As exciting as waiting for Santa’s annual nocturnal visit is, waiting for the new seed catalogs to arrive is almost as much fun. At least that’s true if you’re a gardener or gardener wannabe.
Those seed catalogs are a fresh reminder that even though the cold winter winds loom in your near future, there is still a beautiful, warm spring lurking not all that far away.
So how do you go about choosing which varieties of all these seeds will have the best chance of producing the best results in your garden?
There are a couple of very important pieces of information you'll need before you're ready to start seed shopping.
In which Agricultural Zone is your garden?
Go to the USDA’s website to check out their zone map to find the official zone designation for your location.
For those living outside of the United States or Canada, check your own country’s agricultural department’s website for similar planting information.
What is the average Last Frost Date in the spring and average First Frost Date in the autumn in your area?
The easiest way to find these dates is to contact your local Agricultural Extension Agent’s office, often listed under your city or county’s telephone directory listings or on your local government’s website.
Now use those last and first frost dates to calculate your area’s average number of days in your growing season. The agricultural zones are usually referenced in seed and nursery catalogs for fruit trees, nut trees, and fruit or flowering bushes to indicate in which zones they will thrive.
Tip: As long as you’re contacting your local Extension Agent for the frost date information, why not ask if there are any leaflets or fact sheets available that recommend specific varieties that are best for your area? They’re free and contain invaluable information for successful garden planning.
Armed with all of this information, you can better determine what vegetables and flower seeds listed in your catalogs will be most appropriate for your area.
The next step is to decide which vegetables, fruits, and flowers you’d like to grow. Keep those zones and average growing dates in mind as you look over the various descriptions of the varieties offered in the seed catalogs. It will also help your planning to make a rough sketch of the area of your garden and what will go where.
Tip: Update this sketch as you plant and replace items throughout the growing season and as a reference when rotating crops each season to avoid planting the same types of crops in the same location from one year to the next. This is important information to keep on hand to avoid depleting soil nutrients or spreading plant-specific diseases from season to season.
As an example, let’s say that you’d like to grow broccoli this season. Broccoli likes cool weather, so it’s considered an early spring crop, and a possible fall crop in agricultural zones with a long growing season.
On the example page shown here from the Pinetree Seeds catalog, notice the number of days that is listed after each variety’s name. This lets you know about how long it will take from planting (or transplanting young plants) until it’s ready for harvesting.
Get your calendar out and count the days from your average last frost date until the broccoli will most likely be about ready to be harvested (and cooked and eaten!). Will that time span work for you and your garden’s climate? Will it get too hot too soon and risk that the broccoli will go to seed quickly, or will switching to another variety with a shorter maturity date work better? Or will your climate stay cool enough to try one with a longer maturity date and more chances for plenty of side shoots after the main head is harvested?
Tip: If you have enough room in your garden, consider planting at least two (or more) varieties that have different maturity dates to make the harvest of the freshest, tastiest food you can get last even longer and extend its season.
In addition to the days to maturity, read the descriptions to check what other qualities each variety offers such as the average number of days until seed germination, disease resistance, growing habits, whether it’s suitable for growing in pots or containers, or if it is an open-pollinated or heirloom variety. If the seeds offered come from an organically-grown source, the description will also have it listed as being Organic.
This is a good opportunity to try unique or newly listed varieties such as the purple-headed broccoli, Miranda, shown on the sample catalog page that you’ll never find in your local grocery store.
Repeat the process for each of the types of vegetables, fruits, or flowers that you’ve put on your want-to-grow list.
One warning: don’t get too carried away once you’ve gotten your list of seeds together. If it looks overwhelming, it probably is. Do you really have the space, time, and energy to prepare, plant, hoe, and weed this much?
Go back over your list keeping those factors in mind. It’s better to start smaller and work your way up (or down) after a season or two of hands-on home gardening to see how much of it works for your situation.
Starting the seeds you’ve purchased indoors under plant lights or in an extra sunny window that gets sunshine for most of the day gives you a head start on the growing season. This is a must for many varieties to be successfully grown in northern or high altitude regions with short growing seasons or with some vegetables such as tomatoes that have longer maturity dates.
Some seed catalogs offer the option of ordering live plants of some of their popular varieties. The cost is higher, of course, but is a handy option if you don’t have the room or equipment to start your own seeds indoors.
You can also wait and buy ready-to-transplant plants at local garden centers or big box stores. Just keep in mind that your variety options will be much more limited with these sources than through the seed catalogs. If buying plants locally is what you’ll be doing, you’ll have much better luck in finding varieties that will work for you by buying from a locally owned and run garden center that will be more likely to stock plants that are most suited to your growing area than will the big box stores that usually have their plant orders made from a central corporate buyer for all of their stores without knowing what varieties are best for your area.
Don’t neglect to keep a garden diary or other record of which varieties you’ve grown and which did well…or not so well. It will make seed and plant re-ordering easier since you’ll have a hands-on knowledge of what to grow again and what to avoid. Each year try to include a new variety or two into your garden. You may be surprised to find something new to you that will become a favorite and a garden mainstay for years to come.
At the end of the growing season, you’ll be amazed at how different and delicious freshly picked, home grown vegetables and fruits taste. It’s definitely worth the effort, and you might even find out that the vegetable you’ve never liked in the past is actually quite tasty when picked fresh and prepared within hours of harvest.