Thank goodness for the seed catalogs! They arrive right at the darkest, coldest time of year to warm the hearts of gardeners everywhere and inspire hopes of the best harvests yet-to-come. Yes, the virtual garden of January is always missing the weeds, insects, and any other plant-munching pests that the true garden season inevitably brings to vex our spirits. But that's ok, because I for one need all the optimism I can get in January!
There's something truly magical about starting plants from seeds. Putting a cabbage seed the size of a pencil tip into soil, watching it sprout, and finally grow into a head of cabbage the size of a basketball never ceases to amaze me. And harvesting that cabbage is all the more satisfying having been a part of its life from the very start. Although I have to admit, I often have a hard time harvesting my "babies"! (Honestly though, you do get over it!)
Starting your own garden plants from seed has more advantages than just the satisfaction of start-to-finish gardening however. First, the selection of seeds available in the seed catalogs is vastly greater than what you can buy in plant starts from most garden centers. And, by-the-way, the variety of seeds available in catalogs dwarfs what you can get in those seed displays at the "big" stores that are usually put out way too late to really get a decent start on the season anyway. Second, you have far more control over when you can get your plants into the garden if you start them yourself from seed. Most garden centers assume that the garden season starts around Mother's Day, and ends on Labor Day. Well, if you're like me, the garden gate opens WAY before that, and if you want your early spring cabbage, peas, and fava beans, you'd best be gardening in March (and starting seeds in February!) So now is really the time to order your seeds and start planning that spring garden! Believe it or not right now I've got some salad greens growing in my basement under lights, and sprouting jars on the window sill in the kitchen for fresh sprouts for my salads. Year-round gardening in Pittsburgh? Why not!
The third reason to start plants from seed is to protect the diversity of our food supply. This is probably the most important reason of all. There was a very interesting article in Countryside magazine that I read online recently that was more than a bit troubling. In short what this article is about is the fact that huge agribusinesses like Monsanto are busy buying up the smaller seed suppliers and eliminating many of the open-pollinated, heirloom varieties being sold in favor of hybrid and other varieties these companies can patent. Since 1981 there has been a reduction in the number of seed varieties available by catalog from 5000 down to 500! And if the only varieties that are available are patented, that means that pretty soon saving your own seeds will be an illegal activity. I don't want to get too political here, but I for one don't think companies should be allowed to patent living things. And the only way to fight this is to purchase heirloom seeds from the small companies, grow them, save some seeds, and share them with your friends. Seed Savers Exchange is an organization that has been doing just that. They have a great web site, a beautiful catalog, and a truly wonderful collection of seeds for sale. I can't wait to taste Good Mother Stallard beans and Aunt Molly's ground cherries (among the other wonderful-sounding vegetables I purchased seeds for). In fact, I think I went a bit crazy on the seed orders considering the size of my garden plot! Well, that's January optimism for you! So, curl up in front of the fire with your seed catalogs and start planning YOUR garden!