University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
MOST FROM SEED CATALOGS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
one of those particularly cold and blustery wintry days, I like to
all the seed catalogs that have arrived in my mailbox and settle
down for a
good read. Even if you don’t plan to buy
from them but buy locally this spring, you can learn much from
catalogs if you
understand a few key terms and all that may be packed into the
course it helps to have a pen and paper, or perhaps a laptop, handy
to note all
your choices and plans. If you have a
laptop computer or other internet access handy, you might want to
check out the
seed catalogs online too. Many offer
from seed catalogs is both convenient, and a good way to get a wider
than usually is available locally, especially if you are looking for
or unusual varieties. Yet most catalogs offer a lot more than just
list for seeds and plants. I like to
compare several catalogs, as they usually emphasize different
first item that should catch your eye in catalogs, other than
photos, is the
name of the flower or vegetable. The
words “New” or “Improved” aren’t just selling points, they often
variety has been changed in some trait, perhaps substantially.
are used to highlight key traits, such as a sun for heat tolerance,
for cold tolerance, or a pot meaning good in containers. Look for
the key to these icons, which vary
among catalogs, at the beginning or often on the bottom of each
page. One icon used for most is the red,
white and blue All-America Selections shield, indicating this
variety won this
award, being judged by professionals nationwide as superior
you may see by some crops are F1 and OP.
These refer, respectively, to F1 hybrids (first generation, compared
F2 which is second generation) and Open Pollinated. The former are
crosses between two parents,
to produce a variety with hybrid traits and vigor. If you collect
seeds of these F1 hybrids,
they wont give you the same variety.
Open pollinated plants, on the other hand, will come “true” from
seeds when sown.
code letters you will see with some plants, in particular some
as vine crops and tomatoes, are ones referring to disease
resistance. Choose these varieties, and you may have fewer
diseases in the garden to deal with. In
one catalog I saw over 50 listed—not all of course for one crop.
Some of the main ones to watch for on
tomatoes for instance are TMV (tobacco
mosaic virus), TSWV (tomato spotted wilt virus), V (verticillium
and F (fusarium wilt). If there has been
late blight in your area in recent years, wiping out tomatoes, look
for the few
with resistance to this (LB).
other key point in seed catalog descriptions is days to maturity.
This could mean from sowing, or in the case
of slow crops the days from setting out plants.
Check the catalog to make sure what is meant. This is particularly
important in northern
areas with short growing seasons (days between frosts), in order to
or in the case of vegetables their fruits.
Even with this, if a summer is particularly cool and the crop likes
warmth, it may mature more slowly.
are useful for specifics such as fruit or flower color, particular
vegetables, heights and spreads. Even
these may vary greatly among catalogs, so compare several, and they
from your own garden. Beware of general
and glowing adjectives such as “good”,
“popular”, or “large”, as these are relative and may have little
your own garden. Just as the photos are
often “enhanced” (don’t get disappointed if your flowers and
look as luscious), so are many descriptions.
avoid ending up with too many seeds, roughly map out your garden to
"fit in" the varieties you want grow. A good catalog will give the
per packet, and spacing when planting seedlings or sowing seeds.
So, for instance, for sweet corn you may see
150 seeds per packet. If the
recommendation is to plant 3 seeds per foot, this packet would sow
50 feet of
should also see growing tips for each crop, as in the case of corn
it’s best to
plant several rows close together for best pollination. So rather
than one long row, five 10-foot
rows, three feet apart would be better.
So the simple math means you need an area 10 by 3 feet, or 30 square
feet just for this packet of corn seeds.
good news is, if you end up with too many seeds, most store well for
a year or
more in a jar in the refrigerator. Or,
order with a friend and share the seeds.
you don’t have any catalogs, and aren’t on their mail lists already,
online for some. You can invariably
order up a printed copy to be mailed from their websites, as well as
range of plants they offer and any specialties.
Especially in the case of vegetables, if you like a crop in
such as lettuce or tomatoes or peppers, you may be surprised how
selections you can find. Just remember,
don’t get carried away with more than you and your garden space can
handle—something I continually seem to neglect!