If you are on the path to becoming a diehard gardener like myself, now that the holidays are over your thoughts are turning to spring - or at least to all of the armchair garden planning that can be pleasantly tackled between now and then. For me, that planning always includes seed catalogs.
If you currently do not get any seed catalogs in the mail, that is easily remedied. Check with your gardening friends, get a hold of a gardening magazine (library) and peruse the ads or do an online search. You will be amazed by all that is out there.
Once you have gotten a hold of some, take time to familiarize yourself with their layout. Even if you prefer to buy your seeds and/or plants at a local nursery, you will find that seed catalogs can provide a wealth of timely information that would be difficult to find in any other place.
As you will soon learn, not all seed catalogs are alike. Over the years I have gravitated towards regional companies that are geared to the same growing season that I contend with. I also feel strongly about organic practices and prefer to support a company that feels the same way. You will develop your own preferences as you go along.
Pricing and packet sizing can vary somewhat from company to company. It's good to know which types of seed can be stored and used for several seasons and which have a short shelf life. With that in mind you can check how many seeds are included in a packet and/or the length of row those seeds will plant. You can use that information to determine what you need. In most cases a packet will contain more than enough seeds for the home gardener. Some companies offer mini-packets which can be very useful when doing this kind of planning. There is no sense in buying large quantities of seed if its viability will deteriorate before you can use it.
I like to use a seed catalog that gives detailed growing information, including realistic expectations of yield as well as any exceptional or weak traits for a particular variety. For example, if I am looking to plant tomatoes in containers, it is helpful to know if a variety is determinate or indeterminate. From that information alone I will know the general growth and ripening habits of that particular variety. The number of days to harvest will let me know whether to expect those tomatoes in mid-July or late August. They should even tell me what it tastes like and what they will look like when ripe.
Disease resistance or susceptibility is another thing you can glean from a good variety description. Some catalogs even print basic definitions of common diseases and pests so you will know what to look for and how to handle it. I avoid catalogs that make every variety sound perfect. I appreciate honesty and truth in advertising.
Hybrid versus open-pollinated or heirloom seed is something else to think about, although this distinction is most important if you desire to save your own seed (in which case, avoid the hybrids). But if that is not the case, hybrid varieties can offer much in the way of yield improvements, disease resistance and ship-ability. Open-pollinated and heirloom varieties can reproduce themselves from seed (thus lending themselves to seed-saving). These older varieties are still flourishing today because gardeners have kept them going for a reason. They have withstood the test of time. It is fun to try them and see if you agree. Regardless of which type of seeds you choose, you will find yourself developing favorites.
There are also many simple things like frost tenderness, water, light, soil type and fertility requirements that will also be part of a general plant description and will go a long way towards making your choices educated ones.
So get started early! That way you will have plenty of time to ruminate about your decisions and even change your mind - several times! If you find yourself swimming in information, take it slowly, breaking your list down into pieces and tackling them one by one. Time spent with your favorite seed catalogs will help wile away the winter. It will be time well spent when spring finally does arrive and you already know what you want in your garden and why.
The mission of the Chautauqua County Master Gardener Program is to educate and serve the community, utilizing university and research-based horticultural information. Volunteers are from the community who have successfully completed 50-plus hours of Cornell-approved training and volunteer a minimum of 50 hours per year. For further information, contact Betsy Burgeson, Master Gardener coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension/Chautauqua County, 664-9502, ext. 204.