The Plant & Seed Purchasing Strategy

So many seeds and catalogs; so little time. We need a strategy!

In our last episode, we took an overall look at the garden and identified some general areas for improvement. Now, in the midst of Seed Catalog Season, we get down to the nitty gritty: the Plant Plan. At the risk of your thinking I am totally out of my tree, I have decided to confide in you my Seed & Plant Purchase list. I will also share with you my Plant & Seed Purchasing Strategy for how I successfully cut my wish list down from over 100 selections to a mere 35 or so. (Yes, available cash played a part in that decision).

Believe me, I know how it is. Many a stormy, wintry night has resulted in impulse remorse the following morning: that “uh oh” hangover from a gleeful night of impassioned purchasing. Purchasing seeds is such an act of vision and hope, but not one always grounded in reality. So – initial disclaimer: whether my methods help you or not – Buyer Beware; I am not responsible for your “Buy Now” buttons.

We know what they all say. Take an inventory of your seeds. Map out your garden and think about what you have room for. Keep in mind your other commitments that might interfere with gardening tasks and harvesting. Don’t set yourself up for overwhelm and failure. Yada yada.

For those of us who live and breathe in our gardens, those admonitions are blithely ignored (emphasis on “blithely”). We know we must plant almost everything with the description, “striking variety.” That is a given. “Rare,” “unusual,” “abundant,” “vigorous,” and “mouth-watering” also work well for me.

But of course, there IS such a thing as self-restraint, which is why we have a Plant & Seed Purchasing Strategy.

Some people grow mostly food. They have a big open square of ground with everything laid out neatly in beds and rows, and they have loads of vegetables available every day of the week. That is way too much work for me. I would rather create even more work for myself by creating a jungle in an old hay field. But that is for another story…

The Plant & Seed Purchasing Strategy

Step 1. Start with Answering the Question: What Do You Like to Grow?

In general – I like to grow what I can’t easily find on the streets.

I like to grow

  • Plants for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators. I focus mostly on things that bloom in early spring and fall, because there are always plenty of things available in the summer.
  • Fruits and berries of all kinds. Of course. A berry shrub that also fixes nitrogen is a double bonus.
  • What is best picked fresh and eaten soon thereafter – lettuce, tomatoes, and (in some years) corn, for example.
  • A few things for long-term: squashes and potatoes, for example
  • Vegetables and herbs that can’t be found or are too expensive in stores (culinary herbs, unique veggies)
  • My own medicine – and medicine for the bees, as well
  • Specialty Plants: e.g., fiber plants, dyes, basketry, fence supplies, firewood, etc.
  • Perennials over annuals 
  • Unusual specimens – just because
  • A little extra for sharing.

As you can see, I like to grow just about everything, and the plant list can easily get out of hand (hence, my 100+ plants on my original wish list). It is difficult to hone it down.

Step 2. Identify a Few Ground Rules

It pains me to say this, but the garden pundits are correct.

Following a few simple rules will save time and money and make the decision-making process easier. Here are my rules (guidelines, really, and they tend to overlap):

  • Identify Holes; Find Plants to Fill in the Gaps. Gaps can be defined by function (bee plant, windbreak, groundcover, nitrogen fixer, etc.); by space (shady spot, acid soil, any spot where weeds can take hold); and by time (early bloomer, fall color, after the garlic harvest, etc.). The answer to almost all of these problem areas is to plant more plants! 
  • Make the Most of What I Have – (and make no mistake about it, I have a lot). I figure it is all relative. We read a lot about protecting diversity, and I am here to do my part. 
  • Plant What I Already Have Growing in Pots. This strategy is to reduce the number of potted plants (e.g., cuttings and seed starts) that require so much babying (especially when it gets hot) so as to leave time for other creative endeavors.
  • Save My Own Seed Whenever Possible
  • Divide what I Can.
  • Take Cuttings of Select Plants (but not of everything!) It is easy to get carried away. Be judicious from the start.
  • Reward my Restraint with a Few Interesting Purchases (counter to all of the above, I know)
  • Share & Trade Plants and Seeds with Friends and Neighbors–truly the answer to most of the world’s problems.

Step 3. Create a Spreadsheet (or list of some sort)

Now we get down to the actual decision-making. Many gardeners are averse to using computer technologies on something as organic as seeds, soil, and sunshine, but when it comes to the Plant & Seed Purchasing Strategy, an electronic spreadsheet can be a valuable tool that can save a lot of time.

Personally, I love Excel and I use it a lot. I enter the wish list items into the cells. With the above criteria in mind, I add a column for yes/no and sort the list accordingly. I go through the “yes” list and cut again – and again. When it comes to the Plant List, “No” is not necessarily no; no means “not right now.” After all, I don’t have to plant everything in 2019.  This makes checking the No box easier. Yes, you could easily just do this on paper.

Step 4. Fill in Details. Identify Gaps.

