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Seed Catalogues – Using Them to Their Best Advantage

We are in the depths of winter, and it’s snowing outside. As large, fat flakes fall on the ground, one of my favorite ways to pass the time is to snuggle up with a stack of seed catalogues. With pen in hand, there are hundreds of temptations to be had, many more than my budget or garden can accommodate.

The plants and seeds on offer are the backbone of a seed catalogue. They do, however, also contain a wealth of information that goes far beyond pictures of gorgeous blooms and colorful vegetables with enticing descriptions. In fact, some of the most valuable tidbits of growing info that I’ve gleaned over the years were found between the pages of a catalogue. For example, did you know that spinach is not only sensitive to the heat but also to the number of daylight hours?  Neither did I…until I read it in a seed catalogue.

There are a few things that I always keep an eye out for. Every catalogue is different, and some are more detailed than others, so if I don’t see the information I’m looking for in one catalogue, I may very well find it in another.

Sun/Shade/Partial Shade

All plants require a certain amount of sun, and most catalogues use symbols to indicate light requirements. This makes identifying plants that will work in a particular situation so much easier. I’m one of those people that wants to grow everything, so scanning a page and focusing only on those plants that meet my conditions can really narrow things down. It’s important to remember that the sunlight recommendations may differ based on the catalogues geographic region – while a local catalogue may list a particular plant as requiring full sun, a catalogue from a more southern climate may classify it as a candidate for a partially shady location.

Annual/Perennial/Bi-ennial/Zone

The hardiness zone listed for a particular plant should be the same regardless of which catalogue it’s listed in*, but whether or not a plant is considered an annual or perennial may vary. Also, a plants aggressiveness and it’s propensity to be invasive can be very different depending on location. Case in point – I grew Cardiospermum halicacabum (Love in a Puff, pictured below) this past summer – a lovely, delicate vine with puffy green seed pods. This plant is considered an invasive weed in the southern U.S., but there’s no fear of that in our climate.

*One note about zones in North America – Canadian hardiness zones are calculated differently from U.S. zones (and therefore, the zone listed in a U.S. catalogue will be different from one in a Canadian catalogue). For a very rough conversion, add 1 to the U.S. zone to approximate the Canadian zone (e.g. US zone 5 = Canadian zone 6).

Cardiospermum halicacabum. Photo by Margaret Mishra.

Size/Shape

Knowing how big or tall a plant will get can ultimately affect your decision to purchase the seeds/plants. Consider the case of beans – in order to know where best to locate them in my garden, I need to know if they are a vining or bush type. Similarly, when I grew zinnias this past year, some of them were 3’ tall while others topped out at 6”. Which size I choose is dependent on where I will be planting them.

Moisture Requirements

This is one bit of information that some people ignore altogether. I’ve heard people say that if a plant needs more water, they’ll just water more; if it needs less, they will hold back. This strategy, however, may not work in all situations, especially if your bed is perpetually wet or dries out quickly. Things can also get tricky when you place thirsty plants next to those that like it on the dry side. When planning a garden, it will make your life much easier – and your plants will be much happier – if plants with similar moisture preferences are grouped together. This not only helps with maintenance, but some plants will simply not tolerate the dry/wet conditions required by others. No matter what you do, chances are that one of those will suffer.

Days to Harvest/Flower

These numbers are estimates, and a lot depends on where you are located, which is why a range is often indicated, instead of a specific number. When you take into account our erratic weather patterns in the past few years, it becomes even more difficult to predict the timing of blooms or a harvest. Where I find these numbers most helpful is in making comparisons within a particular variety. For example, if I want to start harvesting tomatoes as early as possible, I’ll make sure to include at least one variety that has a quicker maturity compared to others. It may not mature in the stated number of days in the catalogue, but it will likely be one of the first to bear fruit in the garden. Days to harvest is particularly important if you are gardening in a short-season area as it can mean the difference between an empty or full harvest basket. Also note that for veg that are normally seeded indoors then transplanted outside a few weeks later (e.g. tomatoes & peppers), “days to harvest” refers to the number of days after transplanting outdoors, not from seeding.

When & Where to Sow

This is one of the most valuable pieces of information in a catalogue. When to sow is often linked to the first frost date or another site specific variable such as “sow when the ground can be worked”. This makes it a very useful bit of information, regardless of where you live since the actual “date” is based on your specific area. This is also where you will find out if the seeds need to be sown ahead of time indoors, or if they can be sown directly into the ground (for some, you can do both). If you don’t have the desire or space to grow seedlings indoors, this detail is obviously important to know before you place an order.

Photo by Margaret Mishra.

Other Useful Information

Every catalogue is different in terms of the type and thoroughness of information provided, but other bits of info that I look for include:  how to sow the seeds, if the seeds require special treatment (e.g. stratification), duration of blooms, and if supports are needed. Many catalogues also contain historical information on heirloom varieties (I’m often enticed to purchase a variety simply based on an intriguing backstory!) and will specify if a particular variety is an heirloom, open-pollinated, or hybrid. If you plan to save seeds, this is an important distinction. These days, many catalogues also have a special symbol that indicates if a flowering plant is pollinator friendly or not. I’m always on the lookout for plants that will attract pollinators, so this is one thing that I keep an eye out for. If I’m undecided between two plants and one is listed as pollinator friendly, this will tip the scales in its favor.

Don’t Skip the Introductory Paragraph

Don’t go straight to the individual variety descriptions, skipping past the paragraph that is just underneath the plant heading. That introductory paragraph is usually teeming with good info about a species’ habits and preferred growing environment, often containing information about conditions that a plant doesn’t tolerate well, which is just as important as knowing what it does prefer.

“Bad” is Good

When it comes to plant descriptions, “bad” is actually a good thing. The catalogues that I appreciate (and trust) the most are those that provide realistic descriptions, even if this reflects negatively on the plant. When every seed on offer is accompanied by a glowing narrative with not a single negative word, I become skeptical. If a particular plant is aggressive, finicky to grow, or the seeds are difficult to germinate, I want to know that!

The Bottom Line

Don’t gloss over the details included in seed catalogues, even if you’ve been growing that particular plant or veg for a long time. Some catalogues are so useful, I keep them in a magazine holder on my bookshelf, right alongside my gardening books. You just never know what tidbit of information hiding in those words could increase your understanding of a particular plant and make your gardening experience that much better.

Published on Feb 4, 2019

Mother Earth Gardener

Expert advice on all aspects of growing.