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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

How to Read Seed Catalogs Without Going Mad

Hey! Set aside all those seed catalogs for just a minute. I'm going to share my personal method for reading and buying from seed catalogs, a method that will save you both time and money.

Some newer gardeners may be getting confused by all the seed catalogs they have at this point or like my sister, they have no seed catalogs and would like to get some to order from. But I know if my sister got as many seed catalogs in the mail as I get, she'd go mad trying to figure out what to buy.

I know my method could help her and many others. I’ve been ordering from seed catalogs since the 1970’s when I used to help my Dad pick out seeds to order. (Geez, that makes me seem kind of old, doesn’t it? I was a mere child when I helped my Dad order seeds, I swear!)

Here's my method...

When I finally sit down to look at all the seed catalogs I’ve gotten in the mail, the first order of business is to cast aside those that I have no intention of ordering from.

How do I weed them out? First, I set aside the slick, glossy catalogs that include basically the same seeds that you can get at any big box store. There is no point spending time looking at those catalogs. The prices are higher and you really can find most of those same seeds at the store, often at a discount.

There are also a bunch of catalogs that I get that all seem like they are from different companies, but if you look closely, you’ll see the same basic return address on them. Those go, too. I just don’t like the idea of them, different catalogs from the same basic company. It seems deceptive or something.

At this point, I’ve cast aside nine seed catalogs and have four remaining.

Now I start browsing the remaining catalogs to get a general feel for them, starting with price. Prices vary quite a bit in seed catalogs, as do the description, so I check a few seed varieties I know I’ll get and compare prices.

For example, I checked on ‘Tom Thumb’ lettuce, an heirloom variety that most seed companies carry. I found I could spend as little as 85 cents for 500 seeds or as much as $2.79 for 550 seeds. Other seed companies had packets with 1,000’s of seeds for prices in between. For most gardeners, 500 lettuce seeds is plenty, especially if you are planting more than one variety of lettuce.

Now I've tossed aside two more catalogs due to high prices.

That leaves me with just two catalogs to look at, and I started with a stack of 13. With two catalogs, it’s easy to compare prices and descriptions and generally one of them will have most of the varieties I’m looking for.

I pick out my vegetable seeds first. I like to pick some of the same varieties I’ve had success with in the past and then add in a few new varieties. This way, I’m pretty sure I’ll have a decent harvest, weather and rabbits permitting, and I’ll also have the fun of trying something new. Last year I discovered ‘Cue Ball’ squash, which I loved, so I’ll get those again.

Once I’ve figured out my vegetable seed order, I go back through and pick out flower seeds. I’m a bit more adventurous when it comes to flower seeds and will order based on the description, avoiding anything that is described as “prolific”, “self sows”, “spreads”, etc. which is catalog speak for “this plant will be a future weeding problem”. But remember that “prolific” when it comes to vegetables is usually a good thing. (More on "catalog speak" in a future post.)

I will also look for some specific flower varieties I’ve read about in the past year and want to try. After a summer of reading Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day posts, I’ve got quite a list of flowers to find seeds for this year.

If I can’t find the flower seeds I want in the two catalogs I’ve decided to order from, I’ll do an online search to see if the seeds are available from another seed company at a reasonable price, including shipping. That’s what I did last year when I was looking for ‘Foerster’s Hybrid’ Delphiniums and I had no problems finding a source for the seed.

To finish out my seed ordering, I do one last thing. I list all the seeds on a spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet helps me keep track of which seeds I need to start inside and when, and which ones I’ll direct sow in the garden. It works better to do this before you finalize your order, so you can check your entire list of seeds to see if you have too many (is that possible?) or maybe forgot some varieties you wanted to get. I wouldn’t want to send in my seed order and then realize I forgot to order ‘Green Arrow’ peas or something else essential!

And that’s how I manage to get through all the seed catalogs without going mad, wasting time, or spending a fortune on seeds I’m not likely to sow.

Now, some of you might be shocked at this point to find out that I don’t read all the seed catalogs I get, at least initially. I love good seed catalogs and sowing seeds, but there just isn’t time to read and study all the catalogs I get.

I will, of course glance through the cast-off seed catalogs before I toss them in the recycle bin, just in case they have something unique for sale that I can’t live without. But generally, that is not the case.

