When the ground is icy and my winter garden is in stasis, I’d rather curl up with a big mug of hot coffee indoors than brave the harsh temperatures outside. Yet this is when the garden begins to take shape, if only in my head.
My mailbox will soon overflow with seed catalogs, and before long, I’m circling old favorites and making lists of new must-try vegetable varieties. Although it will be months before I’m sprinkling seeds over sun-warmed soil like some backyard Demeter, that stack of catalogs is where it all starts. Make the most of your time indoors with these tips for maximizing all seed catalogs have to offer.
1. Buy Local
Despite your locale, there’s a seed house that’s right for you. In the Maritime Northwest where I live, we need seeds that germinate in cool soil and summer crops that can handle chilly nights. In the South and Southwest, resistance to bolting is an important consideration for greens and Brassicas. Different regions have different gardening challenges, and a seed house that specializes in your region is more likely to sell seed that will thrive and provide information that is relevant for your farm or garden.
A good seed house sells locally adapted seeds, but a great seed house trials them, too. Seed houses that grow their own offerings are able to fairly evaluate the merits of different varieties and provide accurate information, such as days to maturity and flavor development, that more closely reflect what you can expect in your own garden.
2. Shop Specialty
When you want onion starts, potatoes, garlic, culinary herbs or any number of speciality items, it can pay to go to a specialist. One year, I discovered that my favorite seed catalog was selling onion starts from a specialty grower in Texas. I was able to order the same starts directly from the grower and save quite a bit of money.
3. Use Informative Planting Guides
Although I own many dozen excellent-quality gardening books, I’ve learned more about practical gardening from seed catalogs than I have from my beloved books. A good seed catalog will include extensive information about seed germination, plant culture, planting times, dates to maturity, how much seed is needed per row or acre, and harvesting and storage specifics. That’s a huge amount of gardening information to get for free in your mailbox! I judge seed catalogs in part on how much of this useful info is included and tend to spend my money with companies that go the extra mile to provide it.
4. Know Catalog Lingo
There’s a wealth of information in a good seed catalog, but there can be a lot of short-hand and confusing terminology, too.
Open-pollinated (OP) and Hybrid (F1) Seeds
Open-pollinated varieties are necessary for saving seeds, tend to mature over a longer harvest window and are often cheaper. Hybrids (often called F1, for first filial generation) tend to mature into a very consistent, uniform crop, might show better vigor than OP varieties, are more expensive and cannot reliably be used for seed saving.
Some seeds are usually open-pollinated, like beans and lettuce, and some are more frequently hybrid, like cauliflower. Some, like tomatoes and corn, can be found in both open-pollinated and F1 versions. If your goal is to save seeds, you’ll want to stick with open-pollinated seed. Otherwise, pick whichever seed best suits your need. I tend to pick hybrid seeds for more finicky crops, such as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts; otherwise, I prefer the price point of open-pollinated seeds.
Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that have been saved over multiple generations and aren’t used in large-scale commercial cultivation. There isn’t a consistent standard for how old a seed variety must be to be labeled an heirloom, but gardeners generally disqualify varieties introduced after World War II.
Heirlooms have proven their worth by being extremely hardy, tasty or reliable in someone’s backyard for a very long time. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything for your farm or garden. Seed adaptation is local. The romantic history of an heirloom can be captivating, but unless your garden can provide conditions similar to those to which the heirloom is adapted, the variety might fail to live up to its full potential.
Gardeners particularly interested in helping preserve seed diversity will find their best selection in heirlooms.
All-America Selections, an independent nonprofit gardening organization, tests new plant varieties and recognizes the superior performers. Past winners include Honey Bear squash (an adorable acorn), Siam Queen Thai basil, the now ubiquitous Bright Lights Swiss chard and (way back in 1937) Bloomsdale spinach, a variety that’s still a garden and farm favorite. An AAS Winner variety in your seed catalog is likely to perform well.
5. Go for Built-in Disease Resistance
Various blights and fungal diseases can ruin your harvest, and prevention is typically easier than attempting cures. Stack the deck in your favor with varietals that tend to grow healthy and robust. Many vegetable varieties have resistance or tolerance to multiple diseases, and a good seed catalog will list these.
Disease-resistant means a certain variety is less likely to be infected by a particular pathogen; tolerance indicates a variety that is less damaged by the disease even if infected. Choose varieties bred to withstand pathogens in your area.
6. Watch for Keywords
Even the most forthright seed catalog won’t describe a variety as “poor-tasting and hard to germinate.” The catalog writers do want to sell seeds, after all. Read between the lines to discover if a particular variety is right for you. Beware of phrases like “with a little extra effort,” “well worth the extra time” or “harvest promptly for best quality” unless you know that you can provide your crop that extra coddling.
Phrases like “consistently high producer,” “quick, vigorous germination,” “particularly resistant to bolting” or “excellent quality even at larger sizes” indicate varieties that are easier to cultivate and harvest successfully.
Prepare to be amazed by the dizzing array of choices and unintimated by the catalog lingo with these tips at your disposal.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Hobby Farm Home.