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Getting the Most From Seed Catalogs
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor,
University of Vermont

On one of those particularly cold and blustery wintry days, I like to gather up
all the seed catalogs that have arrived in my mailbox and settle down for a good
read.  

Even if you don’t plan to buy from them but buy locally this spring, you can
learn much from catalogs if you understand a few key terms and all that may be
packed into the descriptions.

Compare Catalogs

Of course it helps to have a pen and paper, or perhaps a laptop, handy to note
all your choices and plans.  If you have a laptop computer or other Internet
access handy, you might want to check out the seed catalogs online too.  Many
offer web-only specials.

Ordering from seed catalogs is both convenient, and a good way to get a wider
selection than usually is available locally, especially if you are looking for quite
new or unusual varieties. Yet most catalogs offer a lot more than just an order
list for seeds and plants.  I like to compare several catalogs, as they usually
emphasize different points.

New and Improved

The first item that should catch your eye in catalogs, other than photos, is the
name of the flower or vegetable.  The words “New” or “Improved” aren’t just
selling points, they often mean the variety has been changed in some trait,
perhaps substantially.

Icons are used to highlight key traits, such as a sun for heat tolerance, a
snowflake for cold tolerance, or a pot meaning good in containers.  Look for the
key to these icons, which vary among catalogs, at the beginning or often on the
bottom of each page.  One icon used for most is the red, white and blue
All-
America Selections shield, indicating this variety won this award, being judged
by professionals nationwide as superior.

Code Letters, Explained

Letters you may see by some crops are F1 and OP.  These refer, respectively, to
F1 hybrids (first generation, compared to F2 which is second generation) and
Open Pollinated.  The former are crosses between two parents, to produce a
variety with hybrid traits and vigor.  If you collect seeds of these F1 hybrids,
they wont give you the same variety.  Open pollinated plants, on the other
hand, will come “true” from their seeds when sown.

Other code letters you will see with some plants, in particular some vegetables
such as vine crops and tomatoes, are ones referring to disease resistance.   
Choose these varieties, and you may have fewer diseases in the garden to deal
with.  In one catalog I saw over 50 listed—not all of course for one crop.  Some
of the main ones to watch for on tomatoes for instance are TMV (tobacco  mosaic
virus), TSWV (tomato spotted wilt virus), V (verticillium wilt), and F (fusarium
wilt).  If there has been late blight in your area in recent years, wiping out
tomatoes, look for the few with resistance to this (LB).

Look for the Days to Maturity

The other key point in seed catalog descriptions is days to maturity.  This could
mean from sowing, or in the case of slow crops the days from setting out plants.  
Check the catalog to make sure what is meant.  This is particularly important in
northern areas with short growing seasons (days between frosts), in order to get
flowers or in the case of vegetables their fruits.  Even with this, if a summer is
particularly cool and the crop likes warmth, it may mature more slowly.

Beware of Glowing Descriptions

Descriptions are useful for specifics such as fruit or flower color, particular
flavors of vegetables, heights and spreads.  Even these may vary greatly among
catalogs, so compare several, and they may vary from your own garden.  
Beware of general and glowing adjectives such as “good”, “popular”, or
“large”, as these are relative and may have little meaning in your own garden.  
Just as the photos are often “enhanced” (don’t get disappointed if your flowers
and vegetables don’t look as luscious), so are many descriptions.

Map Out Your Garden

To avoid ending up with too many seeds, roughly map out your garden to
scale, then "fit in" the varieties you want grow.  A good catalog will give the
approximate seeds per packet, and spacing when planting seedlings or sowing
seeds.  So, for instance, for sweet corn you may see 150 seeds per packet.  If the
recommendation is to plant 3 seeds per foot, this packet would sow 50 feet of
row.

You should also see growing tips for each crop, as in the case of corn it’s best to
plant several rows close together for best pollination.  So rather than one long
row, five 10-foot rows, three feet apart would be better.  So the simple math
means you need an area 10 by 3 feet, or 30 square feet just for this packet of corn
seeds.

The good news is, if you end up with too many seeds, most store well for a year
or more in a jar in the refrigerator.  Or, order with a friend and share the seeds.

Get on Catalog Lists

If you don’t have any catalogs, and aren’t on their mail lists already, search
online for some.  You can invariably order up a printed copy to be mailed from
their websites, as well as see the range of plants they offer and any specialties.  
Especially in the case of vegetables, if you like a crop in particular, such as
lettuce or tomatoes or peppers, you may be surprised how many selections you
can find.  Just remember, don’t get carried away with more than you and your
garden space can handle—something I continually seem to neglect!
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