How to Navigate Seed Catalogs for Garden Planning

In the cool, post-holiday weeks of winter, nothing keeps a gardener alive with cabin fever like a fresh-off-the-press, colorful and enticing seed catalog.

This time-honored resource has its roots in antiquity. The archives of the British Agricultural Historical Society (BHS) describe a flourishing seed trade in the late 1200s. By the 1590s, market gardeners were a growing contingent of seed suppliers.

One of them was Richard Gardiner, a linen draper who grew vegetables for sale as produce and seed. It was a devastating period of plague, crop failure and famine, and he responded by planting 700 heads of cabbages (heads) in his fields to stave off the hungry.

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In 1599, Gardiner published a pamphlet entitled “Instructions for Manuring, Sowing and Planting the Kitchen Garden”.

This is described in a fascinating book, “The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration, 1560-1660”, along with a history of the BHS by Margaret Wills, available on Amazon.

The Making of the English Gardener

Just 30 pages long, her guide is packed with cooking tips and recipes for nutritious broths and salads. And, it lists produce and seed available for purchase, making it one of our earliest seed catalogs.

Gardiner was a leader in the movement to achieve food security, one garden at a time. Today’s catalogs continue the tradition, offering quantities and varieties suitable for the home gardener.

The term “home gardener” covers a wide range of people with 40 acres (and the proverbial mule?) a few pots on the patio.

Photo by Nan Schiller

Seed catalogs are for all of us, and every year the companies compile their best gardening achievements to date for us.

Here’s how to sift through the many options and focus on what you want:

1. Get the title to the land

Start your browsing – where else? – Initially. Look for a key to the symbols used throughout the publication and any guides to the language used throughout the publication.

Next, go to the organized sections. They include titles such as fruits, herbs, vegetables, flowers, perennials, live plants, and garden tools.

They are usually associated with a wealth of articles, recipes, and other items of interest to gardeners in a user-friendly, magazine-style format.

Photo by Nan Schiller

Some companies go into more detail than others, so plant write-ups vary from one publication to another.

A plant’s description might begin with a USDA hardiness zone, followed by recommended levels of sunlight, soil acidity and moisture.

It can go on to discuss starting indoors or outdoors, when to transplant, spacing in the ground, height and width, and appearance of foliage, flowers and stems.

You’ll find descriptions that include terms like organic, heritage, and open-pollinated.

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Organic products have not been treated with synthetic chemicals and bear the appropriate certification.

The legacy has at least 50 years of legacy behind it. During this time, they have been passed from gardener to gardener and have retained their original characteristics due to open pollination, and therefore, have never been cross bred.

Photo by Alison Sidhu

Or, you might just find a bizarre description of a tomato that was a favorite of Martha Washington’s, with sweet red flesh and an indestructible skin. In this case, I go to the company’s website for full details.

Sadly, many print catalogs are going by the wayside, and those that remain are simply abridged versions of the content found on the company’s websites. Of course, this is a boon for online shoppers!

If a publication is missing the information you sought, go online, or contact customer service by email or phone. You’ll also find customer reviews online, which is a great way to decide whether or not to try a new product.

2. Don’t be governed by climate zones

As they say, take USDA hardiness zones with a grain of salt. Some catalogs don’t mention them at all.

So, how do you know what to choose?

Consult a small article I read in the 2016 edition of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Rare Seed Catalog, which says “Almost any seed in this catalog will grow in over 95% of the USA.” That’s saying a lot, considering that varieties of them are harvested all over the world.

Photo by Alison Sidhu

The article states that the USDA’s guidelines are based on average winter temperatures that do not apply to summer gardens, so customers should choose varieties from locations where summer weather matches their own.

I think there is merit in this philosophy on buying America’s homegrown products. However, at the very least, use hardiness zone guidelines to estimate frost dates.

Knowing the average date of the last frost is a great guide for spring planting. And the average date of the first frost is helpful in determining the feasibility of planting a second vegetable crop in mid-summer, and what yield you can expect before the snow flies.

Did you know that what grows as a perennial in a warm climate can grow equally well in a colder region, but will become an annual that dies with the first frost?

3. Underestimate Your Need for Seed and Underestimate Your Need for Space

One of the biggest mistakes home gardeners make is buying too many seeds for their plot. And, while sharing with friends is wonderful, there’s no need to strain the budget, right?

Here is a personal example:

I read that I would need a quarter pound of morning glory seeds for 125 square feet. My daughter gave me 32 precious seeds harvested from her plants.

