Seed Catalog Shopping Tips   

  A few simple strategies for seed shopping season  

Midwinter is seed season—that time of year when colorful seed catalogs arrive in our mailboxes, a welcome balm for gardeners pining for the bright, warm, green world of summer. We lose ourselves in page after glossy page of flowers and vegetables in their prime, grown in ideal conditions, photographed in the perfect light.

Oh, how we miss the saturated hues of sun-drenched afternoons and the good, clean sweat of a hard day’s work outdoors.

So real is the desperation, we may find ourselves impulsively buying seeds for every heirloom tomato, every new flower, seventeen types of lettuce, six types of watermelon, a pumpkin patch, a cucumber kingdom, a pepper paradise… you get the idea. And while it’s good to be ambitious, it’s also smart to have a plan.

First, go ahead and circle every wonderful thing that makes your heart sing. Get it all out. Fall hard for a page full of flowers; let that long buried middle school crush energy re-emerge to obsess anew, but this time on dahlias. We understand.

Then, ask yourself two questions: “What do I want out of my garden?” and “How much time, energy, and resources can I put in?”

“What do I want out of my garden?”

Getting your priorities established ahead of time will help you narrow your focus. For example, if food security is your priority then you might put starchy, highly caloric crops like winter squash, beans, etc. at the top of your list and then add from there.

Or perhaps you want 2021 to be all about new experiences, new tastes, and unusual varieties you’ve never grown before. In this case, your "must-have" list might be divided up into herbs, vegetables, and flowers with solely new-to-you varieties (maybe this is the year for Britton Shiso, Kars Egg Squash, or Torch Tithonia?).

Whether you want to grow all perennials in your garden or only plants that do well in containers, it will be extremely helpful to clarify your mission ahead of your planning and purchasing.

Set your intentions; otherwise, you may find yourself with a collection of very random seed varieties and it will be difficult to know where to begin.

“How much time, energy, and resources can I put in?”

Now, it goes without saying that these are weird and trying times for many of us. Even when we aren’t living through a global pandemic, the changing seasons carry a host of new activities and obligations in tow. Think realistically about how much time you’ll have for gardening in the coming months. Who will mow the lawn when the grass starts growing again? Who will need to watch the kids when they are home from school (hot tip: put them to work in the garden).

A realistic assessment of your time, energy, and resources will help you modify your plan if necessary and keep things manageable over the growing season. Purchase the seed varieties that are most relevant first; as your direct sowings get sown and your indoor seedlings emerge, assess what time and energy you have to spare for additional crops.

A few more tips for shopping seed catalogs

  • Perform a seed inventory. Your leftover seeds from the 2020 growing season may be perfectly viable–as long as they’ve been kept in cool, dry, dark conditions. Read more about seed viability here
  • Choose varieties that grow well in your plant hardiness zone. To help schedule indoor and outdoor sowings, use a gardening calendar that makes sense for your area.
  • Know the growing conditions. Which parts of the garden get the most sun or shade? What is the soil like? Choose seed varieties best suited to these conditions.
  • Draw a garden map! You don’t have to be a landscape designer. A rough sketch can help you plot your sun and shade varieties and remind you of which crops will need the entire season to mature vs. crops that can be succession sown.
  • Read the fine print. Most catalogs will tell you how many days it takes for each variety to reach maturity. If you have a short growing season, opt for the varieties that mature more quickly.
  • Finally, if part of your gardening mission this year is to save the seeds you grew, then purchase open-pollinated (OP) seeds that will grow true-to-type the following year. Check out these seed-saving resources and learn more about saving open-pollinated seeds here.