If you don’t currently get any seed catalogs, like my sister, you might try ordering from Pinetree Garden Seeds and then next year they will send you a catalog. They have a good selection and sell in smaller quantities for the home gardener, so you’ll spend less and have fewer left over seeds. They’ll get my primary order and then I’ll fill in with an order sent to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

I should have my complete seed order in the mail by the weekend. The sooner the better because as I put the final touches on this post, four more seed catalogs arrived in the mail. I didn’t even look at them, they went right to the “I’m not ordering from these, at least I don’t think I’m ordering from these" pile.

I have to stay strong, or I'll go mad and broke buying from all those seed catalogs!


chuck b. said...

Oh, I throw out the icky glossies too. I figured that was assumed.

Inspired by your cue ball squash, I ordered this eight ball.

It's only 40-45 days! That's a huge factor for me.

kate said...

I am in awe of your approach to seed catalogues. It makes a lot of sense and keeps from bankrupting the gardener. I'm not organised enough to put in a seed order - that's what saves me because then companies don't send their catalogues. Of course, when I really want a certain plant, I enjoy doing online shopping - and that's a subject for another post.

Do you order seeds online or do you always order from the printed catalogue?

Happy New Year! It was good to see your photograph a few posts back.

Sherry said...


Thanks for the links. Prince Charming said I can get a grow light, so I'm ready to do my very first indoor seeds. Do you think netting over the seeds/seedlings will keep the cats away? Will that hurt the plants?

Sue Swift said...

Hi Carol,
Happy New Year! It's snowing here today, so your oposts on seed catalogues are just what I needed to remind me that spring will come, soon er or later.

Belated congrats too on your 700th post. i did try to leave a comment a while back, but it seems Blogger ate it ... :(

We're now gearing up for round 2 of the Garden Bloggers' Carnival -a bit different this time, in that I'm asking people to nominate a post from another person's blog. Full details on my blog today (Jan 3rd). I hope you'll participate again, like you did last time. And of course, if anyone else reads this, please join in!


Lisa at Greenbow said...

Carol this is a very good tutorial about seed ordering. I used to get many seed catalogs and I just threw-up my hands and said forget it. It was so confusing. I will have to reconsider after reading your post.

It is exciting just talking about seeds and reading the catalogs this time of year. You are so organized! An inspiration...that little word goals keeps popping into my mind.

Julie said...

The photos from the catalogs make wonderful decoupage medium!!! LOL

mss @ Zanthan Gardens said...

I guess my only rule of thumb is "avoid genetically-modified seed".

vonlafin said...

Wow! you have got it down to a favorites are Pinetree (for the discount books), Territorial, and Seeds of Change.
I am not allowing myself to go crazy this year, I still have seeds left from previous years.

Robin's Nesting Place said...

Carol, this post has been most helpful. Thank you for sharing the links to the seed companies that you order from. I've been planning to grow sprouts during the winter, glad to know that I can get the seeds from Pinetree.

Nan Ondra said...

Great post, Carol! I use a very similar strategy, and I too give Pinetree Garden Seeds the bulk of my seed order. Territorial Seed Company gets most of the rest, because they carry a nasturtium I can't live without.

Dee/reddirtramblings said...

Great post. Very instructive. Although I've ordered from seed catalogs for years, as I've aged, I've noticed that my eyes start to glaze over when too many choices are brought to bear. Great way to get through them.

Shady Gardener said...

I haven't purchased seeds for awhile, so I'm going to have to look for a few catalogs. Your hints ring true for other catalogs as well... those that sell plants and bulbs. Looking forward to "weeding them out!" ;-)

Happy 2008!

Robin (Bumblebee) said...

Carol, this was a VERY timely post. I was just getting ready to sit down and start thumbing through a HUGE stack of seed catalogs. The selection is mind boggling. Your tips seem very sane. And I'm impressed you do the spreadsheet. Good idea! I love organizational tips like this one. Being fanatically organized helps keep me sane. (Some would call it OCD, which is not necessarily "sane.")

BTW, I'm very glad that you finally posted a photo of yourself. Now I can put a face with a name!

--Robin (Bumblebee)

Heather's Garden said...

Sure, it's not enough that you're completely hooked, you need to get us hooked too?! I only skimmed this post, but I guess I'll have to digest it in depth before I attempt to even look at a seed catalog (never having seen one before).

Mary said...

Carol, I enjoyed your process of elimination :o) Makes sense! I don't get seed catalogs. I buy seeds at Lowe's home store and have had a 50-50 chance of them surviving. I have a lot to learn!