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I started these annuals indoors, and transplanted them along a 20-by-four-foot fence (80 square feet).

Would you believe they covered that fence with flowers all summer long?

And while I marveled at how a little often goes a long way, other members of my family (who shall remain anonymous) were discovering (too late) that you can have four zucchini, three peppers, And three bush beans can’t be planted in a five-by-four-foot (20-square-feet) plot, when each zucchini grows up to four feet in diameter.

Needless to say, we have greatly expanded our vegetable garden!

Photo by Alison Sidhu

I find that buying a seed packet of any variety is always enough for us. But some gardeners have more room to spread.

If you have a dedicated area for crops or are creating a flower border along the driveway, draw a plan on paper and decide on the length and width for each type of plant. Then, read the description of the mature sizes of your selections, and use your drawing to estimate how much of each you’ll need.

It’s also worth noting that not all seeds will germinate, and some of the more delicate specimens will not thrive in less-than-perfect conditions. For some, this may be a reason to buy more seed—but wait to make that determination until next winter, when you’ve given away a smaller amount of seed first.

4. Beware the lure of the latest, greatest

It’s tempting to go straight to the “what’s new” pages to find the most unusual-looking tomatoes with pink spots and purple stripes. However, there are no customer reviews for it, are there?

Photo by Nan Schiller

Granted, the company is standing behind its latest achievement, and chances are it’s a good one…however, I’d love to hear from those at home who’ve tried it and found success.

If you can’t help yourself, buy a package of that bright and shiny nubile, give it a try, and be the first to report your findings on the company’s website.

5. Comparison shop

Don’t rely on one catalog for all your needs. When you find a plant you like, see if you can find it in several publications. If you can, chances are the amount of seeds per packet will be different.

not to worry.

Photo by Nan Schiller

Simply convert the price per packet to the cost per unit.

This way:

If a pack of 25 tomatoes costs $5.99, divide 5.99 by 25, and you get 0.2396, or about 24 cents each. It’s like looking at unit prices at the grocery store to see if it’s worth it to buy economy size toilet paper.

Also, keep in mind that with produce in the market, certified organic products and older varieties tend to cost more, so be sure to compare products with similar qualities when pricing in your decision.

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like old friends

In my house, the most exciting event after the winter holidays is the arrival of the seed catalog.

Photo by Alison Sidhu

With views of sunshine and bountiful baskets of harvest, I slowly browse the gorgeous pages, savoring each detail, and making copious notes.

I brush up on the health benefits of vegetables in their Latin nomenclature and different colors that were unknown to me in my childhood. And there’s always a picture or two of some gorgeous squash that has won tons of awards.

The following three catalogs have been regular visitors to my house over the years like old friends. At the time of this writing, they are free.

The first is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, which states that they have “one of the largest selections of 19th-century seeds to promote and preserve our agricultural and culinary heritage.”

Next is Burpee, a respected company that has been “innovating for 142 years.”

Photo by Alison Sidhu

and finally, the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization “devoted to the preservation of heritage seeds.”

I love the quality of their products, as well as their philanthropic mission, sustainable practices, and non-GMO commitment.

Don’t forget Kitazawa Seed Company and Bluestone Perennials, some contenders that were new to me this season, with beautiful, user-friendly catalogs.

Established in 1917, Kitazawa specializes in Asian vegetable seeds on the West Coast, and their catalog includes hand-drawn illustrations rather than photographs. Bluestone has been in business since 1972, and all of the perennial plants they offer are sustainably grown.

Photo by Nan Schiller

I’m also a fan of online shopping, and if you choose to go this route, you’ll be able to easily sift through the comparison shopping portion of your search, since the websites are so easily searchable. Be sure to visit some of our favorites:

My seed catalogs are constant companions until I place my orders and they are dog-eared and annotated for future reference or to give to a friend. Make them a regular part of your garden plan and enjoy a forgotten pleasure—snail mail—to unwind on a chilly afternoon.

How is your dream garden coming along? Does catalog shopping play a role in your planning? Kindly share your thoughts in the comment section below.

And don’t forget to check out our Springtime Garden Checklist and Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening to start preparing to get those seeds in the ground.

Photos by Nan Schiller and Allison Sidhu © Ask the Experts, LLC. All rights reserved. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on February 23, 2018. Last updated on March 4, 2023. Product photo via Yale University Press.