JW: Folks who love to grow things may get a little thrill of excitement when they go to their mailbox and find seed catalogs there. I know I do. They're filled with photos and drawings of colorful plants, and they bring that anticipation and promise of a successful garden. I'm Judy Wagley. This is “From the Ground Up!” Fred Monroe, along with his wife Michele, and their family run Monroe Family Organics in Alma, a large farm that supplies a wide variety of fresh produce to stores, restaurants and CSA members. Thanks for taking time for me today, Fred.
FM: Yeah. Well, thanks for having me.
JW: I've heard that you are someone who gets really excited about seed catalogs.
FM: Yes, I do. I am very excited every year when they come out, I'm always waiting, waiting like it's like around November or so. And I'm always like “Has this catalog come yet?”
JW: And you purchase a lot. Of sleeves for your farm!
FM: I do. I do.
JW: Well, those catalogs are so beautiful, you know, with the artwork and the photos. But they could be kind of overwhelming. There's a lot of information to decode there. First of all--where do all of those seeds come from? We take them for granted. We buy a package of seeds-- where do they come from?
FM: Yeah. So some of them are produced in the United States, but a lot of them are actually produced in Europe and some other countries as well. So it's kind of a mix. And you know, one of the unique things that happened like over COVID is like we saw jumps. And availability--some are like way more expensive or they ran out and it was just kind of due to that like some of those seeds have to come from overseas and it just kind of messed with supply during that time. But yeah, they come from kind of all over.
JW: Well, when you see these new varieties, how does that happen?
FM: Well, a lot of times, breeders will have a bunch of things that they'll work on and then they usually just pick out a few that have real promise, or they feel there's a real market for either for home gardeners or for commercial growers. A lot of breeding work is actually going into specific disease resistance. For instance, in lettuce, that's huge. And so a lot of it will be for that as well.
JW: Or maybe heat or drought resistance now too.
FM: Exactly, yeah.
JW: Wow, that's really interesting. You know, we go to buy a package of seeds and we don't really think about all of that.
FM: Yeah, there's a lot of work that goes into coming up with those new varieties.
JW: Well, once we do get our catalogs, how do we go about choosing when you see that there are 97 different varieties of green beans? How do you choose? How do you know what to plant in your own garden?
FM: Right. Yeah. Well, I think the first thing is take a step back and say, like, what do I really want, you know, from my garden? Am I looking to just have canning tomatoes for instance, or am I looking to have an experience for my kids so they can see a seed to the plant to the whole process? Just kind of step back and ask stuff like, “What do I actually want to accomplish in my garden?” And then from there think about like so if I say I'm only gonna have like 3 tomatoes-- that might make sense to just buy those plants. But if you're, you know growing out like 15 plants or 20 plants or something, then you might go to a seed catalog and say, well, I want to really be choosing and choose this one and then grow it out myself. That kind of thing.
JW: And often it tells you how many seeds are in each package so that you have some sort of idea. What about the information that says like 50 to 60 days? What does that mean?
FM: Yeah. So the way I think of it is instead of thinking like I plant this and then fifty days later I have I harvest green beans for instance, look at that 50 days and then look at another variety that says like 56 days and just think like that variety will probably come a week after this other one. That's the way I usually think about it because the days aren't exact like growing seasons. You know, there's a lot of variables. Water, sun and everything. So it's more just in relation to each other. That's the way I would look at it.
JW: So don't necessarily choose the one with the lowest number of days like “Oh, I'll get this first!”
FM: Yeah, no, because a lot of times, especially like say it's sweet corn and it it's like the lowest number of days like advantages you have that like early sweet corn, but a lot of times it's not the highest quality sweet corn, or maybe the biggest ear, especially if you're going to freeze a bunch. So like a lot of times-- the later ones will actually be the ones you want for flavor and other things. And that early one may just be like, hey, we have sweet corn, this is the earliest one that you can get.
JW: Yeah, gardeners know, I think, that patience is definitely a virtue!
FM: Yes, yes!
JW: Some catalogs offer seed packages and some offer by the ounce or the pound. Is there a way to calculate how many you'll need?
FM: Yeah, usually most catalogs have a pretty good table that tells basically how many seeds are per ounce or per pound. Or you know, whatever per gram in some cases, and so usually a good seed catalog will have something that says you know what that calculation is.
JW: Recently on “From the Ground Up!” we learned about the new USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. So I think that we might want to pay attention to that too on the seed package.
FM: Yes. Most annual vegetable crops are going to be, you know, something that we can all grow here in Michigan. However, if you start like you might want to consider, like if you see like a 90-day tomato, that's kind of a, that's a pretty long season tomato. And if you were say like buying a seed and then, you know, growing that out to a transplant, something that might be on the small side, you might not get as much out of that. And so I may say, you know, it should be like 80 days or less.
JW: Fred, there are so many different brands of seeds. We see some at the store. We see some in catalogs, maybe the higher end seeds. Is there a way to determine the quality of the seed?
FM: Yeah, usually. Frankly, it's more by like how reputable the company is. And of course, you know, we've farmed for some years and we kind of know through experience what companies have really come through and which we've had more problems with, or the seed hasn't performed as well, those kind of things. So that's kind of an experiential thing.
JW: And if we have some seeds that have been maybe--hanging around in the garage for a while, I'm asking for a friend-- how long can we expect those to last?
FM: Yeah. So that that does depend on what type of seed it is. Usually your onion and carrot family type seeds will not last very long. And so if they are kept unrefrigerated or just kind of out, and you're trying to use them a second year-- you. might get away with something there, but it definitely will be a lot less germination rate. So it's usually better start with fresh seed if you can.
JW: So basically the germination rate goes down the older the seed gets.
FM: Yeah, it goes down. The older it gets. I mean, that's true for every seed, just at different rates. So like those carrot and onion family seeds, they go downhill really quick. Things like beets, beans, those stay around, you know, better for a longer period of time.
JW: Fred, I have to ask--about how many seed catalogs do you get each year?
FM: Well, we get around probably just like 8 or so I would say, and we mostly buy our seeds from like two, sometimes three companies.
JW: Are you all set for this year then?
FM: We're pretty close, so we've got, I would say around 85% of our seeds so far.
JW: So it's like Christmas when they come to your house.
FM: Yes. And it's, you know, this time of year, it's all about possibility. You know, everything is going to be perfect--- and then reality will set in during the season! But it now is a nice time of possibility.
JW: You're right, it's all about possibility and that promise for the future. That little seed, every little seed—is hope and promise.
FM: That's right.
JW: Fred Monroe, from Monroe Family Organics in Alma. Thanks so much for joining me today for ”From the Ground Up!”
FM: Yeah. Thanks for having me.