Author’s note: Now in its third year, this column is intended to help Klamath Basin gardeners and horticulturists navigate the short growing season and quirky climate issues in the region.

Nicole Sanchez

Nicole Sanchez

Thanks to numerous great suggestions for article topics from readers and nomination letters from two especially dedicated fans (thanks, SP and BW!), author Nicole Sanchez received the Oscar Hagg Communications Award by Oregon State University Extension in December.

Let’s keep the winning streak going! What gardening questions do you wonder about? What fruits or vegetables would you like covered in more depth? Are there gardening techniques or research you’d like to read more about here? Submit your ideas via email: Nicole.sanchez@oregonstate.edu.

Sanchez award

Nicole Sanchez's 2020 columns in the Herald and News won a communications award from Oregon State Extension. 

January fills gardeners’ heads with dreams of plants to be. Seemingly endless vegetable seed choices create challenges. For experienced gardeners, it’s often a challenge to practice restraint, and too many seeds are ordered. For newer gardeners, it can be overwhelming. How can all these varieties be narrowed down to the right ones for a specific garden?

Understanding terms associated with seeds can help us pinpoint which seed selections best serve specific gardens and practices. Take squash: there are varieties that stay small (for patios and containers) and those that ramble. Vining types might be suitable for the “three sisters” technique, or creating shade for weed control/ moisture retention. For those interested in seed saving, not all vegetable seed is equally reliable. Much depends on the origin of the saved seed.

Cultivar

This horticultural contraction means “cultivated variety,” and could represent a plant that is hybrid, heirloom, organic, pelleted or have any other number of descriptors. The term designates a variety with specific, identifiable, consistent and reliable traits. Thus we know that Merlot and Two Star are both loose-leaf lettuces, but Merlot has deep red, mildly frilly leaves and downy mildew resistance. Two Star has bright green, super frilly leaves, makes a much larger plant, and has no listed disease resistance.

Heirloom

This term and “open-pollinated” are often used hand in hand, and include the seeds best suited to saving. Heirloom cultivars are just older — sources differ on either a minimum of 50 or 100 years. Heirloom seeds are often associated with a specific geographic region where they perform especially well, or are cherished. An example from the author’s previous location is the famous yellow cabbage collards of the Carolinas. Preferred by collard connoisseurs for thinner, finer leaves than other collards, seeds for yellow collards are always in short supply. Heirloom seeds are not patented.

Open Pollinated

Seeds with this designation perform true to type through pollination. True to type means the fruit from the saved seeds — second, third generation and so on— will have the same characteristics as the original seed. Open pollinated seeds are the best choice for those interested in seed saving. Many open pollinated seeds are also heirlooms, but not all.

Hybrid

The majority of vegetable seeds available to the home grower are hybrids (not equivalent to GMO). Through breeding, traits from different varieties are combined. This is how we develop cultivars with specific characteristics for size, color and disease resistance. Hybrids are often high yielders, and confer benefits to the gardener, but they are not reliable for seed saving. Because they are the result of a cross between two parent plants, seeds from the fruit of a hybrid plant contain a mix of genetic traits. Sometimes, the seeds don’t sprout at all, or don’t progress past the seedling stage. Others may produce fruit, but it will look or taste different than expected. Hybrids are not suggested for seed saving.

Resistance

Resistance and tolerance to plant diseases are tools gardeners use to combat disease with minimal chemical inputs. Finding seeds with disease resistance is especially helpful if a particular disease has surfaced in the garden multiple times, or for any disease that is carried in soil. Not every cultivar has disease resistance and some are resistance to multiple diseases. Most seed catalogs and websites have charts for each vegetable type that list relevant diseases and the abbreviations to look for in the plant descriptions. For example, seed descriptions with “BLS” at the end would be resistant to Bacterial leaf spot, a disease that occurs in numerous vegetables.

Increased interest in vegetable gardening last year has resulted in limited numbers of some seed types for home gardeners this year. Early planting is not encouraged, but early ordering might be worthwhile, if possible. Happy seed shopping!

— Nicole Sanchez is horticulture faculty at OSU’s Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center. For more information on this or other gardening topics, contact Sanchez at 541-883-7131 or Nicole.sanchez@oregonstate.edu.