In the quiet, post-holiday weeks of winter, nothing livens up a gardener with cabin fever like a fresh-off-the-presses, colorful and enticing seed catalog.

Two seed catalogs rest with one on top of the other. On both of them is a small notepad with crooked red lines and a few notes written in a blue marker that can also be seen. The magazine on top is opened to a page of very bright annual flowers with several written descriptions and prices. On the catalog underneath, the page is opened to the leafy greens such as lettuce, kale and leaks. Also written below every picture is a short description of how to grow and what to expect as well as a price for the seeds.

Photo by Allison Sidhu

This time-honored resource has its roots in antiquity. The British Agricultural Historical Society (BHS)  archives describe a burgeoning seed trade in the late 1200s. By the 1590s, market gardeners were a growing contingent of seed suppliers.

One of them was Richard Gardiner, a linen draper who raised vegetables for sale as produce and seed. This was a devastating period of plague, crop failure, and famine, and he responded by planting his fields with 700 closed cabbages (headed) to sustain the starving.

In 1599, Gardiner published a pamphlet titled “Instructions for manuring, sowing, and planting of Kitchin Gardens.” It is described in the annals of the BHS, as well as in a fascinating book, “The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration, 1560-1660,” by Margaret Willes, available on Amazon.

The Making of the English Gardener

A mere 30 pages, his guide is packed with cooking tips and recipes for nutritious broths and salads. And, it lists produce and seed available for purchase, making it one of our earliest seed catalogs.

Gardiner was a forerunner in the movement to achieve food security one garden at a time. Today’s catalogs continue the tradition, offering quantities and varieties suited for the home gardener.

5 Tips for Navigating Seed Catalogs

The term “home gardener” encompasses a wide array of folks from those with 40 acres (and the proverbial mule?) to a few pots on the patio.

The Rare Seed Catalog lays flat on a smooth, wooden table. On the cover of the catalog is the name as well as some large, purple, rooted vegetables. The roots are cut into cross-sections that are bright purple and contain within them patterns like that of an orange or lemon. On top of the magazine is a small notepad and a pen. The notepad contains some notes about which seeds to look for in this year's catalog.

Photo by Nan Schiller

Seed catalogs are for all of us, and each year companies compile their best horticultural achievements to date for us to peruse. Here’s how to sift through an abundance of choices, and zero in on what you want:

1. Get the Lay of the Land

Begin your browsing – where else? – at the beginning. Look for a key to symbols used throughout the publication, and any guides to language used throughout.

Next, move into the organized sections. They include headings like fruit, herbs, vegetables, flowers, perennials, live plants, and garden gear. They are usually interspersed with a wealth of articles, recipes, and other items of interest to gardeners, in a user-friendly, magazine-style format.

A notepad rests on top of a seed catalog opened to a page full of peppers. On the page is one pepper, the white lakes pepper, that is circled. The yellow pepper's name is also written on the notepad indicating the desired pepper seeds have been found. The page contains red, yellow and orange varieties of peppers.

Photo by Nan Schiller

Some companies go into more detail than others, so plant write-ups vary from one publication to another.

A plant description may begin with USDA Hardiness Zones, followed by recommended hours of sunlight, soil acidity, and moisture levels. It could go on to discuss starting indoors or out, when to transplant, spacing in the ground, height and width, and the appearance of the foliage, flowers, and produce.

You’ll find descriptions that include terms like organic, heirloom, and open-pollinated.

Organic products have not been treated with synthetic chemicals and bear appropriate certification.

Heirlooms have at least 50 years of heritage behind them. During this time, they have been passed from gardener to gardener and retained their original characteristics, having been open-pollinated, and therefore, never cross bred.

A Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog resides on a darkly stained wooden table. On the cover of the catalog is the name of the company and a picture of some tomatoes called "Blue Beauty Tomato". Some of the tomatoes are attached by the stem that they were grown from. Others are unattached. The tomatoes are dark at the top and fade to fade to red as it gets closer to the bottom. One tomato is sliced in half to show the juicy fruit that it holds within.

