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Susan Harris

All the Dirt

Idaho’s Winter Sport:Seed Catalog Wars

If more than one seed catalog arrives in your mailbox on the same day, a battle may erupt in competition for your attention.

In pursuit of sales many seed companies use more adjectives than Zappos has shoes. Tomato varieties in particular seem to inspire catalog writers to wax poetic, each variety described as the best ever.

It is a skill to wade through the hyperbole and choose a cultivar that offers you the characteristics most important for your garden. Use the same filter when reading variety descriptions that you use when reading a menu. Not everything on the menu is going to be to your taste, and not every variety listed in a seed catalog is right for you.

But the real trap in these catalogs is the pictures, the gorgeous, glossy pictures that mesmerize us into believing we can grow rhododendrons in Buhl and blueberries in Jerome. Be strong.

Having shared my skepticism with you, I can also share how much I love reading seed catalogs. Especially on a cold January day in Idaho. Especially with a cup of hot chocolate.

Some companies do a good job and give straightforward information about their selections, helping you to choose from hundreds of options. But even the best company doesn’t know the particulars of your situation and needs, which puts pressure on you.

I will let you in on a garden secret: The way to find the best varieties is to try lots of different ones. Also talk to other gardeners where you live about what they are growing and why. The why is important because otherwise you might not find out they grow whatever grandpa did and haven’t tried anything new since the Carter administration.

Pay attention to days to maturity, yield estimations and disease-resistance information to help you make your choices. When looking for flower varieties, take particular note of days to flower, as many types will take until August to bloom if started from seed. For annuals this is too long to wait; buy the plants instead. If starting perennial flowers from seed, be aware that many varieties won’t bloom the first year no matter how early you start the seed.

I always think I am a better gardener than I really am when I look at seed catalogs. When there are no garden chores to be done I am delusional about what I am actually willing to do. Catalogs are for dreaming.

I would love to hear about your favorite seed companies and what you buy from them — also seeds you have started indoors and your successes or challenges with windowsill growing. I will write about starting vegetables inside in a future column.

Follow me to Food: The Times-News is moving my biweekly column to the Food section in the Wednesday editions. Watch for my column to appear there for the first time on Feb. 13.

After working for years in commercial greenhouses in Idaho and Utah, Susan Harris of Shoshone is a garden designer and garden coach. Reach her at


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