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Now is the time to start planning that 2017 garden

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Jessica Walliser
It's time to get serious about those spring garden plans. Picking out seeds it a good first step.

Now that the seed catalogs are arriving in earnest, it’s time for gardeners to get serious about planning their 2017 garden. It might be a lot of fun to pick and purchase whatever seed varieties happen to strike your fancy, but you’d be smart to keep a few things in mind as you flip through the pages of your favorite catalog.

First, for a greater chance of success with vegetable seeds, seek out varieties with a natural resistance to pests and diseases. If you select for these traits right from the start, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble throughout the course of the growing season. Pick cucumbers that are resistant to bacterial wilt, squash that won’t come down with a bad case of powdery mildew and tomatoes that are more likely to fend off blights and other fungal issues.

Most good seed catalogs include a key to disease resistance. You’ll find “code letters” after the varietal name that tell you what that particular variety is resistant to. For example, PM stands for powdery mildew, VW for verticillium wilt and TMV for tobacco mosaic virus, among many others. Somewhere in the catalog, there will be a key to help you decipher these codes, usually close to the front.

Another thing worth paying attention to is the Days to Maturity of each variety. This number tells you how long it takes for the plant to reach maturity. With vegetables, this number can mean the difference between picking dozens of squash before the arrival of fall’s first frost, or just picking one or two. For crops that take a long time to mature, selecting varieties with a shorter Days to Maturity is key to a making a decent harvest. This is especially important for long-season crops like corn, sweet potatoes, watermelons, winter squash, celeriac, and parsnips.

When perusing those seed catalogs, keep a keen eye out for whether varieties are hybrids or open-pollinated selections, too, especially if you plan to save your own seeds. Hybrid varieties sometimes have improved vigor and production, but if you save the seeds and grow them out for the following year’s garden, they won’t come true and will probably be completely different from the parent plant. Saving seeds from hybrid varieties is a shot-in-the-dark; you never know what you’re going to get. But, seeds saved from open-pollinated varieties come true, as long as the varieties of plants prone to cross-pollination (such as corn, melons, cucumbers, and squash) are separated from each other. This isn’t an issue with self-pollinating crops, such as beans, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes. Seeds saved from open-pollinated varieties of these crops almost always come true.

And the last thing to do before placing your seed catalog order is to take inventory of the seeds you already have. If stored properly, some seeds can last for years. Cucumber, melon, and radish seeds are viable for up to five years; tomatoes, eggplants,and squash for three or four; broccoli and carrots for three; and corn and peppers for two. Lettuce and onion seeds, on the other hand, should be purchased new every season.

If you’re unsure of how old your seeds are and you’d like to test their viability before planting them, simply take ten seeds from the packet, soak them in tepid water for an hour, and then spread them out on a damp paper towel. Fold the paper towel over on itself and put it inside a sealed zipper-top, plastic bag. Place the bag on top of the fridge and check it in about 10 days to see how many seeds germinated. Seeds of most vegetables should have an 80 to 90 percent germination rate. If your seeds had a much lower germination rate, it’s probably worth purchasing new seeds before the start of the growing season.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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