YOU are the MASTER!

Carol said...

Chuck B., it seems to me that you garden year around where you are, so I'm surprised that days to harvest on squash matters to you?

Kate, I look through the seed catalog and figure out what I want to order, then I go online and order it. Most seed sites have a way to enter the catalog numbers without having to go to each item on their website and 'put it in the shopping' cart. I don't order many live plants by mail.

Sherry (formerly Sister with the Homestead), I would not use netting on the seedlings, it might weigh them down and block out light. You want to maximize the amount of light you give them. Put the seed flats where you can't forget about them and where the cats can't get to them.

Sue Swift, I will check out your new blog carnival and join in. I can think of a couple of posts that I just loved, on other blogs, that should be showcased. Is it proper etiquette to ask the original author if it is okay to include them?

Lisa at Greenbow, I'm not always as organized as I seem!

Julie, how true! I'll have to find someone who wants to do some decoupage and see if they want some of my catalogs.

MSS @ Zanthan Gardens, I agree, avoid genetically modified plants. I don't think the catalogs I'm ordering from have them, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some in the big glossy catalogs.

Vonlafin, I have some seeds left over every year, but I don't trust the germination percentages, so I buy new seeds each year.

Robin's Nesting Place, I've also been wanting to grow some sprouts and have the seeds, but just haven't gotten around to it. I need to get to it!

Nan Ondra, Hmmmm, I don't generally grow nasturiums but if there is one you can't live without, maybe I should try it?

Dee/reddirtrambling, I also tend to like fewer choices, as long as one of the choices is the one I want. I used to love all the different seed catalogs, but now they seem like too much, a nuisance in a way. I should really try to get off all but a few of the mailing lists.

Shady Gardener, I get so many catalogs that I had to do something or I'd spend all my time looking at the darn things. Now I spend my saved time on blogging. Ha!

Robin (Bumblebee), Thanks, I'd love to read more about organizational ideas on your blog, especially if they help with gardening!

Heather's Garden, You've never seen a seed catalog before? You'll want to read my next post!

Mary, your comments always leave me feeling good about myself. You are good for my ego. You are the MASTER birder.

Thanks all for the kind words and comments, the seeds you've sown on my blog.
Carol, May Dreams Gardens

Sue Swift said...

Hi Carol,
Re whether you should ask the other person first - in fact I was going to check myself with everyone nominated before posting. Sorry it wasn't clear - I'll amend the post now. You can of course do it yourself - let me know if you already have - it'll save me a few (precious) minutes!

Entangled said...

Carol, you are so organized and disciplined! I can't bring myself to throw any seed catalogs away until I've thumbed through them. I have a sentimental attachment to some of the glossies, even though I don't order much from them anymore.

Nan - said...

Nice posting, Carol. I don't get so many catalogues now that I do more of my buying online. And to tell the truth, I like it better. It is just so easy to type in something and have it come right up. Sometimes catalogues are simply overwhelming in the choices. I'll be blogging about this at some point this month, I bet. :<) I am wondering if those of us who are trying to eat more local food are also trying to garden with more locally sold seeds. I would never buy at the box stores, but I have certainly bought seeds from far, far away. This year I'm thinking of staying in New England, except for some of Renee's. I'll be checking back to see what you're buying this year. When you talk about flower seeds, will you start them under lights or direct seed them?

lisa said... love for the glossies? I really like the pictures in ALL of them, but there is a tendancy for me to use the most colorful for reference only. (Usually because the prices are too high from charging extra to pay for printing the pictures!) I hope you find everything you want!

Carol said...

Sue Swift... Thanks for the additional information. I'll have to find some posts, soon.

Entangled, I know what you mean about the sentimental attachment. In my case it is for the old Burpee seed catalog.

Nan, I think it is difficult to find local-grown seed in many areas. But that's a thought. For the flower seeds, some I will sow inside other lights, but others, like zinnias, I direct sow in the garden.

Lisa, I will look through the glossies, but not generally to buy anything. Just to look.

Thank you all for the additional comments!

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

Connie said...

Hi Carol, Just now catching up on some blog posts. I like your taste in garden catalogs. I just received my first 2 seed orders today.... from Pinetree and Baker Heirloom!
Will place an order later with Nichols Garden Nursery, another main stay catalog for me.