The loyal reader knows January is traditionally when seed catalogs would start to arrive in the mail. Those that are still in print still do, but it seems even these now have a web presence that makes it very easy to access them whenever you want. January is also the month I concentrate on these catalogs and weblogs.
The loyal reader knows that I don't believe one is a real gardener unless he or she starts at least something from seed. While it is not an absolute necessity here due to our world-class nurseries, there are definitely more bragging rights when you do.
Again, local nurseries as well as many of the so-called box stores sprout seed racks some time in February, so it's not really necessary to actually buy seeds from catalogs. Still, browsing seed catalogs is a great way to learn and to find unusual seeds not available from racks that are limited in space.
Catalogs have their own language. It doesn't take long to realize that some seeds are from parents that were organically grown and some are open pollinated (which means they will produce fruit with seed that will grow plants just like the parent), while others are hybrid (and don't reproduce true to the parent plant). The advantages of organic should be obvious. I am a big fan of open pollinated seeds. At the end of the season, you can collect seeds of the best producers -- the best tasting, biggest or whatever makes that fruit the best. These seeds can be planted the following year. Pick the best again and eventually you are an Alaska State Fair winner.
Pay close attention to what you are buying. Is it a packet of a certain number of seeds? Or is it a specific weight? Calculate how much you are paying for seed. Some seed catalogs are pretty proud of seed that others are more than willing to sell for a lot less, so shop around.
Then there is the issue of GMO seeds. Frankly, I don't know of any seed catalogs directed at home gardeners that sell GMO seeds. Until proven otherwise, let's just say it's a great sales gimmick to announce your seeds are non-GMO, but just in case you want a particular kind of seed and the catalog is silent on this unwanted characteristic, you don't need to worry. And you can always call or email the owners of the catalog to confirm.
It is also important to know how long it will take a seed to develop its flower or fruit and if the plant requires a particular temperature to perform. No sense growing something that won't flower or fruit because it needs 75-degree days and 150 of them at that (our outdoor season is about 130 days). This information is usually listed in the description of the plant. Or you can find out what zone the plant grows in. We are zone 3, 4, 5 for the most part, depending on where you live. Higher altitudes with a shorter season should stick to seed recommended for lower numbered zones, though in the Lower 48 these numbers correspond to the low temperatures and not so much the season length.
This week, as usual for the first of these seed columns, here are some "must look at" catalogs. This is because they cater to our climate and have been good to Alaskan customers in the past. In no particular order, check out Territorial Seeds ( territorialseed.com ), Nichols Nursery ( nicholsgardennursery.com ), Johnny's Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com), Renne's Garden Seeds ( reneesgarden.com ) and Ed Hume Seeds ( humeseeds.com ). Each has seed that will grow here and can serve as textbooks if you are educating yourself about gardening.
There are many more great catalogs. Now is the time to send me your list of favorites. During the next few weeks, I will try and highlight the best of these and other catalogs that are out there. Pass your suggestions along by going to www.teamingwithmicrobes.com and using the "Ask Jeff Lowenfels" tab.
Jeff Lowenfels is co-author of "Teaming With Microbes" and author of "Teaming With Nutrients."
Jeff's Garden Calendar
> Happy New Year: Thanks for all the comments on last week's column. Pass it along to those you know with children and grandchildren. And no, I have not heard back from Lisa, Mark or Don.
> Buy a plant: Visit open local nurseries, box stores, the supermarket and florists. Buy one plant or more to help you get through the rest of the winter. Days are getting longer, but we have a long, long way to go.
> Christmas trees: Recycle at designated Carrs lots. No wires, stands, ornaments or plastic bags.