Saturday, January 5, 2013

3. How To Determine Which Vegetable Variety Is Right For You

Is this your first garden? 

You have this stack of beautiful garden seed catalogs in front of you and how do you know which variety to order? 

First things first....

1. How long is your growing season?
To determine this you need to know when you get your average first frost in the winter and last frost in the spring.

Here is a graph from the USDA site that will help.

I live in north Missouri. So according to this chart my average first frost is October 18th my average last spring frost is April 13th. According to the graph my growing season is 188 frost free days average for my area. 

So we know now that any annual vegetable that I plant has to germinate, grow flower and fruit to maturity in 188 days. 

Note*** you can get a few weeks jump on this by starting plants early indoors****

2. Not always necessary but it helps to know what Agricultural Plant Hardiness Zone you live in. 

I live in North Missouri so see the blue shading in North Missouri that is zone 5b. This means my average minimum temperature is about 10 to 15 below. 

***this is especially useful when  planting fruit trees and shrubs****

3. Now I want to order a tomato plant seed so let's find one.

But first ask yourself some questions. 

What do I want to do with my tomatoes, eat fresh from the garden on sandwiches and such then maybe I want a large slicer. Make sauce and paste then maybe I need a paste tomato and lots of them if I want to do large batches. If I want to eat them on salads and as snack then maybe I need a cherry or grape tomato. 

For me what works is that I have a saved collection of open pollinated Brandywine seeds that I have grown for over a decade. Each year saving the seeds from the most prolific and the largest fruit my seeds are now well adapted to my climate and growing conditions. I originally ordered these from a catalog about 15 years ago. My large Brandywine tomatoes I use for both slicers, canning sauce and stewed tomatoes. I do not plant a separate sauce tomato these days but at one time planted a wonderful heirloom called Constoluto Genovese that did really well for me. 

For salads and snacks I have a stash of small yellow Pear tomatoes and red cherry tomatoes again open pollinated varieties that I have saved for years. I plant them in a separate garden and just plant one or two plants of each. They are great tasting and heavy producers and that is really all that is necessary. 

Sometimes I will experiment with new varieties of tomatoes but I always plant my tried and true favorites first to make sure I have a crop of reliable producers. Then I will experiment and tuck a plant here and there around the flower beds and such, any  variety that I want to give a try. 

Let's pretend I am a new gardener and want to try this variety of tomato that I have heard so much about in my area...

Now this is my picture of a Brandywine tomato but below is a piece of a page from a major seed company selling this tomato seed. 

Indeterminate vines bear heavily over a long season.
80 days from setting out transplants. Indeterminate. This is an heirloom that really looks like it was developed and grown long ago. Bearing little resemblance to bland, smooth, evenly red modern hybrids, Brandywine startles with big fruit of purplish-red, deeply lobed and not at all "uniform"! And the flavor. All the better, of course!
Brandywine is a favorite among connoisseurs of classic tomatoes. The plants are indeterminate, for good yields over a long season. The fruit is surprisingly large -- 12 ounces or more -- and no two will look exactly alike. Attention-getting, distinctive, and tried-and-true, Brandywine is truly a classic!
Start seeds indoors 5 to 6 weeks before the last frost date. Plant outdoors when danger of frost is past and night temperatures consistently remain above 55 degrees F. If an unexpected late frost is forecasted, protect young plants with plastic sheeting or other cover. Set plants 2 to 2 1/2 feet apart. Pkt is 30 seeds.
Item Form(P) Pkt
Days To Maturity80
Fruit ColorPurple
Fruit Weight12
Additional CharacteristicsEdible, Heirloom
Light RequirementsFull Sun
Moisture RequirementsMoist,  well-drained
ResistanceDisease Resistant, Pest Resistant
Soil ToleranceNormal,  loamy

What do we know about this tomato from the catalog or website above. 

  • In the first line we see that it is indeterminate which means it will get tall. This means we will need a large cage, stake or trellis to support this vine which can get as tall as 8 foot in my garden. But in this first line we also see that it will bear over a long period of time and heavily.  We know from this that if we have space limitations we may want to find a determinate tomato that will grow smaller or maybe a hybrid that has been bred to get smaller for containers.
  • In the second line it states that it will bear in 80 days from setting out transplant. From the time a tomato seed is planted it takes about 45 to 60 days to get it germinated, up to a proper size to transplant (6 to 8 leaves) and hardened off and ready to transplant. So lets say at 60 days we transplant and then another 80 days to bear fruit. That is 140 days. We know that our growing season according to the USDA chart is 188 days. So we know that we have about 48 days or so there to play with.  That says that we are well within the perimeters of our growing area and can grow this variety. 
  • In the next line it says that Brandywine is an heirloom from days gone by. By being heirloom we know that we can save seeds from this variety and plant for years to come.  We also know that the tomatoes average 12 ounces and are known for their flavor. A packet consists of 30 seeds and they prefer full sun and loamy soil. Also great lines are disease resistant and pest resistant. That always helps! 
And that is how you use a catalog. When selecting varieties always ask yourself 

  • What am I using it for? For example do I want cucumber for fresh eating, pickling or both.
  • How much space do I have to grow it? If space is an issue ask yourself , can I let it run up a trellis or do they have a bush variety that requires less space or that I can plant in a container.
  • Will it grow within the time limitations of my growing season? If not find a variety that requires a shorter growing season or maybe look into a greenhouse or row covers to extend your growing season.  
  • And most importantly I think for me is to find a network of gardeners within your area. Maybe a garden club or just like minded neighbors and find out what works in your area. There are many garden forums out there now broken down into geographic locations that can give you good local recommendations for where you live. Again farm stands are a great resource. 
  • You also have to ask yourself do I want to save seeds. At one time I planted 4 gardens on this farmstead. I am now down to two as the children have left home and started their own gardening adventures. When I had all those kids to feed and all those gardens the ability to save seeds made a huge difference in what I had to spend each year on seeds. If you plan to save seeds remember that you need to purchase open pollinated varieties. 
  • Does is taste great? The bottom line if you like the taste keep on planting it!

I remember when I moved to this farm from Louisiana. I had gardened my whole life in the extreme deep south. Many of the tried and true local varieties that I grew up with had to go by the wayside. I just experimented with different things and talked to some of the old timers around. In no time I had found new treasured varieties that grow well in this area and perform in the cold winters and cooler shorter summers much better that the varieties that I was used to.  It just takes dedication, time and patience.  

And above all don't be afraid to try new things. When I first moved here I started growing Jade green beans. When I sold them to a local market vendor he started growing and selling Jade exclusively. Now it seems Jade is a neighborhood favorite. Seems as I was a trend setter and didn't even know it.  

Tomorrow's post: How To Select A Seed Company.

Blessings from The Holler

The Canned Quilter  


  1. Do you start your seeds indoors? If so, do you need to count the days indoors when calculating if your growing season is long enough? For instance, if you start the tomatoes indoors & transplant after the last frost, would you have 108 days to play with rather than 48 since the 60 days indoors doesn't count?

    Loving the series! Getting me ready for spring!

  2. You and I are in the same zones as I am in Northwest Indiana. I wish I can shake your hand and thank you for helping me open,my eyes and see what I have really desired for quite some time, to be independent and self sufficient. Too many people in my family have died of cancer and stroke at such an early age and it concerns me what part processed foods has played in that. Of course it also causes me anxiety that I am on the verge of 40 and have just started to learn these things! (Family members dont seem to make it past 65) Times a wastin! Gotta get to work! Thank you :)

  3. More great information. Thanks, CQ!


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