The seeds won’t know the difference

When I helped my Dad in our family garden back in the 1950’s and 60’s, agriculture was pretty simple. There were only a few differing ideas about how to grow vegetables, and most people we knew gardened about the same. The times were changing, so the camps basically fell into the traditional and the scientific. A few folks farmed the way their grandfathers had, in what today would be considered organic farming, or nearly so; most had switched to chemical fertilizers and pest controls. Most people saved seeds from reliable open-pollinated standbys, although hybrids were gaining popularity. My Grandpa Nelson Shelton at first refused to buy hybrid seeds—he saw hybrids as a plot by the seed companies to force everyone to buy seed every year. But when he saw the results other farmers got from some of those hybrid seeds, he grudgingly bought a few selections to supplement his saved seeds.

In retrospect, Grandpa Nelson may have been right. Indeed, much of the gardening advice I see in the media today seems to be aimed at getting consumers to buy as much as possible. Now, I have nothing against hybrid seeds, and in fact plant a few myself. But for the most part I plant open-pollinated seeds, many of which I save from year to year.

The advice gardeners get today can be bewildering, especially to someone starting out. It starts with how to start—buy this system or that system. Don’t trust your soil—you’ll be better off if you build a raised bed (using our proven, if expensive, raised bed kit), fill it with bags of special potting soil, install a drip watering system to ensure your plants are constantly watered, etc.

If a beginning backyard gardener follows this advice, he or she will harvest some mighty expensive vegetables, and will have learned very little.

Having gardened in a variety of conditions in four different southern states, I have come to realize the wisdom of something my father often said about the relatively few fads that people touted when he was gardening: “the seeds won’t know the difference.”

Now, of course, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. If your new garden spot is rock-hard clay, you can’t just chip out a hole and throw some seeds in. But you don’t need to pretend your soil is irrelevant, either. The truth is, a plant has fairly basic needs, and if you meet those, it will grow happily. There’s nothing magical about the soil mix your garden center sells by the bag.

For a new garden bed, I recommend getting a soil test. In most states, the Cooperative Extension service offers soil tests for a very low fee. In North Carolina, they are free.

Based on the results of the soil test, choose the appropriate soil amendments. You’ll save money and frustration if you have that soil test to guide your purchases. When I tested the soil at Belly Acre Farm, for example, I found nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus levels were all good, probably because a neighbor had planted crimson clover on the fallow garden years before, and it reseeded itself every year. As a result, I’ve concentrated on adding organic matter and a little lime to balance the pH. Had I followed the current recommendations in the media, I would have spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars bringing in soil that was higher in organic matter but in other regards not as good as the existing soil.

By contrast, the small plot behind my house that I nicknamed The Brickyard, was deficient in nitrogen. And it had almost no organic matter. In the first few years, I tried adding the prescribed bagged potting mixes on top of the existing soil as advised, but the soil didn’t get a whole lot better. The major change was that the neighborhood cats found a wonderful outdoor litter box where I was trying to grow lettuce and snow peas. Only after I scooped off the cat-contaminated layer and double dug the beds did the soil start to improve. (The cats find it less attractive, too.)

My other bit of advice: Don’t worry too much about the raised bed approach that seems to be the current magic bullet for most popular media. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it has some advantages. Raised beds reputedly warm faster in the spring, but I’ve noticed they also dry out a lot faster in the summer heat. If you have some real physical limitations that make it difficult to get down on ground level, a relatively high bed can help. So does using long-handled tools, and they cost less than one of those fancy raised beds.

And a final minor point: I’ve read a lot the past couple of years about skipping the seed rack and buying “ready to plant” seedlings from the home center. It is true that buying seedlings (or “bedding plants” as we old-timers call them) can give you a head start, especially with plants that are difficult to grow from seed. But this isn’t a magic bullet, either. Nowadays most bedding plants come from a single giant nursery company, and every year they seem to have problems with one crop or the other. And of course they ship those problems all over the region they serve. If you are concerned about biodiversity and even your own likelihood of success, you might not want to have all your seeds in one greenhouse, to paraphrase the old saying.

The plain fact is this: select plants that you want to grow, get good quality seeds or bedding plants, give them adequate sun, water, and decent soil, and they’ll grow. Protect against pests and disease, and they’ll yield a good harvest. Beyond that, as Dad would say, “they won’t know the difference.”

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