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Gardening in January? Here are some tips for shopping seed catalogs

Don Kinzler, Growing Together and Fielding Questions columnist. The Forum1 / 2
Browsing seed catalogs in winter helps pre-plan your flower and vegetable gardens. David Samson / The Forum2 / 2

Follow me as we head out into the garden. Don’t worry; the snow’s gone, the grass is green, the weather’s warm and the flower beds are in full bloom.

OK, it’s in the theater of the mind, but what a great way to spend a winter day, and seed catalogs help us visualize it all.

Browsing seed catalogs isn’t just about wishing spring were here. What better time to plan this year’s flower and vegetable gardens? When spring arrives and we get busy outside, we’ll be ready.

Americans have loved their winter seed catalogs since Philadelphia’s Landseth Seed Company published the first edition in 1784. Through history, seed catalogs were sometimes the only link rural areas had with the outside gardening world. Receiving a colorful catalog filled with flower and vegetable varieties creates a light at the end of the winter tunnel.

Do mail-order seed companies take business away from local garden centers? Not really. Seed catalogs and the inspiration they provide tend to increase total market demand for gardening products. Local garden centers can’t possibly stock the tens of thousands of seed and plant varieties available, so mail-order companies and locally owned garden centers coexist quite well.

Many of us buy most of our spring plants locally, but also enjoy shopping catalogs for items or seeds not found elsewhere. The familiar list of favorite seed catalogs includes Burpee Seed, Gurney Seed, Jung Seed, Territorial Seed, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Totally Tomatoes, Park Seed, Twilley Seed, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed and Seeds ‘n Such. Websites of these companies can be found by searching online, where printed catalogs can be requested, or online catalog versions viewed.

When ordering from seed catalogs, the following tips are helpful:

  • Order early. Popular new varieties and recent award winners might be in short supply and late orders might find them unavailable.
  • Check quantities of seed per packet. Higher-priced varieties sometimes contain only a few seeds, but that might be all that’s needed.
  • If the smallest quantity of seed offered is more than you need, consider sharing with a friend or store extras in a lidded jar in the refrigerator.
  • Look closely at the description for “days to maturity” when comparing varieties of tomato, pepper, watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumber, sweet corn, cabbage and other types sensitive to season length. For example, main season tomato types for our region should be about 70 to 78 days, which is the average number of days required from the time the tomatoes are transplanted into the garden until reliable harvest. For melons to ripen in our region, check for maturity lengths between about 70 and 85 days.
  • For flowers and vegetable varieties that grow well in pots and planters, check catalogs for types identified as container-growing varieties. Standard types meant for in-ground planting might become unwieldy in pots.
  • Note whether plant types prefer sun or shade, to decide which best suit your conditions.
  • Varieties designated “heirloom” are older varieties that predate the age of modern hybrids, which makes them older than about 60 years.
  • Varieties termed “hybrid” were developed by the controlled cross-pollinating of two parents to combine their best traits, such as disease resistance, earliness, vigor, uniformity, plant size or flavor. Hybrids can also happen in nature, when bees fly between plant parents.
  • Save seed order packing lists each year as an easy reference for the next year’s order, or to keep track of the varieties you’ve tried.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at kinzlerd@casscountynd.gov or call 701-241-5707.

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