Garden catalogs 101 for beginning gardeners

Posted February 27, 2013 at 12:00 am

Most gardeners’ favorite time of year is probably the spring when new life springs up in our gardens or yards. Others may prefer the summer when the real gardening is going on and they get to enjoy the beauty and wonderful food that comes out of our gardens. While yet others prefer the fall when the gardens are slowing down, the fall vegetables are ready to be harvested and the trees are changing color, dropping their leaves and we can all take a little rest from gardening. But, probably the one time of year that almost all gardeners look forward to is the arrival of the first new garden catalog of the year.

These usually start arriving right in December with the real flood of colorful catalogs showing up in gardeners’ mailboxes after the beginning of the New Year. Today gardening catalogs are not restricted to the print. Now there is an ever growing number of catalogs that are available on the web.

“Sometimes it seems like those catalogs propagate faster than the dandelions in your lawn with a few more showing up in your mailbox each year. But do I complain, usually not because it is just that many more pages of plants I can explore and consider as new members of my garden community,” said David Graper, Extension Horticulture Specialist and Director of McCrory Gardens.

While it is fun to look at all those old favorite plants, vegetables and fruits, Graper says he thinks most gardeners enjoy looking at all of the new introductions that they might just have to add to their order form for the coming year.

“Now you can page through a paper catalog or browse a website from the comfort of your easy chair using your tablet or while waiting in line at the grocery store on your smart phone,” he said.

With so many to choose from, selecting which company to order seeds and plants from can become an overwhelming task for beginning gardeners. Graper suggests beginning gardeners start by visiting with their gardening friends.

“Gardening is a social activity, so talk to your gardening friends and family to see where they like to order from and what their favorite types and varieties of vegetables and fruits are,” Graper said. “Check out the local Farmers Markets to see what they have to offer. There is nothing like doing some taste testing to see what you and your family like.”

Graper suggests beginning gardeners gather advice from the local community garden.

“Community gardens have been popping up in many cities. Again, take advantage of the chance to chat with other gardeners, they are usually willing to tell you of their best experiences as much as a fisherman wants to tell you a big fish story,” Graper said.

If beginning gardeners are still unsure where to start when it comes to selecting a seed or plant provider, Graper provides a list of things to look for and consider in the search for a reputable company that likely will sell you good quality seed.

• Start with the brand name companies. Even if you haven’t ordered seeds from a catalog before, you can be pretty assured you are going to get a good product if you start with one of the older and well-known companies. Of course some company names have been around for a very long time and stayed in business because they sold cheap seed and plants, not because they were of good quality.

• Take a look inside the catalog. You should see cultivar names listed for the vegetables that you see. If you are interested in annual or perennial flowers, again you should see cultivar names and botanical names for the plants. If a catalog just lists a common name, be careful because you really don’t know what you are getting. There can be a whole bunch of different plants that may share the same common name. Botanical names will usually be in italics or underlined.

• Check the prices. Of course you don’t want to pay any more than you have to for your seed or plants but be careful of the catalogs that list incredibly low prices. You generally get what you pay for and if the price is too low, the quality of the seed or plants will likely not be worth much either. A typical packet of vegetable seed is probably going to cost you a $2 to $5, depending in its size and the type of seed. If you see lots of listings for under a dollar, be careful.

• Check the size of the seed packet. You should be given some information in the catalog or with the individual plant as to how large the seed packet is. If they don’t tell you how large or how many seeds you get, be careful. Many companies now sell counted seed packets, meaning they tell you how many seeds will be in the packet. Others will be sold by weight, for example ¼ oz. or a certain number of grams of seed. Of course you still won’t know how many seeds that will be unless they tell you how many seeds are in an ounce or gram for that cultivar.

• Take a look at the pictures. I personally prefer pictures of the plants or vegetables that I am buying. But, just because there are line drawings or graphic images instead of pictures doesn’t mean there is reason for concern. People can make a picture look a lot better than what you will actually end up with, just as a drawn image can be misleading too.

• Look for All America Selections (AAS) winners to be included in the list of varieties. The AAS has been testing vegetables and flowers for many years with testing locations spread across North America. If you don’t know where to start in ordering a particular cultivar of vegetable or flower, trying an AAS winner is a pretty good place to start. McCrory Gardens in Brookings has been an AAS Trial and Display gardens for many years. You can also check out the AAS web site for a listing of award winning vegetables, bedding plants and flowers.

• Consider purchasing varieties that indicate they have resistance to different diseases or even insects. A wet year can increase disease problems so having varieties that are disease resistant can really help. This can be particularly important if you have grown vegetables for a long time and have had lots of problems with a particular disease.

Now what?

Once you start getting a list compiled of the varieties you would like to order, the next question is how much to order.

“In most cases, start with the smallest packet size they offer, unless you and your family really like a particular vegetable, that is a safe place to start,” Graper said. “If you want to plant more, try ordering a few different varieties rather than a lot more of the same one. It can be surprising how much better certain varieties will perform in your particular garden in a given year. The weather can play a huge role in how well your garden turns out and different varieties can respond to different conditions by being quite productive or not growing well at all.”

Graper also reminds new gardeners that there are a number of different vegetables that are typically planted as transplants rather than direct planting the seed into the garden. These include vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and a number of others.

“While it is fun to start some of these yourself, you need a really sunny window, a greenhouse or some grow lights to successfully grow transplants indoors. You will probably be better off visiting your local garden center to pick these up when it is time to plant. Your garden center might also be a great place to get your vegetable seed as well as find great gardening advice.”

To learn more, visit the iGrow YouTube channel at and click on the iGrow Gardens playlist where SDSU Extension offers video segments on various gardening topics.