Arts, Dining & Entertainment

Sifting through seed catalogs

By Andrea Knepper

Nothing brightens a dreary winter afternoon like a crisp, colorful seed catalog arriving in the mailbox. The anticipation of sunshine to come and daydreams of a bountiful harvest are welcome during these seasonally short days.

I have been caught up in the excitement and found myself with enough seed packets in my online shopping cart for a small farm, and later found my selections to not be ideal for my garden space or needs. Avoid this by taking some time to get organized and refining your shopping list.

After each gardening season, and before the temptation of seed catalogs calls, it is wise to reflect on your previous year’s successes and struggles. Have an idea of what you would like to replicate, what you would like to adjust and any new plants or techniques you’d like to try. If you didn’t do this after cleaning out last year’s garden, the new year is a perfect time to ponder this and start formulating a plan for the coming year.

If you haven’t received any seed catalogs yet this year, check your favorite seed supplier’s website. Most have a link where you can request a catalog by mail, download or browse their offerings online. Look for a local or regional supplier as seeds grown in a similar climate will be more predictable performers in your garden.

For first time gardeners, a great place to start learning about seed companies is your local garden center as they will stock seeds from numerous suppliers. If you find seeds from a particular company appeal to you, visit their website to view, or request, their complete catalog.

In addition to beautiful photography, stories from growers and recipes, a good seed catalog will include a thorough description of each plant for which seed is available.

Here in Vermont, with our short growing season, it is important to note the days to maturity. For plants that are direct-seeded, meaning the seed goes directly into the ground when temperatures are warm enough, the days to maturity indicates the number of days the seed will take to produce harvestable fruit. For plants that are started indoors and transplanted at the appropriate time, this is the length of time it will take from transplanting to harvest.

To find your frost dates, and determine the length of your growing season, you can search the National Gardening Association’s website,

The plant description will tell you if a variety is open-pollinated or a hybrid. Choose open-pollinated if you plan to save your own seed. Hybrid varieties may offer resistance to disease or pests. Sometimes hybrid resistance is noted as a code. You may need to flip through the catalog to find out what the code means.

Finally, carefully read the listing to see if there are any peculiarities of the variety. Some may be more tolerant to variations in soil conditions while others may need fertilization to maximize yield. Know what each plant will require before making your final choices.

I also recommend holding onto your seed catalog for the gardening season. Sometimes there are details provided there that are not printed on the seed packet. Having access to your catalog can save you time if the seed packet goes astray.

Andrea Knepper is an extension master gardener at the University of Vermont.

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