After the final cuts have been made, I fill in more details on the chosen few (loosely defined “few”).  I create columns for sun, water, and soil requirements and notes on how to grow. This initial work really pays off later. When the plants and seeds arrive, a quick sort organizes them according to which seeds need stratification, which ones need to wait until last frost, which like a sunny, dry spot, and which would rather be in the shade by the pond, etc. I also create columns for various other qualities (my reasons for growing them in the first place). I can see at a glance whether there is a good diversity of plants across space, time, and function, and whether they fill in the identified gaps. (And yes, this step is totally optional, but so very useful. You could do this with graph paper, too, and just look down the columns).

Step 5. Make Final Decision

Does the list still make sense? Within budget? If so, hit the Buy buttons.

So… Did I follow the rules? (Mmm… not exactly…)

I confess, I succumbed on some new varieties of things I already have. I also purchased a few things I felt needed replenishing. I have plenty of peas and carrots and such, so I did not add regular veggies. We don’t heat the greenhouse, so most tropical things were cut. One very large frivolous thing was the Gunnera, but who wouldn’t want a dinosaur plant in their backyard? I mean, right? Ok. Maybe I should have cut that one. And then there was the Luffa, which I’ve always wanted to try, and the Yucca, which would look nice near the Fan Palm my son gave me… Zone 8b.

In looking at the list, I realized I had chosen several plants for dry areas, which makes sense in an area that might get 15” of rain per year when we’re lucky (and most of that dumps in November-March). I also selected quite a few bee plants, herbs, and dye plants, which are priorities for me. I splurged a bit on several blueberry plugs that I will grow out to see how they do, and on some new varieties of Andean tubers, which are always so interesting.  

So here is my list.

Plant & Seed Order 2019

Common NameScientific Name
Arnica, “Meadow Arnica”Arnica Chamissonis
AshwagandhaWithania somnifera
BlueberriesVaccinum corymbosum
Bugle weedAjuga genevensis
Bush CloverLespedeza bicolor
Chufa, TigernutCyperus esculentus
Clary SageSalvia sclarea
Codonopsis (Dang Shen)Codonopsis pilosula
ColumbineAquilegia canadensis
False Indigo, BlueBaptisia australis
Flax, “Marilyn”Linum usitatissimum
Geranium, Wild varietyGeranium spp.
Globe ThistleEchinops Ritro
GunneraGunnera manicata
Heather, “Firefly”Calluna vulgaris
Hemp agrimonyEupatorium cannabinum
Jujube, Chinese DateZiziphus jujuba
Linden, SilverTilia tomentosa
Loofah, CommonLuffa aegyptiaca
MarshmallowAlthaea officinalis
MashuaTroepaeolum tuberosum
Oca RootOxalis tuberosa
Osage OrangeMaclura pomifera
Quamash, CamassCamassia quamash
RampsAllium tricoccum
Rhodiola, Rose-rootRhodiola rosea
Rhubarb: Glaskins perennialRheum rhabarbarum
Safflower ZanzibarCarthamus tinctorius
Sea KaleCrambe maritime
SkirretSium sisarum
SoapwortSaponaria officinalis
Spilanthes, Toothache PlantAcmella oleracea
Strawberry, AlpineFragaria vesca alpina
UllucoUllucus tuberosus
YarrowAchillea millefolium
Yucca, soapweedYucca glauca

Here is a sampling of how I can sort the plants –

Likes full sun, rocky or dry ground, drought tolerant
AshwagandhaWithania somnifera
False Indigo, BlueBaptisia australis
Globe ThistleEchinops Ritro
Jujube, Chinese DateZiziphus jujuba
Rhodiola, Rose-rootRhodiola rosea
Safflower ZanzibarCarthamus tinctorius
SoapwortSaponaria officinalis
YarrowAchillea millefolium
Yucca, soapweedYucca glauca
Prefers more acidic-to-neutral soil 
Arnica, “Meadow Arnica”Arnica Chamissonis
BlueberriesVaccinum corymbosum
Bugle weedAjuga genevensis
Chufa, TigernutCyperus esculentus
Clary SageSalvia sclarea
ColumbineAquilegia canadensis
False Indigo, BlueBaptisia australis
Flax, “Marilyn”Linum usitatissimum
Geranium, Wild varietyGeranium spp.
Heather, “Firefly”Calluna vulgaris
Loofah, CommonLuffa aegyptiaca
MashuaTroepaeolum tuberosum
Oca RootOxalis tuberosa
RampsAllium tricoccum
Rhubarb: Glaskins perennialRheum rhabarbarum
SoapwortSaponaria officinalis
Spilanthes, Toothache PlantAcmella oleracea
Strawberry, AlpineFragaria vesca alpina
Ulluco, Pica de PulgaUllucus tuberosus
YarrowAchillea millefolium
Groundcovers / low layer 
Bugle weedAjuga genevensis
ColumbineAquilegia canadensis
Geranium, Wild varietyGeranium spp.
RampsAllium tricoccum
Rhodiola, Rose-rootRhodiola rosea
Safflower ZanzibarCarthamus tinctorius
SoapwortSaponaria officinalis
Spilanthes, Toothache PlantAcmella oleracea
Strawberry, AlpineFragaria vesca alpina
YarrowAchillea millefolium
Bee Plants, Wildlife Plants
Bugle weedAjuga genevensis
Bush CloverLespedeza bicolor
Clary SageSalvia sclarea
False Indigo, BlueBaptisia australis
Flax, “Marilyn”Linum usitatissimum
Globe ThistleEchinops Ritro
Heather, “Firefly”Calluna vulgaris
Hemp agrimonyEupatorium cannabinum
Linden, SilverTilia tomentosa
Osage OrangeMaclura pomifera
SkirretSium sisarum
SoapwortSaponaria officinalis
Strawberry, AlpineFragaria vesca alpina
YarrowAchillea millefolium
Yucca, soapweedYucca glauca