Photo by Allison Sidhu

Or, you may simply find a quaint description of a tomato that was Martha Washington’s favorite, with sweet red flesh and a skin that never cracks. In this case, I go to the company’s website for a complete description.

Sadly, many print catalogs are going by the wayside, and those that remain are abbreviated versions of the contents to be found on company websites. Of course, this is a boon for the online shopper!

If a publication lacks the information you seek, go online, or contact customer service by email or phone. You will also find customer reviews online, which are a great way to decide whether to try a new product.

2. Don’t Be Ruled by Climate Zones

Take USDA Hardiness Zones with a grain of salt, as they say. Some catalogs don’t refer to them at all.

So, how do you know what to choose?

Take the advice of a little article I read in the 2016 edition of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Rare Seed Catalog, which says that “nearly any seed in this catalog will grow in over 95% of the USA.” That’s saying a lot, considering that their varieties are harvested all over the world.

Two seed catalogs rest with one on top of the other. On both of them is a small notepad with crooked red lines and a few notes written in a blue marker that can also be seen. The magazine on top is opened to a page of very bright annual flowers with several written descriptions and prices. On the catalog underneath, the page is opened to the leafy greens such as lettuce, kale and leaks. Also written below every picture is a short description of how to grow and what to expect as well as a price for the seeds. Additionally, there is a stack of post it notes to the side of everything with some notes already marking the pages in the catalogs.

Photo by Allison Sidhu

The article states that USDA guidelines are based on average winter temps that don’t apply to summer gardens, so customers should select varieties from locations where the summer weather matches their own.

I think that this philosophy has merit when purchasing products not indigenous to the US. However, at the very least, use hardiness zone guidelines to estimate frost dates.

Knowing the average date of the last frost is a great guide for spring planting. And the average date of the first frost is helpful for determining the feasibility of planting a second veggie crop mid-summer, and what you may hope to yield before the snow flies.

Did you know that what grows as a perennial in a warm climate may grow equally well in a cooler region, but it will become an annual that dies off with the first frost?

3. Underestimate Your Need for Seed and Overestimate Your Need for Space

One of the biggest mistakes home gardeners make is to purchase too much seed for their plot. And, while it’s wonderful to share with friends, there’s no need to strain the budget, right?

Here’s a personal example:

I had read that I would need 1/4 pound of morning glory seeds for 125 square feet.  My daughter gave me 32 precious seeds harvested from her own plants. I started these annuals indoors to give them a jump start, and transplanted them along a 20-by-4-foot fence (80 square feet).

Would you believe they covered that fence with blossoms all summer long?

And while I was marveling at how a little often goes a long way, other members of my family (who shall remain nameless) were discovering (too late) that you can’t plant four zucchinis, three peppers, and three bush beans in a 5-by-4-foot (20 square feet) plot, when each zucchini grows to four feet in diameter.

Needless to say, we have greatly expanded our vegetable garden!

Five packets of newly purchased seeds are piled on top of The Rare Seed Catalog. The purple slices of the roots can be seen on the cover of the catalog. The seed packets each contain several small seeds, an image of the delectables it will grow, and some short quotes. The seeds are for various plants including peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and others. Next to the pile of seeds is a pen and a notepad with the names of seeds to look for in the catalog. All of this is resting on a lightly stained wooden table.

Photo by Nan Schiller

I find that purchasing one seed packet of any given variety is always enough for us. But some gardeners have more room to spread out.

If you have acreage devoted to crops or are creating a border of flowers along a driveway, draw a plan on paper and decide on a length and width for each type of plant you’d like to have. Then, read the descriptions of the mature sizes of your selections, and use your drawing to approximate how many of each you’ll need.

It’s also worth mentioning that not all seeds will germinate, and some more delicate specimens will not thrive in less-than-perfect conditions. For some, this may be a reason to buy more seed – but wait to make that determination until next winter, after you’ve given a smaller quantity of seed a shot first.

4. Beware the Lure of the Latest, Greatest

It’s tempting to go straight to the “What’s New” pages to find the most unusual looking tomato with pink spots and purple stripes. However, there are no customer reviews for it, right?

