomato, then inject a toxin causing the fruit to appear to be rotting from the inside out.  Difficult to control organically. Aggie-Horticulture recommends commercial sprays containing permethrin, cyfluthrin or esfenvalerate.

I found these three bugs in my garden.

 

Four Lined Plant Bug Attacks leaf crops and is especially a problem for herbs.  Mints are a favorite food.  Dark spots, often mistaken as fungus,  appear on leaves where bug has been feeding.  Leaves may eventually die.  Usually the bug disappears when hot weather arrives.  Only one generation per year.  Eggs can overwinter in perennial plant stems.  Control organically with insecticidal soaps.

 

Aphids
Extremely prolific, aphids are one of the gardens most serious threats.  Over 200 species are known.  Eggs laid in fall hatch in spring. Single aphids are tiny, but feed in mass sucking plant sap.  They target stressed plants as healthy plants have a natural immunity.  A new generation of aphids can appear every two weeks or less in warm weather.  Aphids will eventually kill a host plant by destroying leaves thus preventing photosynthesis.   Look for aphids on the underside of leaves.  Effective organic controls include strong blasts of water and oil based plant sprays.  Ladybugs are aphids' natural predator.      

Planning Your Garden with a Storyboard

For me, planning my next-year’s small garden is small agony. No sunshine.  No digging.  No planting.  No picking.  But I know I want to produce as much food as possible in the space I have, so planning (however distasteful) must be endured.  The planning end game is all about maximizing both space AND time. Here’s what I mean…

I live five miles from downtown Dallas, Texas.  I have gardened in this area for over 20 years.  In my backyard I have 422 square feet in raised beds.

From early spring to late fall we have three growing seasons:  1) early spring to early summer; 2) dog days of 95 plus degree days when eggs fry on the concrete; and 3) early fall to early winter.  Furthermore, I know that in the Dog Days only a few crops will produce something edible (okra, black-eyed peas, certain peppers, heat tolerant tomatoes, maybe some egg plant if I’m lucky).  So, if I am going to maximize my space and deal with the fierce Texas summer, I’ll need to know what crops to plant where, and when to plant them through the season.    

Simply making a sketch of my beds and jotting down where my plants will go, won’t do. I need to show how things will look as the weeks pass.  I’ve borrowed/stolen a technique from film production called Storyboarding. The idea is simple enough.  Make a series of sketches showing how a story - in this case my garden - progresses over time (the North Texas growing seasons.

Check out the Storyboard for my upcoming 2016 garden and you’ll see what I mean.

 

Here are the highpoints.

A.  Each sketch shows the layout of my beds for each date shown.
B.  Numbers with each crop are ‘Days to Maturity’.  So on January 3, I will plant onion sets.  These will mature in about 110 days. 
C.  Planting dates are based on the “Vegetable Planting Guide for North Texas”  published by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.
D.  The ‘Days to Maturity’ numbers for each planted crop are updated with each subsequent garden bed layout.  On March 19th, my onion sets still have 35 days to go.
E.  Green colored ink is used on the day the crop is planted.  I’ll plant beets, spinach, and a small bed of mesclun on February 6.  On April 16, I’ll replace Sugar Snap Peas with Pole Beans, and Beets with dwarf Okra.
F.  Storyboard planning also helps you determine the best time to start your seeds indoors.

Now for the caveats.  As we all know, Mother Nature rarely follows yearly averages calculated by humans and their computers,  or information written on seed packets.   I recommend you do one Storyboard first that goes through one planting only.  Anything longer just leads to frustration.  Once you see how the vagaries of nature are treating you, you can make updates and Storyboard your next planting cycle.  Happy Planning.