My friend, Kera, has jumped on the grow-it-yourself bandwagon and has delved into seed-starting. She made a comment that I think warrants a little Seed Starting 101 for those just getting on the seed-starting bandwagon. "It's overwhelming" were her words when she opened the FEDCO seed on-line catalog to purchase a couple packs of seeds. And I can't agree with her more. How do you pick the best variety? How do you know how one-vs-another tastes? Which is the best for storing? How do you even decide which of the 100 catalogs too choose from? It can be mind bogglin. So let's break it down a bit to make life a little easier.
Seed Catalogs - Ditch them all except seed-savers exchanges and organic seeds. Why? Because the 10 largest seed companies dominate over 50% of the market AND many of those seeds come from the GMO giant, Monsanto. Monsanto controls 70% of the tomato seed market, some say that's higher. Why not Monsanto or other Chemical Co seed? Because the seeds are hybridized and bred to make a profit - they grow bigger, faster, and often sacrifice nutrients AND have pesticides bred into them in some cases. You also can't save a GMO seed from year to year. Those 10 packs of seed for a buck at the grocery checkout? They are likely hybrids and you may not have luck with them.
Hybrid? Heirloom? Open-pollinated? I touched on hybrid above - if you save seeds, hybrid won't help you. Hybrid is basically a modern seed that is sterile (not all, but most). Hybrids were primarily developed for the commercial seed industry in the 40's. Prior to that, there was nothing BUT heirloom and open pollinated seed. I like to compare heirloom vege seeds to my beloved heirloom and antique roses -- they require no pesticides, no fungicides, smell better, look better, and grow like weeds. Vegetables are the same - but they TASTE better too.
Varieties - how to pick? This is a tough one that comes over time through trial and error, or you read reviews of plant varieties from places like Organic Gardening Mag. I'm STILL trying many types of varieties and have yet to settle on one, specific variety of any plant (although I really liked the peach and black krim tomatoes, and Waltham Butternut Squash last year). I first relied on reviews by other gardeners, the seed catalog's "best sellers" are usually good choices, but there's nothing like trying a variety and deciding for yourself. Yes, that takes many years, but the end result is a vegetable that your family will love, AND you have the fun of trying different things each year. READ THE SEED DESCRIPTIONS. They tell you a lot -- like radishes. Do you want traditional red or white varieties? Tomatoes - do you want slicers? Canners? Dryers? The descriptions tell you what's best for what situation.
Grow for your Region - make sure you pick a variety that grows in our region. For Pennsylvania, we have to pay attention to short-season (unless you live in southern PA - you might be able to get away with some longer-day/season varieties.) Short-season vs. long-season is the days of warmth without frost. We certainly can't grow 130-day peanuts in a climate that is frost-free for only about 120 days (although you could certainly try!).
Grow what you love and what matters most - Its so easy to get 20 packs of tiny seeds, but try growing 20 types of plants -- that's a big garden! Don't be like me and let your eyes be bigger than your stomach. Start small and grow what your family likes. That may be only greens, tomatoes, peppers, and onions, but thats a good, manageable garden. Take it from there... but remember each variety you add is a little more work.
My choices? My favorite seed catalogs are on the sidebar - FEDCO tops my list. And I honestly can't recommend specific vegetables -- I'm still discovering new varieties after 15 years of trial and error. They were all good!