Many gardeners spend the dark, cold days of late winter pouring over bright seed catalogs. Between the beautiful illustrations, enticing descriptions and inspiration of a new season, how’s a gardener to choose what to order—and from where? Catalogs come in the mail from across the country and bring hope for warmer, richer days, but urban growers often find themselves with a seed wishlist much larger than their garden space or budget can accommodate. These eight tips will help you pare down your list to something manageable and affordable.
1. Take Stock
Before buying new, start by looking through your existing seeds. Many seeds, like beans and peas, keep longer than one year and don’t require re-ordering. Others, like onions and corn, are best replaced annually. Local garden clubs, libraries and homesteading groups often hold seed swaps in winter, where you might find new varieties for no cost. For best results, use seeds that were stored in cool, dark locations; improperly stored seeds might not germinate.
2. Evaluate Reputation
If a new catalog shows up in the mail, do a bit of research on the company before diving in. Ask gardening friends for recommendations of seed companies with high germination rates and true-to-description varieties. Growing flowers and vegetables, processing the harvest and storing seed is time-consuming, and you want to be sure you spend your seed budget with a quality company.
3. Be Realistic
In early February, when the pace of life is slower, it’s easy to think that you can handle extra rows, new beds, and new crop varieties come summer. Don’t ignore the realities of your space and time, though: “Since I’m growing in a small space, I don’t want to over order,” says Kate Hodges, a lifelong gardener and urban farmer at Foraged & Sown. If you find yourself with extra space in the spring, you can always sow a second planting of a seed in your collection for an extended harvest.
4. Start With Rare Seeds
Your local garden center will usually have a good selection of standard crops throughout the late spring, but sometimes catalog varieties do sell out. It’s a good idea to place your orders for rare or unusual flowers, fruits and vegetables early in the winter. This is especially true of varieties advertised as “new” because seed companies often carry less stock in the first year, before they know whether it will be popular.
5. Prioritize Systematically
Start with your big list and narrow it strategically, prioritizing for productivity, hardiness zone, soil requirement and preferred flavor. You may need to re-read variety descriptions in seed catalogs several times to pare down your choices, but it will save you money in the long run.
6. Mind The Descriptions
Novice gardeners tend to overlook important details in seed catalogs, like time to maturity and optimal growing conditions. Some appealing vegetables have a very long growing season and others must have full sun, for example. “I’m tending towards orders with more descriptions in the catalog because they’re telling me everything I need to know to grow the plant,” Hodges says. If a listing doesn’t tell you any growing information, look for a guide online or in another reference so that you don’t end up with a crop that won’t thrive in your conditions.
7. Check Costs
The price of seeds varies widely. It pays to estimate how many seeds you will use and compare choices based on the cost per seed. Don’t forget to figure in shipping because many places charge a flat rate that can dramatically increase your order total. It may make more sense to buy all your packets from one or two seed companies.
8. Compare Carefully
Many companies carry similar varieties of the same vegetable. You can decide which to order based on values important to you, whether you’re choosing other seeds based on company or price. “I’m buying different varieties from each company based on the organic certification and quantities available,” Hodges says. Altruistic gardeners may also consider whether the company supports nonprofit work, as many popular seed growers donate to community or school gardens.
As the daylight grows longer, your seed orders will arrive. Then comes the real work of starting transplants, spreading compost and tending to seedlings. Depending on the seed quality, weather and your care, some varieties will outperform others. Keep careful notes because you’ll need them next year when the seed catalogs come pouring in again.