The dream begins in winter. December is a rush of celebrating with family, friends, food and gifts. I open my mailbox and every few days there’s a new seed catalog waiting for me. I slow down a few minutes each day to plan our garden. I forget to rush and overeat and overspend.
I browse randomly at first, taking in the photos. Then I start circling/highlighting and dog earring pages until eventually it looks like a student textbook.
Of course you can always browse the seed catalog online but I prefer the physical copy in my hands; it’s easier to compare and read notes on certain vegetables. It also signals the start of the growing season when they show up in your mailbox, which is my favorite part. If you visit the website you can request a free copy of their catalog and each year after you’ll get their updated catalog in your mailbox, too.
Basic seed catalog information:
- Each catalog will tell you what type of seeds they offer: heirloom/non-hybrid, non-GMO, organic, etc.
- Heirloom seeds are a variety that have been saved over several generations, usually passed down in families/communities. They are open-pollinated, meaning you can collect them each year and expect them to produce much the same the following year.
- Hybrid seeds are cross-pollinated (usually labeled in catalogs as F1), meaning two plant types have been crossed and bred to produce a desired trait. These seeds will not produce the same each year or may not even grow at all so hybrid seeds cannot be saved but must be purchased new each year.
- Non-GMO means non-genetically modified organisms. That means the seeds you’re purchasing were not created in a laboratory using genetic engineering.
- Organic also means the seeds contain no GMOs and were grown without pesticides/fertilizers.
2. Most arrange their contents alphabetically and include sub-categories.
(example: peas may be listed by categories snap, shelling, snow, southern/cowpeas and tomatoes may be listed by color or if they’re determinate/indeterminate).
3. If you’re purchasing heirloom seeds, many companies will give you a history: where and when the seeds originated.
4. Seeds are offered in packs and there should be an estimate on how many seeds you’ll receive per pack.
5. Germination time (how long it’ll take for a seed to sprout) and time to maturity (how many frost free days you need and when to harvest) are usually included, along with how many hours of sunlight, soil type and watering instructions.
6. Disease/Pest Tolerance is useful information and generally included with plants known for issues like tomatoes.
7. Many companies offer live plants. You may order any time of year but live plants (example: apple trees, potatoes) will ship according to your climate zone.
8. Check to make sure the seed/plant is available to ship to your area. For instance, I had no idea until browsing seed catalogs that cotton cannot be shipped to three U.S. states, including my home state of Georgia and some states, like Virginia, require a permit to grow cotton.
I’ve found that even though we have a good stock of seeds in our pantry, I always want to try something new so we will swap seeds with friends (free seeds, plus you get to try something new!) and I usually order (…okay, always order) a few new things that catch my attention each year.
If you decide to save your own seeds, it’s pretty simple! You’ll want the seeds to dry out completely. When we save tomato seeds, we leave them on napkins up to two weeks before putting them all together in an envelope. Seeds that do not dry out will clump together and grow mold and then they are useless. Zero moisture before packing if you want success!
Envelopes, cute DIY packets, mason jars, and old (cleaned) coffee/tin cans all work just fine to store your seeds. Keep it labeled with the name and year and place in a cool/dry, dark space. We’ve kept our seed packs in dresser drawers and stacked in the back of the food pantry. Anywhere in your home that’s dark and doesn’t get too hot or cold will work.
Before you order:
- Know what garden zone you’re in. Plug in your zip code and it’ll give you your zone. (For my local people, that’s 8A!)
- Know your frost dates. Plug in your zip code to determine the first and last frost dates in your area. This will let you know the length of your growing season (I have a generous 271 days!) and a general time frame of when you can direct sow seeds and transplant your seedlings outdoors. (For my local people: I start my tomato and pepper seedlings indoors mid/late January and transplant them outdoors the week after Masters. There always seems to be one last surprise frost around Masters so the rule of 2nd week of April has never failed me yet!)
- If this is your first year growing food, decide where you want your garden space and then note how many hours of sunlight that space gets each day. Most veggies you plant will need at least 6 hours of full sun each day in order to thrive.
- Beans are great starter veggies. You can grow bush or pole beans; pole will allow you to grow up so you can maximize your garden space. They require very little work, just decent soil and watering. They do well in extreme high temps here in the south and as far as pests go, the beetles are easy to spot.
- Tomatoes are the most popular food to grow but check out the types carefully (you need to stake/cage certain types while some are great in small containers and can conveniently be moved around for optimal sunlight). Look for info on disease resistance, heat tolerance, and size. You’ll need to check regularly for cracks on the fruit as well as hornworms (my arch nemesis!)
There’s so much additional information: how and when to seeds indoors, how to build up rich soil, harvesting your food, etc. Honestly, this is all a learning process. I still learn new things each year. I make sure I write down if something does amazingly well or completely awful to look into the variables of why (temperature being a main factor).
Have fun: check out different companies (there are so many!) and what they offer, order what interests you (it’s like a science project but without the poster board), ask local gardeners for input and try to keep notes so you can keep track of what worked and what didn’t.
Seed catalogs, planting and saving all give you something to look forward to when you’re in your long johns dreaming of warm weather.