Gardening: Which cultivar should I grow?

“During the relatively short grassland growing season, it’s important to look for cultivars that mature early.”

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How do you choose which vegetable or flower cultivar to grow in your garden? In the garden seed market, unless you are growing heirloom varieties of vegetables or flowers, the cultivars available for cultivation are constantly changing.

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Government programs and research institutes sometimes conduct cultivar trials to determine which plants perform best in their area. The closest program that Saskatchewan gardeners can go to is North Dakota State University’s Home Garden Variety Trials: www.ag.ndsu.edu/homegardenvarietytrials .

All-American Selections (AAS) are also cultivars worth growing in your garden. If a vegetable or flower is recommended as an All-American selection, it means it is a new cultivar, has performed well in many places in North America, and is recommended for its above average performance.

One of the first things to determine when looking for seeds is how quickly the vegetable will be ready for harvest or how quickly the flower will bloom.

During the relatively short growing season of the prairies, it is important to look for early maturing cultivars. On most seed packages or in catalog descriptions, “maturity days” or “harvest days” are indicated. Days to maturity/harvest refers to the number of days between planting a seed or transplanting a small transplant into the garden and harvesting the edible part of the plants. This number is based on the accumulation of heat units. Heat units accumulate at temperatures above 10˚C and below 30˚C. Plant growth is very slow or non-existent if temperatures are below 10˚C or above 30˚C.

The “days to maturity” listed in most seed catalogs and on most seed packages are based on southern latitude heat accumulation units and are inaccurate for our northern location. Although the frost-free season in central Saskatchewan typically lasts 110 days, due to cooler spring and fall temperatures and many summer nights, our heat unit accumulation during these times can be weak.

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The other factor that must be considered in determining how quickly a plant will mature is whether it is a warm season or cool season plant. Warm season vegetables and flowers refer to plants that are native to warm climates and are most easily damaged by cool temperatures. Examples: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, winter squash, corn, eggplant, impatiens and zinnias.

Even though the temperatures aren’t freezing, these warm season plants can suffer injury and growth damage from prolonged temperatures of 7˚C and below. On the other hand, cool-season vegetables and flowers like pansies, bachelor’s buds, sweet alyssum, cabbage, radish, spinach, Brussels sprouts (as well as other Brassica plants), leeks and beets will continue to grow (albeit slowly) at temperatures just above freezing. In my experience, warm season crops that take longer than 80 days to harvest (according to seed catalogs) do not mature in the grassland season, even when transplanted. Cool season crops that require more than 100 days to mature will rarely reach maturity in Saskatchewan, even if transplanted.

Other things to consider when choosing a new cultivar are the amount of space available in your garden. If you are growing in a container or only have a small garden space, look for dwarf-sized or recommended cultivars for containers and small spaces. Are you new to gardening? For your first experiment, choose plants that are easy to grow in order to have success in the first year: marigolds, petunias, zinnias, spinach, peas, beans and potatoes are relatively easy plants to grow.

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Varieties of carrots
Varieties of carrots Photo by Jackie Bantle /Photo provided

How much effort and time do you have to devote to your garden? If your gardening time is limited, grow flowers that don’t need topping and vegetables that don’t need staking. Peas, beans and cucumbers need to be harvested every two or three days when in production, while carrots, beets, potatoes and rutabagas do not require harvesting until the end of the season. Cantaloupe and watermelon may not reach maturity unless ground covers and plastic mulch are used in the garden, while pumpkins and winter squash generally do not need to be covered for a typical growing season.

One of the most important things to look for when choosing a new flower cultivar is something that is attractive and blooms for a long time. With vegetables, always look for something that is recommended for its flavor and excellent texture. If you don’t want to watch it or if you don’t want to eat it, what’s the point of going through all that work?

Good buy in the seed catalog!

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society. Contact the company by email at [email protected] or visit their website at saskperennial.ca. You can find them on Facebook at facebook.com/saskperennial.

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Terri S. Tomasini