In 1988 I decided to grow a few vegetables. Problem was, I’d never grown more than a sunflower in a milk carton. So it was no surprise when 50 years later, I was totally overwhelmed the first time I dove into seed catalogs.
So I developed a system. A simple one that took me from overwhelmed to overjoyed. I’ve taught this method in all my gardening workshops.
One student later told me, “No more pulling my hair out. Now I look forward to ordering seeds.”
So let’s give it a go, shall we? And in a bit, I’ll share my favorite seed catalogs.
Dreams are the seeds of change. Nothing ever grows without a seed, and nothing ever changes without a dream. ~ Debby Boone
Step 1: Gather up your tools
You deserve a pleasant seed-ordering experience!
- Collect your tools: Arrange the following tools on a table: Seed catalogs, laptop computer (optional), a pad of paper, a pencil or pen. That’s right. A pad of paper. I’ve learned that it helps to write things out on paper before placing orders online. I call it a pre-order. More on that in a minute.
- Get comfortable: Pour a cup of your favorite beverage.
- Make a list: What do you like to eat? What are our favorite flowers? Do you want fresh herbs to cook with?
- Review last season: What worked? What didn’t? (Later, ask yourself why and fix it)
- Take a seed inventory: Do you have seeds left over from previous years? How old are they? Remember, seeds have a shelf-life. For example:
+ Onions and voila: 1 year
+ Broccoli and cilantro: 3-5 years
+ Lettuce and nasturtium: 5-6 years
Ooops! Time for a break. Here’s an easy and healthy way to enjoy pea shoots…
Step 2: Create a pre-order
This pre-order step streamlines the entire seed ordering process. See the photo below? Grab your pad of paper and follow these steps. You’re on the way to blissful seed-ordering!
- On the left side, write main headings, such as broccoli. Then list varieties, such as Arcadia, underneath.
- Across the top, make a column for each catalog.
- Note page numbers: As you flip through catalogs, write the page number for the variety in the catalog column. Several catalogs might offer Arcadia broccoli, but now you know where to find it. Handy when you go back to compare pricing, how many seeds in a packet and so on.
- Research. Note the page number. Repeat.
Step 3: Keep these things in mind…
As you let your fingers do the walking through the catalogs, keep the following parameters in mind. It will help you select the right seeds for your growing conditions and climate.
- Which zone are you? Check climate suitability. Kodiak Island, where I live, is a temperate rainforest climate. Long summer days. But cool. Which about you? If you’re not sure, ask or look up your plant hardiness zone by zip code at the US Department of Agriculture website.
- Watch out for pest and disease resistance: Catalogs list which varieties are prone to certain diseases. For example, potatoes (scab), lettuce (gray mold), summer squash (blossom end-rot, tomatoes (fusarium wilt). If you’re dealing with pests, you might find my article on natural solutions for controlling plant pests especially helpful. Many catalogs provide glossaries in the back.
- Check for days to maturity: This is the time from sowing seeds to when you can expect to begin harvesting. Important if you have a short growing season.
- Decide on plant parenting: How important is it to you if the seed is open-pollinated (OP), hybrid (F1, etc.), GMO, heirloom, or organic?
- Seed characteristics: Seeds can be annuals, perennials; treated or pelletized. Read the fine print to avoid surprises.
- Order early! The early bird gets the seed, as in your favorite varieties.
- Ask for guidance: Gardening is not an exact science. Get on forums. Ask questions. Talk to local gardeners. Attend seed swaps.
Step 4: Go ahead, place your order!
Here’s where the beauty and power of your pre-order come in. Refer to it as you shop online or fill out the paper form. There is such freedom in doing something with a clear mind!
As promised, here is a list of my favorite seed catalogs. (Your climate and day length might require other sources):
- Fedco (my favorite)
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
- Territorial Seeds
- Baker Creek Heirlooms
- Seed Savers Exchange Heirloom Seeds
- Nichols Garden Nursery
One last thing:
If you’re new to garden catalogs, remember that all the lovely pictures in the catalog are of mature plants at peak perfection. Some of your perennial plants won’t look that way for a year or two so don’t despair and rip them from the ground. Keep trying—that’s what gardeners do, and gardening catalogs are there to entice us to do just that.
PS If you could ask me any question about starting seeds, what would it be?
More stuff you might enjoy:
My journey from tugboats to gardening: Cool climate gardening tips
A tale of adventure: How the Peace Rose survived WWII
Spicy solution: Kitchen Conundrum: How to store ridiculous-sized spice jars
My story about How Libby Fights Cancer With Food
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Marion Owen is a “Jill of all trades,” with 30 years of experience as a teacher and columnist. She’s on a mission to help busy people enhance their daily lives, condensing topics such as photography, cooking, and organic gardening into bite-size pieces. Get her free 4-page “In Good Light: Photo Tips for Busy People” and feel newly recharged when taking pictures.