Nothing brightens up a dreary winter afternoon like a crisp, colorful seed catalog arriving in the mailbox. Anticipation of the sun to come and daydreams of a bountiful harvest are welcome during these short seasonal days.
I got caught up in the excitement and ended up with enough seed packets in my online shopping cart for a small farm only to find out later that my selections weren’t ideal for my space garden or my needs. Avoid this by taking the time to organize yourself and refine your shopping list.
After each gardening season, and before the temptation of seed catalogs calls you, it is wise to reflect on the successes and difficulties of the previous year. Have an idea of what you’d like to replicate, what you’d like to tweak, and any new plants or techniques you’d like to try. If you haven’t done this after cleaning up the garden last year, the new year is a great time to think about it and start formulating a plan for the year ahead.
If you haven’t received seed catalogs yet this year, check your favorite seed supplier’s website. Most have a link where you can request a catalog by mail, download or browse their offerings online. Look for a local or regional supplier, as seeds grown in a similar climate will have more predictable performance in your garden.
For novice gardeners, a great place to start learning about seed companies is your local garden center, as they stock seed from many suppliers. If you find that a particular company’s seeds interest you, visit their website to view or request their full catalog.
Now that you know what you want, as well as what you don’t, it’s time to start browsing catalogs. In addition to beautiful photographs, grower stories, and recipes, a good seed catalog will include a detailed description of each plant for which seed is available.
Here in Vermont, with our short growing season, it’s important to note the days to maturity. For plants that are direct seeded, which means the seed goes directly into the ground when temperatures are warm enough, the number of days to maturity indicates the number of days the seed will take to produce harvestable fruit. For plants that are started indoors and transplanted at the appropriate time, this is the time it will take from transplanting to harvest.
To find your frost dates and determine the length of your growing season, you can search the National Gardening Association website at garden.org/apps/frost-dates online.
The plant description will tell you if a variety is open pollinated or hybrid. Choose open pollination if you plan to save your own seeds. Hybrid varieties may offer disease or pest resistance. Sometimes the hybrid resistor is noted as a code. You may need to browse the catalog to find out what the code means.
Finally, read the list carefully to see if there are any peculiarities of the variety. Some may be more tolerant of variations in soil conditions while others may need fertilization to maximize yield. Know what each plant will need before making your final choice.
I also recommend saving your seed catalog for the gardening season. Sometimes details are provided there that are not printed on the seed packet. Having access to your catalog can save you time if the seed packet gets lost.
Andrea Knepper is a UVM Extension Trainee Master Gardener from Bolton.