Go beyond the garden center with seed catalogs
Guest Contributor: Cassey Anderson, CSU Horticulture Agent
Winter can be a peaceful and optimistic time for a gardener. You can take the chance to reflect on what went well in your garden last year and what you would like to improve. Perhaps there were some crops that failed that you want to try again, or something that did well but you didn’t get enough.
Websites are great for ordering seeds, but for inspiration and crop-specific information? Seed catalogues all the way for sure! So, you can set out your garden plan after careful perusal in December and January of your seed catalogues.
A run down
Most catalogues will organize alphabetically rather than by family, so tomatoes, peppers and potatoes will be in different places. Many will also give you a few pages at the beginning of the hot new types or options. Typically, vegetables take front and center in the catalogue and garden products and flower seeds can be found near the end. If the company provides live plants, they are also typically near the end.
My approach has always been to sit down and flip through all my favorites (and some of those that I end up getting but have never requested—you never know there may be something you MUST try!) before making any decisions. Note down with a marker the things that sound interesting and then narrow your choices down to a reasonable(ish) number. Aim to find enough that you’re trying some new varieties, not so many that your family objects to the size of your seed storage area.
Some catalogues/companies are immensely useful for educating yourself on seed disease and pest resistance (looking at you Johnny’s) or other information about growing and planting. Others have gorgeous photography that gets your mouth watering (Baker/Rareseed). Some wow through artistic illustration (Botanical Interests), and some are focused on solid, reliable products (Territorial, Harris Seed, Park Seed, etc.). There are many focused and specific seed companies and catalogues as well such as Tomato Grower’s Supply Company or Maine Potato Lady. This list is by no means exhaustive and I’m always excited to hear about more and new seed companies/catalogues that folks have found to be useful, fun, or adventurous. If I neglected to add your favorite on the list, my apologies.
If you buy from a local seed company, you’re more likely to get varieties that do well in your area. If you’re buying from one that is outside of your area be sure to check that they fit in your growing season. As an example, I cannot grow German butterball potatoes at my house because their growing season is just too long for our season here in Colorado. This year, since we didn’t have a hard freeze until late October, I may have been OK, but it’s a big risk to take! To help with selection you may want to check out All America Selections: https://all-americaselections.org/. This is an organization that tests plant varieties (including vegetables!) around the nation to determine those that are best for a wide variety of areas.
One thing to note, many seed catalogues tout their use of GMO-free seeds. GMO seeds are only available for agricultural use. If you’re growing in a small farm or backyard setting it’s unlikely any seeds you purchase would be GMO.
Winter is a great time to sift through some of your existing seed collection, prior to ordering new seed material from those tempting new catalogues. It’s also a great time to organize the seeds you have so you know what you do or do not need to buy again.
Any seeds that are more than 7 or 8 years old should be taken out of rotation. Seed packets are required to have a packing year on them, so it’s usually simple to make the age determination. You can do a “germination test” if you want to try them out, especially if you’re a plant hoarder like me. This is a relatively simple process, take 5-10 seeds and place them in an airtight container (ziplock, Tupperware, mason jar etc.) with a wet paper towel. Check in frequently and if nothing has germinated after about two weeks it’s likely the seeds are too old. Most seeds have a good shelf life of around 1-6 years depending on type. Humid and excessively warm or cold conditions (above or below comfortable room temperature) can reduce the shelf life of a seed.
We’ll be back in January to discuss planning your garden. As always, if you have additional questions please reach out to your local Extension office for more information.