Understanding Seed Catalogs

Is there no end to this endless stream of seed catalogs being delivered to my mailbox here at May Dreams Gardens? Am I on everyone’s mailing list? This evening I found another seed catalog in a pile of unsorted mail. It’s slick and glossy, so it’s going right to the recycle bin.

And you might be thinking, is there no end to these posts on seed catalogs? What else could Carol possibly write about seed catalogs?

Well, there is an end to these seed catalog posts, and it will be mercifully soon, but I have just one more topic to cover, how to actually understand seed catalogs.

For new gardeners, seed catalogs can be confusing and cryptic. Even after reading this post, they may need to find an experienced seed-sowing gardener to guide them through their first few seed catalog reading sessions.

The first thing to do when you’ve decided which seed catalog you are going to order from is look through it and find where they tell the meaning of any abbreviations or symbols used in the plant descriptions. Knowing in advance what the abbreviations and symbols mean will make it much easier to understand the descriptions.

In a good seed catalog they should include at least the following information for vegetables:

- Days to harvest. This is usually counted from when the plants are set out or from direct sowing in the garden.

- Whether the variety is a hybrid, generally listed as "F1 hybrid", or open pollinated which may be designated with “OP” or assumed if it isn’t an F1 hybrid. If you are going to try to save your own seeds, you need to get the open pollinated varieties.

- A brief description. Descriptions can range from useful, insightful information to downright cheesy marketing hooey.

- Special information for tomatoes, the stars of the vegetable garden. This should include information on disease resistance and whether the plants are determinate or indeterminate. (A vegetable garden can not exist without tomato plants. This is a known fact.)

For flowers, the information in seed catalogs can be quite variable and subject to interpretation but should include at least:

- Information on how the flowers behave. “Self sows” is catalog speak for “this will be a future weeding problem”. Buy with caution and don’t say I didn’t warn you. I have some unfortunate experience in this area. Other code words for weeding problems are “spreads” and “prolific”. But remember that “prolific” for vegetables can be a good thing.

- For perennials, how hardy they are. Some catalogs don’t list hardiness zones, and so it is “gardener beware”. Half-hardy or tender perennials generally won’t overwinter in a temperate climate, like my Zone 5 garden. You have to treat these perennials like annuals, or dig them up in the fall and overwinter them in a cool garage or basement. If the perennial will bloom the first year, these can be worth the extra effort.

- Information on how to germinate the seed. Unlike most vegetable seeds which are generally easy to sow and germinate, some flower seeds require extra effort and time to germinate successfully and the catalog should include this information. If it doesn’t, you might be disappointed when you get the actual seed packet and find out that the seed takes 18 months to germinate or requires all kinds of special handling, like stratification or scarification.

- A brief description. Descriptions should include flower color, flowering habit, height, light requirements, and best way to use it in the garden. Watch out for color descriptions that end in ‘ish” such as reddish, purplish, etc. This is catalog speak for the "colors are probably a bit muted or not quite any color they can describe in a few words".

Some other general advice on understanding seed catalogs…

- All seed catalogs should tell you how many seeds you are getting in a packet. This can be the actual number of seeds or it can be listed in ounces or grams. If the seeds are sold be weight, my experience is that there are plenty of seeds in the packet for the home garden. If they don’t tell you anything about how many seeds are included, and you really want those seeds, call the company and ask for more information.

- Avoid varieties that the catalogs are trying to oversell by using phrases like “world’s tallest, sweetest, tastiest, biggest fill-in-the-blank, ” or “no garden is complete without…”. Move on, those are the claims of carnival side-shows, and you are planning a garden, not a freak show.

- Enjoy the descriptions. Some are helpful, others are darn right funny and absurd. The writers of seed catalogs can get pretty creative with words and phrases, trying not to be repetitive. After all, how many ways can someone describe a good tomato without repeating words and phrases like ‘high yielding’, ‘meaty’, ‘superb flavor’?

Now, I promise, no more posts about seed catalogs. Maybe I’ll just post about seeds for awhile or give you an update on my crazy plant lady activities. Or maybe I’ll announce a Garden Bloggers’ tomato growing contest? Stay tuned to find out!