You get the idea. A bit of work upfront to gather all the information, true, but it comes in handy so many different ways.

Now that the seeds are coming in, I am, once again, thinking – OMG. What have I done! So – my method works, sort of, but I am not sure what I was thinking in purchasing yucca, luffa, and gunnera! And that Silver Linden tree? Uh oh. I was suckered by a good deal.

Still. This is exciting. And interesting.

Until next time…it looks like I have my work cut out for me.

If anyone can use a gunnera plant, I will probably have a few extra.

~blythe

~ * ~

Interested in more approaches to buying seeds and tips on garden planning?

(apparently I write about this a lot!)

7 Comments

  1. Cheverly

    I’ve just stumbled across your blog and plan to be a regular reader. Like Karen, I’ve also laughed and nodded, and it’s so fun and refreshing to read gardening stuff that isn’t so stuffy and/or boring. I’m also in zone 8(b, to be exact), which I just find so fascinating that our yards/weather could be the same and yet so, so different.

    I just ordered a bunch of seed that arrived this week, and I’m excited to try growing things. I’ve been a gardener for 25+ years, but seed starting has always intimidated me so I haven’t given it much of a shot. BUT THIS YEAR is my year! Never mind the fact that we’re currently renovating our 1920 fixer upper so I really should be in the house and not the yard, or that my beds aren’t even built yet, or that I also want to build wattle edging. I’m sure it’ll be FINE. 😉

    Look forward to tagging along! Oh, and do let us know how the loofah turns out! Who knew it grew on an actual plant (except maybe everyone but me)?!

    1. Hi Cheverly–Thanks for stumbling in! We, too, are in the middle of fixing up an old house (1905), so I hear ya on how house projects get in the way of my garden priorities. So hard to find time for everything as it is, and what do I do? Order a ton more seeds! My goal is to keep adding more plants until the grass has nowhere to get a foothold. One big thing I should have done differently from the beginning was to start small and optimize that area before moving on. And yes, wattle edging is definitely on my creative list of to-dos. I figure if I can just define the edges, everything will instantly look more organized. I agree, Zone 8b is classified in very different parts of the country – but I see we still have common ground! Thank you so much for your kind words. Good luck on your seed planting!

  2. Karen

    Happened upon the article you wrote, “To Convert an Orchard to a Food Forest, Start with the Soil”
    December 16, 2013. I’m thrilled that I came across your path and have giggled and LOL and nodded
    in wholehearted agreement to everything I’ve read thus far. Always such a joy to come across a
    kindred spirit. Can’t wait to catch up on previous posts. Thank you for being you.

    1. Well, now. Just about the time I feel like throwing up my hands and saying, “Why do I put myself through all this self-abuse?! I’ve got pruning to do!” … I get your note. YOU are the reason I keep this website going. Amidst all the insanity out there, I feel this weird need to add my two bits. Thank you, Karen.

  3. For a gardener, planning is as exciting as planting, growing and harvest. I like your lists. I have little scribbles of new plants I’d like to try on bits of paper all over and find if I read seed catalogs instead of looking on-line, I’m less likely to impulse buy! I love your enthusiasm and I’m smiling while I read your post.
    I know you have willow, but seeing your apple tree suckers, I’m reminded what a good wattle fence apple and pear suckers make. The false indigo has been a favorite of mine forever! xo

    1. Sandy – I am really glad to hear you say that, because I was beginning to think all my planning is another form of procrastinating! I, too, love thumbing through the paper catalogs; mine are all marked up & dog-eared. You are right – it is so very easy to add things to an electronic cart!

      I definitely will have to use apple suckers in a wattle fence. Great idea! Most of them are very straight. I am piling some of them up & covering with weeds & dirt to make a sort of Hugelkulture bed, which right now is mostly habitat for rodents! Others we dry out and use for firewood in an outdoor cookstove. They all eventually get used. One of my goals is to get more creative with fencing and trellises this year. I should start with it right now.

      Good to hear from you! Thanks!

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