How to Choose a Seed Catalog

Like holiday decorations, seed catalogs seem to arrive earlier every year. They bring a bit of color and freshness into a cold and often dreary season, and winter gives us the perfect chance to sit down and plan next year’s garden. It’s SEED TIME!

seed catalogs
Seed catalogs. Photo: Erica Smith

But NO, I hear you say. I’m not ready yet! Well… maybe we don’t need to get organized about ordering seeds until sometime in the new year. As the catalogs slide into your mailbox, though, it’s a good time to review them and make some preliminary decisions about where you’ll get those seeds from. Even those of us who’ve been gardening for a while like to switch it up between vendors sometimes, and I’m sure many Maryland Grows readers who are newer gardeners have reached the point where they’re getting seed catalogs they never asked for, but which look tantalizing. But no one wants to pay shipping costs on orders of one or two seed packets from each company. How do you narrow the choice down? Read on for some criteria to make the selection easier.

  • Does the catalog suit your gardening goals? Is there a particular, very special or brand-spanking-new vegetable or flower variety you must have? (In that case, order it now! Supplies often run out.) Or maybe you want plants from a certain cultural or culinary tradition, or need something disease-resistant. Do you like to have many choices laid out in front of you, or do you prefer a curated selection from the experts? Catalogs can be large or small, or have different specialties.
  • Do you actually need to order from a seed catalog? Worth asking! If you’re not picky about selection, you may find what you need at local garden centers, big box stores, or even supermarkets. Remember that choice will be limited and stores often throw out seeds after the spring planting season or at least fail to restock. And good luck finding seeds for fall planting.
  • How well is the catalog organized? If you get lost looking for the kale, maybe this isn’t the catalog for you. (Not a random example: sometimes it’s under K for Kale, sometimes G for Greens, and occasionally somewhere else unpredictable or in two different places. There should always be an index!)
  • The squash test. Okay, this may be just my pet peeve, but I feel that Latin names should not be a privilege reserved for snooty shrub and perennial catalogs. At the very least, it’s useful to know that squashes in Cucurbita moschata are more resistant to vine borers than maxima or C. pepo, so I prefer a catalog that distinguishes between those species. It’ll probably label everything else well too.
  • The artichoke test. If the catalog puts globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus) and Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) under the same heading, throw it in the recycling bin. (See also potatoes and sweet potatoes.)
  • How informative are the descriptions? I’d rather know how big a plant gets, what size and color its fruit or flower is, whether it’s disease-resistant, how long it takes to mature, how it’s different from other cultivars, etc. than read glowing advertisements or poetic verbiage. (At least in a seed catalog; I’m all for poems about vegetables otherwise.) Space is often limited in print so details may be on the company’s website instead. But they should be somewhere.
  • Can you find evidence of good business practices? Sales should be guaranteed and refund/return policies clear. Seeds should be labeled with the new year’s date and tested for good germination. Shipping costs should be specified, especially for live plants (for which shipping should be fast). Communication with the company should be easy and welcomed.
  • Are prices fair? You should be able to compare price per seed (or per ounce) between vendors, which means the number or weight of seeds per packet should be listed. Some people want small packets for small gardens, while others want the best price possible. Read Jon Traunfeld’s post (Are Cheaper Vegetable and Flower Seeds Just as Good as More Expensive Seeds?) on buying less expensive seed.

Things I care about less these days

  • It’s great to visualize the potential results of your gardening labor, but I’d rather a catalog be good in other ways than in providing glossy portraits of vegetables and flowers. If the company can’t afford to print the photos, they are usually available online. Also, remember that just as when you buy clothes by looking at models wearing them, reality doesn’t always match up. Your not-perfect plants are still wonderful!
  • Growing information. Details about when and how to plant, maintain, and harvest are great to have, and I save the catalogs that provide those and refer to them often, even when I don’t order from them. But I also have gardening books—and UMD Extension!
  • The Safe Seed Pledge. This is a guarantee, published in nearly every seed catalog now, that the company does not knowingly sell genetically modified seed. I’m sorry to say it’s pretty much meaningless—not because it’s a lie, but because GMO seed is just not available to home growers, and cross-pollination in the field is a vanishingly small possibility (and limited to a very few crops). Everyone’s had to jump on the bandwagon, though, due to a mistaken public perception of risk.
  • Organic seed. If you are a farmer trying to maintain organic certification, you need to buy organic seed when available. As a home gardener, I care much less about how my seeds are produced, although I’ll lean a bit in the organic direction if the price is right. But to me, the methods I use in the garden are more important. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
  • Print itself. I still like paging through a paper catalog, folding corners down or feathering the edges with sticky notes. But I’ve also discovered a lot of fascinating seed sources lately that only have an online presence, mostly small, specialist vendors. Even the large companies often have more seeds listed online than in their paper catalogs, and that’s where you’ll find items on sale, or discover that something’s sold out.

I hope these guidelines are useful to you! Beyond that, your choice is a matter of personal preference: sometimes you just fall in love with a particular catalog and want to give that company your business, and that’s fine. Don’t forget about participating in seed swaps and sharing packets with friends. And happy winter dreaming!

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

8 thoughts on “How to Choose a Seed Catalog

  1. Carolyn Blakeney December 17, 2018 / 11:00 am

    Ha- thanks for the “squash test” recommendation! It makes me nuts when catalogs don’t provide the scientific name. And luckily I’ve never had to act on the “artichoke test”.

  2. Sabine Harvey December 17, 2018 / 11:00 am

    Hello Erica, I could not agree more!! Especially about the squash test! I also like to know whether the tomatoes will produce determined or indetermined plants. And yes, lots and lots of growing info. The rest is superfluous.

  3. George Lambert December 17, 2018 / 9:37 pm

    Not sure it is fair to toss out catalogs just because not encyclopedic. For sure the more info they provide the easier it is for us, but the more info we have the less we need to rely on each of them. For example, on the squash vine borer (a common problem), it appears that the referenced moschata variety is winter squash, while the other two are summer. That is a lot easier to remember, and doesn’t rely on varietal reference in catalog. That’s bad news for you zucchini fans, so to assuage your disappointment, in case you haven’t heard, try planting seeds 4th of July (or maybe earlier inside?) to skip the borers’ life cycle. While obviously won’t be harvesting any in early summer, having some later is better than none.

  4. farmstandculture December 21, 2018 / 3:28 pm

    I chuckled at the artichoke test. So true.

  5. Maxine January 8, 2019 / 2:14 pm

    Any recommendations for native plants, especially shrubs/bushes and plants not vegetables. The garden centers have plants on the invasive list and although they are getting better at natives, it’s still a struggle.

  6. aelliwyn January 19, 2021 / 4:45 pm

    To add on to what’s been said here…onion info (is it long day, short day, neutral? and even more detailed info on the latitudes). I’m surprised by the number of catalogs that don’t include this.

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