From dreams to reality; making plans for your 2018 garden

January is surely the quietest month of my gardening year. Outdoor chores are limited to a little pruning, and it will be three months or more before the first flowers of spring — snowdrops, daffodils, Lenten roses to mention just a few — start to push their way through the cold earth to greet the new season.
January is also when those alluring gardening catalogs, filled with pictures of luscious vegetables, gorgeous flowers and cheery-looking gardeners, arrive in our mailboxes. Most offer seeds, bulbs or live plants; others focus on tools and gadgets that promise to make gardening more productive. 
But dig a little deeper and you will discover those garden catalogs also contain a wealth of valuable information that can help us fine-tune our garden plans for the coming season.
I realize that, in today’s fast paced world, many companies have decided to stop printing paper catalogs and now reach us only via their virtual equivalents.   But I find there is something incredibly satisfying about browsing a real catalog, with a pencil and pad of yellow stickums in hand, and dreaming of my garden yet to come. Once I have assembled and refined  my ideas using a paper catalog, only then I will go online to actually place my order.
And, whether your gardening involves  growing flowers on your balcony or taming a meadow, or something in between, January is the perfect time to contemplate your choices before spring comes knocking at the door.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
As just one example of a catalog that is an absolute pleasure to read in the middle of winter, let me share with you a little about the one that comes from Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Maine.
This venerable New England company — now totally employee-owned — has been selling seeds and supplies to growers and home gardeners for over 40 years. Back in 1973, Rob Johnston, who grew up in rural Massachusetts, had the dream of trialling and developing a wide range of vegetable varieties that would be both delicious-to-eat and easy-to-grow.
Today the company has over 200 employees who, among other things, operate Johnny’s 40-acre Research Farm in Albion, Maine, which coincidently has a climate that is very similar to ours in Vermont.
Although the actual seeds that Johnny’s sells are grown in a variety of places, the viability and flavor of every single vegetable and flower variety listed in their catalog has been tested by the Albion Research Farm staff.
Here they also record the specific growing details of each variety, Including the all-important “days to maturity,” how soil temperature affects seed germination, soil requirements for optimal growth and lots more.  In addition they use their real-world laboratory to find the best cultivating tools and season-extending techniques.
As Johnston says, “We don’t sell varieties or tools that we haven’t experienced firsthand here at the farm.”
They also use the Albion Research Farm to develop unique new varieties of flowers and vegetables, following strictly conventional hybridization techniques. (As they stress: there are no GMOs in any of Johnny’s offerings). And everyone at Johnny’s is justifiably proud that seven of their new varieties have won a coveted All-American Selection (ASS) award.
As a direct result of the work at the Research Farm, Johnny’s Seed Catalog not only offers a vast array of vegetable and flower seeds (including many that are organically grown), but it is also packed full of factual information to guide gardeners of all skill levels.
Tomatoes for everyone
As an example of the information embedded in the Johnny’s catalog, their tomato section alone boasts over 80 varieties, with fruit colors ranging from classic red, to sunny yellow, striped green and near-black.
Many varieties are the typical free-growing indeterminate varieties, but if space is at a premium for you, check out the compact determinate varieties. In addition the cultural information and comparison charts can help you decide what would be best for you.
It behooves Vermont gardeners, who can expect both chilly nights well into May and the possibility of early October frosts, to pay careful attention to the “days to maturity” for the varieties we are considering.
We know that tomato seedlings will sulk if they are planted before the soil has really warmed up. Hence the adage to wait until Memorial Day before planting your vegetable garden in Vermont.  But, at the other end of the season, one year I discovered the hard way that my luscious-looking heirloom beefsteak tomatoes would only begin ripening as the summer salad season was coming to an end.
The message here is that northern gardeners need to carefully consider the “days to maturity.” For crops like tomatoes (which will be started indoors and then set out as transplants) this is the number of days you can expect from when you plant them outside to when the first fruit ripens. So if you plant an heirloom variety like “Brandywine” (rated as 78 days to maturity) around here, it will be almost September before you begin your harvest.  Whereas if you plant Sungold (57 days to maturity) — which the catalog promises will produce “exceptionally sweet bright tangerine-orange cherry tomatoes” — you will be enjoying them in salads from late June onwards.  
This year I plan on ordering seeds for Sungold; the slightly larger Mountain Magic (66 days to maturity); and the very tasty heirloom variety known as Pruden’s Purple (68 days to maturity).
Pelleted Seeds
Carrots have notoriously tiny dust-like seeds. Even with the most careful planting, I always seem to finish up with a mass of tiny seedlings growing far too close together, meaning I then need to spend precious time on my knees carefully thinning the plants so that the remaining plants are spaced about two-inches apart.
Other seeds like lettuce are a bit larger but they still require a careful hand to get them spaced correctly. And the individual seeds of beets and chard are bundled into capsules — each capsule will produce half a dozen baby plants that also must be thinned.
The solution is to use pelleted seed where the seeds are coated in an inert substance which gradually dissolves in the soil, allowing the seed to germinate normally. 
Johnny’s tells you how to use pelleted seed and also sells 125 varieties that have pelleted seeds. These  include colorful carrots, gorgeous lettuces (frilly, smooth, green and red), as well as beets and chard.
Flowers from seed
In addition to my veggie garden I also have many beds devoted to perennials and shrubs, where the flowers come and go through the season.  In 2018 I am planning on interspersing some annuals among the perennials to provide color and continuity to my planting scheme.
Cosmos is an obvious choice — its white, pink  and red flowers will coordinate nicely with my summer perennials, and the Versailles Mix is said to be “early blooming and vigorous.”  And I always loved the sweet peas that grew in my mother’s garden.
But there are so many others that I would also love to grow. This year Johnny’s  offers 70 species of annual and perennial flowers, most with several varieties which I will be carefully perusing during these quiet winter months.
Other favorites
Johnny’s is just one example of a great garden catalog.  Here are two more of my favorites.
The Whole Seed Catalogfrom Baker Creek is a gorgeous publication devoted to seeds of heirloom flowers and vegetables with a compelling history from around the world. Just one of hundreds of choices, an Iranian squash with a smooth marbled skin in greens and oranges caught my eye. And, what’s more, it is said to keep for a year when stored in a cool place.
If your thoughts turn mostly towards flowers, then the pictures in the Dutch Gardens Catalog will surely have you salivating. From lilies, dahlias and begonias to clematis and cone flowers, you will be dreaming of gardens yet to come.
Judith Irven and her husband Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a landscape designer and Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She also teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. She writes about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com.
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see his photographs at The Brandon Artists Guild and at northcountryimpressions.com.
You can reach Judith at [email protected].

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