Get The Most Out Of Your Seed Catalogs

Seed catalogs can be your guidebook to the garden—letting you know planting information, harvest dates and a wealth of other information.

by Nan K. Chase
PHOTO: Suzy Morris/Flickr

Whether you prefer reading them in print or online, seed and nursery catalogs provide information that can greatly increase productivity in the vegetable garden and the fruit orchard. At first glance, catalogs may just look like collections of pretty pictures, but don’t be fooled. Once you know how much crucial growing information they contain, seed catalogs begin to look more like reference books—reference books you can take outdoors with you and even drop in the mud.

Seed companies and nurseries take pride in their annual catalogs, and each catalog has a personality that reflects the company’s heritage, specialties and customer service to customers. Technology and tastes may change, but a collection of antique seed catalogs shows that some companies have endured for a century or more. Generations of experience go into the production of garden catalogs, so read them carefully and follow their advice.

Basic Growing Information In Catalogs

Most seed catalogs provide this basic information:

  • Names: Along with the plant’s common name, the seed catalog will list the botanical (Latin) name. When you compare plants or seeds from various sources, using the botanical name will ensure you’re getting accurate information, as some plants may have multiple common names or multiple plants may share the same common name.
  • When To Plant: Not all seeds are planted in spring or summer, and the correct planting date makes a tremendous difference in the success of your crop. Some seeds only germinate in the warm soil of summer or early fall, while others only germinate in the cool soil of early spring or late fall.
  • How Deep To Plant: Like the time of year you plant, depth of planting matters greatly. Lettuce seeds, for example, must be sown practically on the surface of the soil or they won’t germinate, while garlic cloves and seed potatoes are planted several inches deep for best results. Catalogs take away the guesswork.
  • Spacing: There’s no need to over-plant—it wastes seeds and money. Instead, use catalogs to determine how close together to plant seeds or starts. Likewise, many seedlings must be thinned early in the growing process to allow maturing plants the space they need.
  • Germination Rate: Radish seeds are famous for germinating within a few days of planting, while crops like carrots and parsley seem to take ages to emerge from the ground. Knowing the germination time can help you plan your garden layout so that fast-growing crops lie within easy reach and slower growing plants can occupy back portions of the garden.
  • Days To Maturity: Here’s one of the most important bits of information you need for garden planning and proper harvest. Catalogs list reliable harvest times, which can range from a mere 20 days to 120 days or more. Knowing days to maturity can also help you make succession plantings so that you have crops ready to harvest over a long period rather than too many all at once.
  • Seeds Per Packet or Ounce: Another planning aid, seeds per packet, combined with the length of rows in your garden, can tell you how many packets you will need. Some companies list seeds per ounce instead. Either way, do the math and save money by buying the right quantity.
  • Heirloom, Organic or Non-GMO Designation: Many gardeners like to know how their seeds have been produced, so look to catalogs for current designations.

Other Seed Catalog Features

Other features of seed or nursery catalogs include:

  • Photographs or Illustrations: How nice to see what your garden plants will look like at maturity, from beans to greens, and from turnips to tomatillos. Nursery stock for fruit trees, fruiting vines and bramble fruits can add long-term beauty to the landscape.
  • Shipping Times: Some crops are only shipped in spring or fall and must be planted promptly. Catalogs will inform you about special ordering and delivery times so you can have beds prepared.
  • Seed Viability: In some cases, seeds can retain their viability—the ability to germinate—for many years, but sometimes seed viability lasts only a year.
  • Frost Tolerance: For gardeners everywhere, it’s helpful to know if plants can tolerate sub-freezing weather and still keep producing. Northern gardeners may need to plant during a narrow window of time, while southern gardeners may be able to plant for year-round harvest.
  • Companion Plantings: Catalogs often sell seeds for flowers that do well alongside your herbs and vegetables. Double your pleasure by enjoying crops and ornamentals together.
  • Accessories and Books: Many seed and nursery suppliers sell their favorite garden tools, soil supplements and books.
  • Planting Guides: A particularly helpful feature is a complete planting guide that lists planting times and all other relevant information in a table or chart.

Think of seed and nursery catalogs as garden tools. They can be every bit as important as shovels and watering cans.

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