NDSU Extension - Dickey County

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Think Spring! Understanding Seed Catalogs

Breana Kiser, Agriculture and Natural Resource Agent

Seed CatalogsMother Nature has been giving us a treat this winter with these warm days of 40° weather.  Makes us think that spring and for gardeners there is another sign that spring is close, SEED CATALOGS.  I have received mine already!
First, don’t just dive into the catalogs and start ordering.  Instead, take a walk around your gardens.  This is easy at the moment with almost no snow and warmer days.  Go outside and look at your annual beds, your vegetable garden, and place where you want to put containers or hanging baskets.  Make notes on how much room you have and what kinds of things that will work well in each location.  Consider where you have sun and shade.  

Once done go and start a garden diary.  If you don’t have a garden diary, it’s a great idea to keep track of what you have done year to year.  When we get a freezing cold temperatures back, your garden diary is a nice way to start planning and thinking of warmer time.  If you don’t have a diary, start by collecting your year old order forms and half empty seed packets and make a list of what worked or didn’t work, which varieties you want to plant again, and which ones you will never use again. Make a list of things you want to try for the first time.  It’s your garden, have fund and experiment each year with something new!

Now we get to check out those catalogs. The colorful covers entice gardeners to buy glorious blooms and ripe vegetables.  Gardening expectations are skewed by the pretty photos.  A good motto to think about is “don’t judge a plant by its photo.”  The photos are from when the plants are at their best stage, gardeners need to tolerate the ugly phase before enjoying the beauty of nature.  

Be sure to look for the catalogs that not only have beautiful pictures but give you lots of information.  A great catalog will tell you all of the important things you need to know, but you may have to look for the up the variety in several catalogs to find out everything.   Learn how to interpret garden jargon.  For those experienced gardeners this could be easy for you but for hobbyist or beginners it can be overwhelming trying to understand and figure out what to order.  

Open Pollinated (OP) or Species: This is the variety that will come true from seed.  If you want to save seed from your plants from year to year, look for these.

Hybrid, F1 Hybrid, or X in the name: This is a cross between two pure-bred parents.  Seeds from these will not come true the second year.  Note that all hybrid seeds are F1, or first generation hybrids. Some plants may be F2 or second generation.  These can only be propagated vegetatively.

Height: How tall the plant will be. This is important for planning beds. You want short plants in front, tall ones in back.
Days to bloom or bloom season: How long it will take a plant to flower or what month you can expect flowers. Note that this is based on the seed company test gardens. You may get different results, if you live in a different climate. Still, this allows you to compare different varieties.

Days to harvest: This is the same thing for food crops, and bears the same warning. For plants that are started indoors, this is the number of days from when the plants are set out into the garden. Our last frost date is normally around Memorial Day, consider this when looking at days.   

Planting Zones: Perennials need to be hardy enough to survive winter in the USDA Zone 3 or 4.  
Disease Resistance: The term "disease resistant" is relatively meaningless if they don't tell you what disease they mean. Look for specifics, like VFN for tomatoes, which means resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilts and nematodes. Good catalogs will explain their disease abbreviations.

Start Indoors: These are seeds that need to be started under lights, or in a greenhouse before the last frost date. Think about how much seed starting space you have before buying lots of these.

Direct Sow: These are seeds that can go straight into the ground. Check for the recommended planting date.

Determinate/Indeterminate: Describe tomato plants. Determinate plants grow to a certain size, fruit all at once, and stop growing. Indeterminate plants are more vining and continue to grow and fruit until frost.

Number of Seeds: How many seeds are you getting? Some catalogs will even tell you how much area or how many feet of row a packet will plant.

Light Requirements: Does the plant need sun? Will it tolerate part shade, or does it need shade?

Special Cultural Requirements: Some varieties need high or low soil pH. Some prefer dry soils, some like it damp. Some tall plants are fine on their own, others need staking. Decide if you can handle these special requests before ordering.
Scientific Name: This is really important for flowers and herbs. With all those cutesy names out there, it's sometimes hard to tell what the plant actually is. Good catalogs give the scientific name, which will help if you want to look the plant up in a reference book or on the web.

Finally watch out for shipping charges.  Sometimes it works out to consolidate your orders with a few others or even better a joint order with your friends.  

So enjoy those catalogs, have fun, plan the garden and imagine the best of the best.  Before too long it will be time to go outside and get your hands dirty.  Happy planning!

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