Seed catalogues: The Paradox of Choice

Christin Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener and a creative non-fiction instructor at the University of Victoria.

  • Jan. 27, 2016 4:00 p.m.

The seed catalogues have begun to arrive. They slip through the mail slot, land in piles in the hall, then migrate around the house. Like a scene from Privet Drive, they come unabated, incessantly, and I stack and read and stack again -– flower glossies, full-colour vegetable books, herb lists, booklets, pamphlets, flyers.

Will this be the year for skirret and salsify? Can I fit six varieties of sweet peas or more? There’s a new Scabiosa, an annual Euphorbia, and a ‘Sahara’ Rudbeckia I must try.

How does one decide?

Here’s the trouble with seed catalogues: they push us into the paradox of choice. Why is the affluent 20-year-old thinking of ‘traveling to Europe’ a little miserable when they have all the freedom in the world? Why do we suddenly seize up when presented with 10 different styles of jeans? We can’t choose. We grow unhappy when presented too much choice.

Gardening maximizers be warned: ’tis the season for indoor angst. So when faced with abundance (at $3 a packet, seeds make for exceptional fantasy fodder), my seed strategy is this: I write down everything I want. I fill in forms in pen. Really commit, in ink. Then I forget about the list for a while, look at it again, and call the company to speak to a real person, who does all the work of tallying up and shipping, tells me my total, waits for me to balk, and then I pare back my order with the benefit of their computer and my shame.

Seeds are a BIG subject, but here’s one guiding principle to follow as the catalogues roll in: only order from companies or growers that have climates similar to your own. My definition of ‘similar’ is broadly self-serving: I use Seedaholic from Ireland, Floret from Washington, Owl’s Acres, Chiltern and Sarah Raven from England for flowers, and West Coast Seeds from Delta for salad greens. Locally, I buy seeds from Saltspring Seeds and Metchosin Farm.

I try – desperately at times – to avoid heirloom seeds from exotic locations: they just aren’t adapted to our environment and despite worthy urges to support open-pollinated varieties and genetic diversity, your money is better spent by donation to a botanic garden, seed bank or heirloom protection project. Want to grow an ancient grain or groovy gourd this year? Resist unless you can find the seed locally. Read packets. Investigate companies. Old open-pollinated varieties of seed are the most stable (true to type), and if they come from a maritime climate like ours, you’ll increase your chance of success.

And if you do succumb and buy too much this spring, remember you’ve got a few years to use the seeds you didn’t sow. If kept cool and dry, seeds will last a few years, at least. Best dig out that shoebox from last year and see what you have saved before you spend.

 

 

Christin Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener and a creative non-fiction instructor at the University of Victoria.

 

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