The best thing about January is that we can welcome seed catalogs in the mail. Gardeners love to sit down and read them like they’re number one on the charts. Knowing how to read a garden seed catalog is one of the basic skills of gardening.
Heirloom seeds are a particular interest of mine. Heirloom seeds reflect a variety that has been around for half a century or more and the plants are open pollinated. That means that you can grow the seeds and get new plants that are almost identical to the parent plants. Heirloom seeds can be saved from year to year and passed down from generation to generation.
Heirloom seeds have a history and a story to tell. They are genetic treasures. For instance, the Mortgage Lifter Tomato developed by M.C. Byles of Logan, West Virginia in the 1940’s went on the market as plants for one dollar each. Byles raised $6,000 on this tomato and used that money to pay off his mortgage.
Most seed catalogs have beautiful photographs and descriptions of their offerings. They have symbols giving all kinds of information.
One of the first things you should do in reading a seed catalog is look for the explanation of its codes, symbols, icons and abbreviations. Normally this information will be either on one of the introductory pages or at the bottom of each page.
To begin with, they will tell you the sun/shade requirements. Full sun means the plant likes 6 hours or more of direct sun per day. Partial sun requires 2-6 hours or more of direct sun per day. Shade means little or no direct sun.
Many will include the height, width and spacing allowed for a full-grown plant and whether it will do well in a container. Water requirements are often listed along with soil pH needs. The catalog will indicate if the seeds are disease resistant.
The best catalogs will specify the diseases the seeds resist. For example, you may find a tomato seed marked VFN. This would mean that the seed is resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and nematodes.
The seed description will also tell you the number of days to germination, depth to plant the seed and days to harvest. This information is invaluable because you can count back to the seed starting date. Keep good records and label all the important information.
Companies like to introduce new offerings. Those offerings are new to them but not necessarily new to the industry. Organic seeds are offered and certified organic by different certification services. They will also identify seeds as open-pollinated or hybrid variety.
Flowering seeds are usually grouped together as annuals — those plants that complete their life cycle over one growing season, and perennials — those plants that survive winter dormancy and reemerge in the spring for two or more years.
The write up for flower seeds will indicate if the plant is suitable for cutting, arranging or crafting, and it will indicate whether the plant tends to self-sow or spread.
Herbs, as well as other vegetable and flowers, sometimes are hard to find except as seeds.
Some catalogs are offering grafted vegetable plants. One such catalog is Territorial Seed Company, P.O. Box 158, Cottage Grove, OR 97424-0061. Grafted vegetable plants are created when the top part of one plant, the scion, is attached to the root system of a separate plant, the rootstock. The rootstock contributes vigor and disease resistance while the scion is chosen for flavor and quality.
While seed catalogs are invaluable resources, don’t hesitate buying garden seed from our local providers.
If you keep your seeds dry and in a cool place, you can continue to use them for several years. I have used some that have germinated after 3-5 years. If you use seed stored from previous years, you may need to sow them heavier to get a good germination rate. Seed selections are getting better each year.
If you want to use seeds from your own heirloom plants, don’t forget to gather those seeds from the plants before winter.
Could your annual or perennial flower beds use greater variety? Are there spots that need to be filled in? Take a lesson from Johnny Appleseed and carry in your garden pocket a package of larkspur — an annual delphinium — poppies or the flower of your choice and spread the seeds as you work and they will practically grow themselves.