What to look for in a seed catalog

Ah, the blank slate of the spring garden!

It’s cold outside, more snow is on its way, and spring planting is just a dream. But the seed catalogs are here, so dreaming is the right thing to do… and then, for those of us who have a budget at least, more serious planning.

I have my own small garden to plan, but also I’ve got 1700 square feet of demo garden to play with: maps to draw, leftover seed to organize, new seed to order. I’ll be making some posts along the way to let you in on some of my choices.

First, how to choose between all those deliciously attractive catalogs that are beating their way to your mailbox? (Or if they aren’t, everyone’s got a website these days.) In the end, it’s a matter of personal choice, but here are some things I look for in a catalog or website – and don’t necessarily find them all in one place!

  • Logical organization. Can you find what you’re looking for the first time and when you go back again? Is there an index or a user-friendly menu?
  • Good business practices.
  1. Are sales guaranteed and return/refund policy clear?
  2. Is the company easy to communicate with?
  3. Is shipping information made clear, especially for live plants?
  4. Are maturity dates printed on seed packets? Is seed germination tested?
  • The Safe Seed Pledge. (For more information see this article by Lee Royer, Frederick County Master Gardener.)
  • Planting, growing and harvest instructions for each species and (when different) cultivar. Yes, this is in books, but it’s convenient to have it available when you make your ordering decisions.
  • Pictures of the products. Not necessary (and expensive to print) but nice to have. Sometimes they’re on the website if not in the catalog. Remember pictures can lie! Good descriptions are a must if photos are missing.
  • Descriptions ideally including:
  1. Disease resistance
  2. Size and growth habit of plant
  3. Size of edible part
  4. Culinary details
  5. Fruit and flower color if relevant
  6. Comparisons between similar cultivars to assist in choice
  7. And anything else important!
  • Fair prices. And please tell us how many seeds in a packet because it helps us compare! Sometimes we want fewer seeds (for small gardens) and sometimes we want the best possible price by weight.
  • Species information. I like to see this even for vegetables; some people don’t care. But it can be important to know which species or subspecies you are dealing with. For example, the family of edible squashes consists of four species, of which two, Cucurbita moschata and C. mixta or argyrosperma, are more resistant to vine borers and cucumber beetles. If you are only given common names, you may not know whether the squash you’re buying fits into those species. It is also easier to remember relationships between plants and how this may affect pests and diseases, if you are provided with species information.

Also, consider that seed produced here on the East Coast (ideally in the Mid-Atlantic) may grow better for you than seed from elsewhere in the country that’s meant to do well in other climate conditions. “Buy local” doesn’t mean quite the same thing with seed that it does with produce from a farmer’s market, but you can keep it in mind anyway. And even though you may want to get your orders in now to be sure you get exactly what you want to grow in 2010 (yes I will tell you in another post where you can order mouse melon seed!), remember that your local garden center will have that seed you forgot to buy come spring.

What do you look for in a seed catalog? What are you going to order this winter?

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