Q: Where can I find heirloom seeds?
A: They are available in many places, but they may not be called by that name. The definition of "heirloom" has turned into a moving target, sometimes used for advertising without any guarantee of what it means. Rather than looking for that word on seed lists, I suggest that you check for other factors to identify the kind of seeds you want.
Is a seed variety an old standard? That makes it an heirloom. Is the variety described as open-pollinated? That means its genes can cross with other varieties growing nearby. As long as two plants are within the flying range of a bee or butterfly, pollen from one plant will reach the other.
The absence of words on a seed packet, rather than their presence, may tell you what you want to know. If a variety is not called "new," it may well be old enough to be an heirloom. If it is not called a hybrid, it was pollinated by insects or wind, not by the hands of a nursery employee.
Another reason why the name "heirloom" may not help you is that commercial heirloom varieties came from areas with larger numbers of gardeners. There are almost no Montana heirlooms on the market. An heirloom variety from eastern Pennsylvania may grow poorly in Montana, while an open-pollinated one without the heirloom designation may be good both for you and for your local pollinators.
Q: The new penstemons with bigger flowers don't survive winter in my garden. Are there tricks to growing them?
A: Many of them are short-lived, and some gardeners prefer to grow them as annuals. If you hope to keep them alive through winter, here are two bits of useful knowledge: Penstemons will not tolerate wet feet, especially in winter. If you are not sure about soil drainage, plant them next summer in a raised bed. That should guarantee good drainage.
Do not cut down the plants in the fall; do not prune any part of them until spring. Leave all the old top to protect the crown. When new buds begin to swell in spring, prune just above them; then be prepared to cover the penstemons on any night when there might be a late frost.
If you are thinking about growing a few tomatoes indoors, for their flavor or for the fun of a challenge, now is the time to look for seeds. Catalogs are in the mail and online lists are updated. For indoor growing during the winter months, I recommend varieties bred for containers. They require less pruning and staking than full-sized plants.
Indoor tomatoes need a sunny window or a grow light. They can live in a five gallon pot or one much smaller, depending on the variety and how much it is pruned. This year I am growing only dwarf plants in six- and eight-inch pots. I am currently experimenting with Red Robin, Tiny Tim, Maskotka, and Tumbling Tom. I grew tired of the constant pruning of bigger plants to keep them in bounds.
Even if you do not plan to try an indoor tomato until next winter, now is the time to buy the seeds. They will be impossible to find in midsummer, when you want to plant the first ones. I plant the first indoor pot in July and the last one in February. Starting a new pot every three weeks gives me a continuous supply of ripe tomatoes.
Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.