Sick of shoveling? Think seeds. It’ll help I promise.

Another storm?  Really?  What on Earth are we supposed to do?  Can’t take anymore shoveling and even if you could there’s no where to put the snow anyway?  I hear ya.  Lucky for you, I have a solution.  Seed catalogs!!!

I have a friend who calls them farmer porn.  Once you get over the disturbing part of that statement you can laugh at the metaphor.  I did anyway.  And I get the point.  All those glossy photos of tomatoes and broccoli and pole beans can really get the old blood pumping.  Ahem…

This is the time of year when us veggie growers brew a fresh pot of coffee, clear off the kitchen table, stoke up the wood stove and sit down in front of a stack of seed catalogs.  Yup, seed catalogs.  Nothing stems the flow of cabin fever this time of year like a well built seed catalog.  True story.


When this next storm hits I intend to be knee deep in glossy photos and tantalizing descriptions of tomatoes and pole beans.

When this next storm hits I intend to be knee deep in glossy photos and tantalizing descriptions of tomatoes and pumpkins.

If you’re perched in front of your computer while the snow is swirling around outside I suggest you follow my lead.  Yes, I am asking you to get some seed catalogs and get acquainted with them.  I, as a vegetable farmer who makes money because people don’t grow their own food.  I would like nothing better than to be unnecessary.  I want you to grow your own food.  And right now, with the cold gripping us by the throat and the sun still hiding its face most of the time is the time to start planning.  Don’t bother shoveling, just stay inside and dream of summer.  It will melt eventually anyway.  Here are some tips I wish someone had given me a decade ago when I fell into a pile of beautiful seed catalogs.

The first thing you need to do if you want to grow some of your own food (please grow some of your own food) is get some catalogs.  Open the internet and type the words ‘garden seeds’ into a search engine.  Problem solved.  Searching this way will take you to the biggest seed houses.  If you’ve never grown your own food, it can be a good way to start.  But this is a blog about local food so I recommend you do what I do and stick to local sources.

If you’re in Maine, like me, you’re in luck because we have some excellent seed companies.  I’m not endorsing or recommending any but I can tell you that I purchase about 98% of my seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, based in Waterville/Albion, Maine.  I get my potatoes from The Maine Potato Lady and/or Wood Prairie Farm.  I also do a small amount of business with other companies outside Maine because I want to support their business ethic/practices, can’t get the type of seed they offer from a local supplier, or appreciate their high standards.  Examples of other companies I use are High Mowing Seeds, Vermont; Seed Saver’s Exchange, Iowa; Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Missouri.  The Johnny’s catalog is one of my favorites because, while it’s goal is to sell a lot of seeds, it’s format is grower friendly.  You can find a lot of information you’ll need if you want to start growing your own food (please start growing your own food).

Sometimes the amount of information can be overwhelming.

Sometimes the amount of information can be overwhelming.

Don’t let the verbiage and staggering amount of ink overwhelm you.  Johnny’s does this helpful thing where they highlight certain varieties in yellow.  Those are the ones they claim are the easiest to grow.  I’m not sure what that means exactly but if you’re in doubt, go with that.  It’s a good place to start.

Curling up by the fire with catalogs is a great thing to do this time of year to remind yourself that spring truly is just around the corner, groundhogs be damned.  But there are some other things you need to consider before firing off an order form to your local seed company.

First, know what you want to get out of your garden.  Vegetables…duh!  But more specifically, what is your goal?  I lead a square foot gardening clinic each spring at Central Street Farmhouse in downtown Bangor and this is my first piece of advice every year.  Do you want fresh tomatoes?  Do you want to be able to eat fresh salad every day?  Or do you want to be able to feed yourself next winter?  If you have limited space, or limited time, it’s important to focus your efforts.  Gardening is hard work, no matter what anyone tells you, but if you’re focused and plan well, it’s manageable work.

I want that...and that...and that...and...

I want that…and that…and that…and…

If you have limited space and you want to eat your own food all winter (please eat your own food all winter) you should plan to visit farmer’s markets or participate in a CSA during the summer, all the while spending your garden time growing store-able crops like carrots and potatoes.  If you want to avoid the farmer’s markets and don’t mind going back to the supermarket for veggies in the winter (oh my word-are you kidding?) then focus your summer gardening time on the crops you want to eat fresh just then.  If you’re lucky, like me, you can do both.  But don’t go crazy.

I’m sure the seed companies are hunting for my address to send me hate mail as I type this but don’t fall into the trap that nearly all first time gardeners/farmers fall into and go crazy ordering more seeds that you have space to plant or time to care for.  You’ll waste a lot of money, get very discouraged and possibly make your future gardening endeavors much more difficult (if you plant more than you can care for you’ll get weeds that you can’t keep up with and every weed that grows seeds is a headache in future years).  If you’re just starting pick one variety of each thing you want to grow.  If you have success you can try a couple different ones the next year.  But start slow and small.  It’s hard when those beautiful photos are staring you in the face that the snow is hammering against your windows and you can’t wait to get out and turn the fresh soil in your hands…that’s what the seed companies are counting on.  Don’t succumb!

Another thing you’ll need to plan on is keeping good, accurate notes, yes even if you’re a home gardener.  Why?  Because they will help you avoid repeating mistakes, help you know if you liked or disliked this or that variety, help you remember that the soil doesn’t warm up enough to plant corn in early May despite your strong desire to do so every year.  All you need is a little notebook you can keep in your pocket or keep in your garden shed in a plastic bag and a pen or pencil.  Not too technologically out or reach for most of us.

When making your wish list and subsequently whittling it down, make sure you pay attention to the recommendations the seed company puts into its catalogs.  Johnny’s, for example, does a great job including details about how many seeds you should plant per foot, how much space each mature plant will need, how many pounds of x you can expect to get (of average) from so many row feet of seed, etc.  If you pay attention to this information it will help you reign yourself in at ordering time.  Also, be sure to pay attention to climate restrictions when ordering seeds, especially if you order from companies in climates other than ours.  It’s very frustrating to get all the way to September and wonder why you don’t have tomatoes yet only to go back to the catalog and see that yes, indeed, they did tell you that this variety needs a very, very long season to set fruit.

Once you place your orders you get to wait for the next best part about growing your own food…the day the order arrives!  But I’ll leave that for another day.  Just be sure when you’re shoveling that you trudge out to the mailbox and make it easy for the postal workers to get to your mail box.  If you’ve got to shovel you might as well make sure there is a nice reward at the other end and I can’t think of a better reward than a mailbox full of promise for the future.  Local Food.  Eat well – be well.



Ryan Parker

About Ryan Parker

Ryan Parker is a farmer, writer, artist and musician. He currently lives in Central Maine with his wife, two children, a golden retriever, some pigs and chickens. He raises pastured and forested animals and grows a diverse range of vegetables without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or taxpayer subsidies.