Right now, garden centers are packed with twirling racks of pretty little packets promising bumper crops of everything from cucumbers to kohlrabi. There are organic seeds , hybrid ones, heirloom ones, and a dizzying number of plant varieties for each vegetable .
Which to choose?
" Shopping for seeds is a little bit like walking down the aisle in a supermarket looking at cereal these days," said George Crosby, a professor in SUNY Cobleskill's plant science department. "Gone are the days of Cheerios, Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies. It's incredible what you're bombarded with."
Inexperienced gardeners are often charmed into a purchase based on appealing packaging, he said.
"You don't eat the packaging," he noted jokingly. "It's what's inside the seed that's going to ultimately make the difference in what you're going to eat."
Before venturing out seed shopping , Crosby recommended doing some homework to find out which vegetable plant varieties have produced successful crops locally. Cornell University's Garden-Based Learning website, www.gardening.cornell.edu, lists tried-and-true hybrid and heirloom types that grow well in upstate New York. Experienced gardeners are another excellent resource.
Heirloom seeds -- ones that have been passed from one generation to the next -- are being marketed to the gardening public. Typically, the varieties available have been grown for years because of the flavor of the vegetables produced, the hardiness of the plants, or other positive attributes.
Some heirloom plants might not be as pest- or disease-resistant as their hybrid counterparts, Crosby cautioned. He advised planting several different varieties and charting successes and failures.
"Any vegetable is going to perform differently based on the type of growing season that we have. You kind of have to overlay the genetics of the selection that you've chosen with the type of growing season," he explained.
The Seed Savers Exchange website, www.seedsavers.org, is one online resource for gardeners interested in growing heirloom vegetables .
Hybrid seeds , created by crossing two or more varieties of a certain plant, often produce plants that are less susceptible to diseases and pests than heirloom ones are. Hybrids are known to yield uniform, blemish-free vegetables , but there is a drawback, noted Jeanne Sowek, saleswoman at Agway of Ballston Spa.
"Once you plant those seeds , you cannot harvest seeds from that plant and expect to get the same plant the next year," she said.
Seeds harvested from certain hybrid vegetable plants are sterile, and won't germinate at all.
Hybrid vegetable varieties often aren't as tasty as their heirloom counterparts, Crosby noted.
Organic seeds -- those harvested from plants grown with organic practices -- are also offered for sale at most garden centers. They're usually more expensive than their non-organic counterparts.
"I think sometimes it's easy if you're a novice to select an organic seed thinking that from that point on you're going to harvest organic produce and that, of course, simply isn't true," Crosby said. "If you purchase organic seed but then you're not following through with organic growing practices, then I don't know that the benefit of purchasing organic seed really has panned out."
Success with growing any type of vegetable seeds depends a lot on timing, Sowek noted.
"It's fun to watch them grow but you do have to have patience, and your timing is the most important thing. If you start too early, they can die off," she cautioned.
Planting seeds left in the shed from previous gardening endeavors is a gamble, Sowek said.
"You're not going to get the germination percentage that you would if they were fresh seeds ," she warned.
If stored properly, seeds can be saved successfully from year to year, Crosby countered, admitting that some have a longer shelf life than others.
He recommended keeping leftover seeds very dry, sealed inside of a container, and kept somewhere like a closet, where they will be sheltered from humidity and temperature extremes.