Monday, January 24, 2011

Herb Garden Planning - How to read a seed catalog

Last week I gave you a list of print and online herb catalogs to look at and this week I thought I would help with some tips for reading those catalogs too!  Gardening catalogs contain more information than pictures and prices.  In fact if you follow this sort guide, you can learn the keywords and symbols found in seed catalogs and enhance your gardening experience.
Late winter and early spring is when attentions turn to the business of planning and planting. I am instantly reminded it is time, when the seed catalogs start arriving. I then get out the garden planning journal, look over my notes from previous years and lose myself in the pictures and descriptions.  However, this is usually the first place I make a mistake, because getting caught up in those wonderful images and descriptions of taste often results in buying too much or the wrong plant for my garden. So what I wanted to do was save you the hassle of making the same mistakes I have with a bit of information about the books you are delving into.
Don't Judge a Seed by Its Picture
The first thing that grabs your attention when you open a seed catalog is the pictures, especially if they are in color. What you need to remember when looking at these wonderful color pictures is that they represent the best of the best. The herbs, flowers and vegetables shown in the pictures were more than likely grown in the best conditions, with the very best of care. And, the photographer may have searched through hundreds of tomatoes to find the one that she finally took a picture of. Your results will vary, depending on the weather and the amount of time you spend working in your garden.
Words and Symbols are Clues
If you make it past the pictures to the actual item description, you may run across words and information that also need some translating.  The plant description is the place you go to determine if this is the plant you want.  It should include the variety name and the growing time, from sowing or transplanting to harvest or maturity.  Look carefully at the words used, as they can provide insight into what to expect during the growing season.  For example:
  • Vigorous: This plant will want to take over your garden if you let it.
  • Compact: Perfect for small gardens or container gardening.
  • Early: This plant is perfect for climates that have a short growing season or for gardeners that like to use different varieties to extend their harvest.
  • Hardy: Will usually survive over winter or self sow.
  • New: This variety has not been offered before.
  • Pelleted: Some catalogs offer pelleted seed to help make sowing small seeded plants easier. The coat the seed in a clay medium so it is larger and easier to see.  However once treated the seed will last only one season so don’t save them for next year.
You will also learn if the seed is disease tolerant, and if so, which diseases they are tolerant of. Other information unique to the variety of plant is included in the description.
Some of my favorite catalogs use a little symbol system to show zone, annual vs. perennial, organic, sun vs. shade and other tidbits you want to know about every plant, so you can scan the listings more quickly and leave out those that would never grow where you live.  Most of these types of symbols are unique to the company catalog, so look for a key toward the beginning of the catalog or long the bottom of facing pages, which will explain how they use their symbols. I also enjoy catalogs that slip in growing tips and recipes, so don’t overlook the little articles and information they tuck into the pages.  This year Nichols’ Garden Nursery catalog has the story of Turnip the Cat.
Read Before You Seed
All in all, by spending a little time reading your seed catalog, you will discover a wealth of information, some of which you may not have known before.  I credit seed catalogs with great improvements in my early gardening, because they gave height and shape information that helped me plan more space than my gardening books suggested.  Plus if you read carefully you avoid buying too much seed or the wrong seed for your climate conditions or season length.

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