Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association

January 2002 - Springtime in the Winter - A Journey Through Seed Catalogs

By Duncan R. McQueen, Master Gardener

I live a few miles from Hancock Shaker Village. Those indomitable Shakers were the first group in the United States to put vegetable and flower seeds in packets for sale. Today a multi-millior-dollar business with seedsmen all over the world is intriguing us with their colorful tastes of springtime in the winter, snuggled. by the fire, turning pages and planning - what seeds to order for the flower border and the vegetable garden.

Way back in World War II when we were asked to grow a Victory Garden, I ordered my first seeds from a now defunct seedsman.  I knew very little about what to grow, never mind how to grow them, but we did get some vegetables for the table and even the sweet peas I ordered grew beautifully.

The modern seed catalog can be a daunting read, although a fabulously interesting study of what seeds are available today. Most of us receive several unsolicited catalogs in the mail; as I write on Saint Nicholas' Day [that's December 6th] three have already made it to my mailbox: the bounteous Thompson and Morgan Catalog, which has just about everything you could possibly want to grow, and two domestic catalogs from which I have ordered in the last few years. In fact, I find that I shift companies from time to time and all have provided me with good seeds and for the most part good information.

Here are some things to look for when you have your springtime in the winter with seed catalogs. First, if would be a smart idea to make a list of the flowers you'd like to grow and the vegetables you enjoy growing. If you're like me, the list will be far too long. Read it over a couple of times for additions or subtractions.

The next step - leaf through the catalogs you think might be useful to you. A marker to mark the items on your list is a good idea as well.

Having done that you are ready to get down to business

…. Does your seed catalog offer smaller quantities of seeds in a packet? Some have what they call introductory or tryout packets. I find that thirty seeds are quite enough, speaking of vegetables, rather

than a huge number, which if all are planted, I would need a farm; A good seed catalog will tell you how many rows a packet will sow for vegetables and the number of seeds in a packet flowers. Yes, you can save seeds from year to year but the germination will not be as good a following year.

…. Does your seed catalog tell you what the germination percentage is? There is a Federal Seed Act, which legislates minimum germination percentages. Useful information when you wonder why didn't my impatience seeds germinate.

…. Does your seed catalog have a code about growing? Some catalogs tell you what seeds are easily grown, which are more difficult, and which are super difficult! I've tried to grow Himalayan Blue Poppies [meconopsis] for a number of unsuccessful years.  Yes, I'll try again, because I love them.

…. Does your seed catalog suggest the number of days from planting to harvest? This is especially important in New England [zone 5 and maybe even zone 41 where the growing season is shorter than in other parts of the country.  Perhaps this is more important for vegetables but you don't really want a flower that only begins to bloom in September and is then zapped by the first frost unless it is perennial, which might not bloom the first year grown from seed anyway

…. Does your seed catalog give you clues as to how much or how little light the plants might need? Some catalogs use symbols: a completely dark circle means shade; a half-dark circle means shade and sun or half of each; a completely open circle [like the sum] means full sun is the greatest for that plant.

.....Does your seed catalog, especially for vegetables, give you the information you need for cultivars which are resistant to plant diseases? It's wise to grow resistant cultivars rather than those, which are more susceptible to problems. Over the years, I have stopped growing some of my old favorite tomatoes in favor of disease resistant ones with a greater harvest.

…. Does your seed catalog describe the flowers and vegetables [maybe even illustrate them] in such a way that you have a clearer idea of what the plant is like? How tall will it grow and how wide might it become are bits of useful information in planning a garden.  You probably do not want a four-foot flower at the front of your flowerbed no matter how beautiful it is, or for that matter, twelve inch one at the back.

No doubt, there are other "Does your Seed Catalog" questions. If you have them ask on our web site and we will answer them.

Springtime in winter seed catalogs whet our appetites for getting out there in the garden and planting for beauty and. for use. A great winter activity! Some companies offer discounts for early ordering´┐Ż or an extra packet of seeds or two to the early birds.

Just a few more ideas: Yes' I have a Scots name and maybe that's why I tend to compare prices; seeds are not always intensive While some of the stores where seeds are sold offer up to a 40% discount, they do not always have the seeds I check in my catalog, so to the computer or post office I go. Several times, I have joined with other gardener friends to order together.  It is kind of fun to see what others want to grow and if you only want a few packets it generally saves some postage; again I am a Scotsman. And finally, even though I get twelve or so catalogs, I tend to pay attention to those which come from New England and from the northern part of the United States, on the theory that seeds from those seedsmen might grow better in Massachusetts.

Springtime in winter seed catalogs are fun, informative and a first step to great gardening in the 2002 season.