A seed catalog rests opened on a page full of colorful vegetables. This page is focused on those of the purple variety. The vegetables shown are those of the less common and less well-known varieties showing the true capability of what the rare seed catalogs have to offer. The vegetables are shown in a picture with the name and catalog numbers in bold directly underneath. Underneath the name are long descriptions of each variety and the price of a number of seeds.

Photo by Nan Schiller

Granted, the company stands behind its latest achievement, and likely it’s a good one… however, I prefer to hear from the folks at home who have given it a try and had success.

If you just can’t help yourself, buy a single package of that bright and shiny newbie, give it a try, and be the first to report your findings on the company’s website.

5. Comparison Shop

Don’t rely on one catalog for all your needs. When you find a plant variety you like, see if you can locate it in several publications. If you can, chances are, the quantity of seeds per packet will be different.

Not to worry.

A seed catalog lays open to a page full of various zucchinis and squash varieties. In the middle of the photo is an image and description of the Caserta Zucchini. On the image of the green, tubular vegetable is a big check mark indicating that the buyer has found the right seeds. Under the catalog is a notepad and a pamphlet. The pamphlet has a picture of three yellow squashes.

Photo by Nan Schiller

Simply convert the price per packet to the cost per unit.

Here’s how:

If a packet of 25 tomatoes is $5.99, divide 5.99 by 25, and you’ll get 0.2396, or about 24 cents each. It’s like looking at the unit prices in the grocery store to see if buying the economy size toilet paper is worth it.

Also, keep in mind that as with produce in the market, certified organic products and heirloom varieties tend to cost more, so be sure to compare products with similar qualities when factoring price into your decision.

Like Old Friends

In my house, the most exciting event after the winter holidays is the arrival of seed catalogs.

A Timeless Classics Seed catalog rests on a table. On the cover of the catalog are bright purple and yellow violas. The flowers are in full bloom with vibrant greens coming from the petals and stems beyond

Photo by Allison Sidhu

With thoughts of sunshine and brimming harvest baskets, I slowly browse the gorgeous pages, savoring each description, and making copious notes.

I brush up on my Latin nomenclature and the health benefits of vegetables in a variety of colors unknown to me in my childhood. And there’s always a photo or two of some gargantuan squash that has won umpteen awards.

Like old friends, the following three catalogs have been coming regularly to my house for years. At the time of this writing, they are free.

First is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds,  which states that they have “one of the largest selections of seeds from the 19th century… to promote and preserve our agricultural and culinary heritage.”

Next is Burpee, a respected company that has been “innovating for 142 years.”

Four catalogs are arranged on a dark wooden table much like that of cards in a players hand. The catalogs are four companies' yearly seed catalogs used to make loyal customers aware of the seeds that they each have to offer. The catalogs from back to front are green, white, purple/green and white. The one on top has a picture of several different tomatoes with some being ripe and others not so much. The tomatoes are black on top and slowly fade to red towards the bottom.

Photo by Allison Sidhu

And finally, Seed Savers Exchange, an organization “dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds.”

I like the quality of their products, as well as their philanthropic missions, sustainable practices, and non-GMO commitment.

Don’t forget the Kitazawa Seed Co. and Bluestone Perennials, a few contenders who were new to me this season, with lovely, user-friendly catalogs.

Founded in 1917, Kitazawa specializes in Asian vegetable seeds on the West Coast, and their catalog includes hand-drawn illustrations rather than photographs. Bluestone has been in business since 1972, and all of the perennial plants that they offer are grown sustainably.

I’m also a fan of shopping online, and you’ll breeze through the comparison shopping portion of your quest if you choose to go this route, since websites are so easily searchable. Don’t forget to visit a few of our favorites:

  • Nature Hills Nursery
  • True Leaf Market
  • Garden Hills Nursery

My seed catalogs are constant companions until I place my orders and file them away, dog-eared and annotated, for future reference or giving to a friend. Make them a regular part of your garden planning and enjoy a forgotten pleasure – snail mail to cozy up with on a wintery afternoon.

How is the garden of your dreams coming along? Does catalog shopping play a role in your planning? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. And don’t forget to check out our springtime garden checklist and beginners guide to vegetable gardening to start preparing for getting those seeds in the ground.

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