After getting compost for your garden (here’s how to make good compost), the next thing that you will need for your garden is seeds. Seed selection can be trickier than you might think. By the time you’re done reading this article, you should be better prepared to choose the right ones for your food-producing garden.
1. Grow what you eat
There is an urge gardeners have to buy one of every kind of seed they can find at the seed shop. Brightly printed seed catalogs come in the mail every January to tempt us with variety. I love my seed catalogs, but your urge to buy has to be weighed against a dose of caution.
If you are growing your garden with the intent to feed your family in case of an emergency, then you’ll need to grow things that you and your family want to eat. Rhubarb and kohlrabi may be pretty plants, but if no one will eat them then they’re useless.
One way to track what you like to eat is to keep records of your grocery receipts. What do you buy regularly? Most Americans will certainly have corn, tomatoes, and some sort of bean on that list. Aim your sights at those first.
2. Are you nutritionally complete?
Taste is one major component, but you’ll also need to make sure your garden grows enough calories and nutrition for survival. The average adult needs between 2000 and 2700 calories per day to stay healthy, and most vegetables provide few calories. Conversely, calorie-rich crops do not have all the nutrients we need.
You will need both in your garden to stay healthy. Here is a list of some of each:
- Sweet potatoes
- Other root vegetables
- Corn (dent and flint)
- Wheat and other grains
- Beans and legumes
- Winter squash
- Brussel sprouts
- Chinese cabbage
- Other Brassica species
- Salad vegetables
How much of your garden should you devote to each? That depends on the size of your garden and your family, but most of your space should be devoted to calorie crops. Growing corn and grain is also a good idea because of the valuable straw that it leaves behind. That can go straight into your compost pile for next year. Root crops provide the most calories, but their upper parts are much smaller in comparison.
For the vitamin species, pick a Brassica species first. If you can grow one successfully you can grow the rest of them, and they are packed with everything good for you. If you’re in the north, choose a cold-hardy kale first. If you’re in the south, choose collards.
You can live quite a while on a diet of collard greens and a protein-rich yellow potato variety. This is the combination that Steve Solomon recommends in his book “Gardening When it Counts.” Once you have set aside space to grow what you need to eat, then you can set aside space for some crops to provide variety in your diet.
3. Choosing a seed company
We have more access to seeds than ever before, but you should choose your seed company carefully. Gardening experts have divided the country into growing zones, and some seeds grow better in certain areas. Where I live I can grow just about anything, but I can’t grow some of the tropical fruits or herbs like ginger that need a really hot zone (unless I’m willing to build a greenhouse and baby them).
Seed companies do use greenhouses, but it is easier for them to grow plants outside in the climate. That means their seeds will be used to the weather wherever they’re headquartered. By choosing a seed company that has their operation close to your geographical location, you’ll have a better chance of having your seeds survive in your climate. Try a Google search of “seed company in
4. Hybrid vs. Heirloom vs. Open Pollination
If your eventual plan is to grow all your own food, then you’ll need to delve into the mysteries of seed saving. Entire books have been written on that topic, but one part of it I’ll address here. Just like people, plants mix their traits with one another when they breed. In order to get a consistent plant year after year, gardeners use different techniques when developing seeds:
This is the natural way of doing things. Open-pollinated plants are genetically diverse and will adapt to your local climate over time. However, if you grow plants of similar species close enough to each other, they can crossbreed into a variety with undesirable traits. Remember that list of Brassica species? Most of them will crossbreed with one another.
Certain plant varieties are so desired that gardeners have taken special care to make sure those types stay the same. Heirloom plants are open-pollinated plants that are protected from unintentional cross-breeding. Some companies, like Seed Savers Exchange, even have documented breeding histories.
Most plants are going to be hybrids. These are species that are crossed by human intervention between two different species or varieties. These crosses focus on improving particular traits, like the size of a tomato. They grow great, but the seeds they make can be pretty bad. They may not even be viable at all. Hybrid gardeners thus have to buy new seed every year from the companies that have the original parent plants.
For long-term survival, the choice is clear. Go with open pollinated or heirloom seeds and pick up a good book on seed saving (such as Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth). If you follow these four tips in your seed selection, you’ll have the best chances of growing something that will nourish your family and can be saved from year to year.