  1. Hi Carol - I don't get many catalogues, as with the limited space I have on the balcony I can save / buy locally more than I need. But those that do arrive are saved eagerly for that evening's bedtime reading. perhaps that's another one for your garden geek categories - a GG is someone who reads seed catalogues for pure pleasure ..

  2. So....since I am a novice seed buyer, and you are a "crazy plant lady", are you going to help me do my seed shopping this year? (HINT)

    Sister with the Homestead

  3. That was a great tutorial on deciphering something that can be so confusing. You have inspired a posting at Faire Garden on seeds with your well written prose. Keep it up, that makes it easy to think up topics to write about. What do you have up your sleeve with contests? I started blogging too late to participate in the smallest tomato, so will be watching eagerly for your next announcement!

  4. More good advice on seed buying, Carol.

    I learned the hard way to make sure that information about seeds includes the number of seeds in a pack. In my zeal to find truly authentic Colonial-era flowers for my Colonial kitchen gardenI ordered a number of seeds from the Monticello shop. Some of the seed packets only included 5 seeds!!! And most didn't even germinate. Needless to say, I won't be ordering from them again, especially since I have found other sources for heritage and heirloom seeds.

    --Robin (Bumblebee)

  5. Hi Carol-I've been catching up and I read your last three posts in one sitting-and yes, you've made me laugh out loud, as reading all 3 posts in one go, you do sound a bit like the seed catalog obsessed lady!
    I don't get many catalogs, but I do enjoy browsing though them. I've actually learned to identify many plants through these catalogs-the tropical plants and flowers from Jungle Seeds and Thompson and Morgan; and most of what I know about veggies and herbs I learned from the Cooks Garden, Renee's Garden , Southern Exposure Seeds and Kitchen Garden Seeds catalogs.
    My friends are all very impressed with my knowledge of plants and heirloom veggies LOL.

  6. Carol, I loved all of your seed posts, they made me laugh but also gave great information. Even after buying seeds for 3 years, I still forget to check certain things and usually do one or two 'Ooops' seed buying things every year.

    Jennifer in Chicago

  7. Carol there was one seed catalog that I loved for the wonderful descriptions. There were no pics in it, only descriptions but they were tantalizing ones and I bought many a seed packet from them and never regretted buying any of them. Unfortunately they have gone out of business and I'm left with all those glossy catalogs I do not like.

    Have a great weekend!

  8. Hi Carol: Veggie enthusiasts might be interested in a website I help with at work. It's the Cornell Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners website. http://vegvariety.cce.cornell.edu/

    It includes descriptions and seed sources for more than 5,000 varieties, and gardeners can register to rate and review varieties. (Visitors can read reviews/ratings without registering.)

    We could really use more reviews at the website. So please stop by and tell others about your favorite varieties -- as well as those that haven't worked out so well for you.

    Craig @ Ellis Hollow

  9. "...you are planning a garden, not a freak show." Ha! Speak for yourself! ;-) Great post Carol, with good advice too. I've made (still sometimes make) plenty of "oops" seed purchases, but you'll have that now and again. Yolanda would like the catalog that JL Hudson puts out...just descriptions, and they even tell you how to pronounce the scientific names! (Not sure if they ship to europe, though-still good for info!) Happy New Year!

  10. Sue Swift, yes, I'd say most gardening geeks read seed catalogs, almost as literature.

    Sherry, maybe I will help you...

    Frances, I will have to check out your seed post. As for what's up my sleeve, time will tell!

    Robin(Bumblebee), I've also found that some seeds for sale in gift shops are older than you think and no good. That's a hard lesson to learn and it is so disappointing when the seed don't germinate.

    Nicole, who are you calling a seed catalog obsessed lady? Me?

    Jennifer, I've been buying seeds since I was a teenager, and I still have those Oops moments!

    Yolanda Elizabet, it is sad when a good seed company goes out of business. The entire garden world loses something.

    Ellis Hollow (Craig), sounds very interesting, I will check out that site.

    Lisa, Happy New Year to you as well. I'll have to see what you plant in your gar... I mean freak show this spring.

    Thanks all for joining in!
    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  11. Carol - I am a total sucker for those seed catalogs. A few years experience has revealed the biggest problem of seed catalogs though - no one ever tells you honestly that "this plant will grow and take over most of your yard". THere are several seeds I should never have planted!!


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