Posted on 13 April 2012 by

Successful Gardening 101: How to Get the Most from Your Seed Catalogs

By Mindy McIntosh-Shetter

January brings about a new year, goals, and resolutions.

While all these things are true for me, January is also the month that I begin to receive my seed catalogs.

If you are not a gardener you may not understand the feeling one gets when the mailbox is opened and the glimmer of the first catalog of the season appears.

It is a thrill that every gardener understands and I compare it to a runner’s high. All the hopes and dreams of the upcoming gardening season seem to be wrapped up in the shiny, magazine like pages of the catalogs.

Before I go on and on about these wonderful treasures that arrive every spring, I would like to decipher the hieroglyphic language in these magazines.

The first thing you will need to do is discover what USDA Plant Hardiness zone you live in. This is easily done by reading the map that is located in the front of most catalogs. It is color-coded and you simply look for your state. As you will notice, the colors seem to go in a wave across the United States. This is tracking the average low temperatures. When dealing with plants, the lowest temperature is normally one of the limiting factors instead of the high.

After you find your state, try to narrow down the area in that state the best you can. In my situation, I live in southern Indiana. This area is both zone 5 and 6. To get the best information possible from this chart, I need to narrow my area and determine if I am in USDA Plant Hardiness zone 5 or 6. After a little research, I determine that I am in zone 5.

What this zone information tells you is the coldest temperature that the plant can stand and survive. Other factors affect a plant’s survival such as urban verse rural environment, location, and altitude but this is a great guideline for the beginning gardener.

After you have this information, the next step is to cipher the terms annual, biennial, and perennial.

An annual is a plant that only grows one season. Many vegetables and bedding plants fall under this category. A biennial is a plant that typically grows the first year producing vegetation only. Once a killing frost comes through the area, the plant material dies back but returns next year. During the plant’s second year, it normally produces flowers and then is killed by that season’s killing frost.

A perennial is one that produces vegetation and sometimes flowers the first year but is temporarily killed by a killing frost. Next year it reappears and continues to grow every year.

While one may think that the frost is the demise of the plants, it is not. For these types of plants, they need that cold period to continue on with their natural growth cycle.
After you understand what will grow in your area, the next piece of information you need is to understand a relatively new concept and that is organic verse traditional seed. Organic seed normally is more expensive and one may wonder why. The reason for this is that the seed was harvested from a parent plant that was grown organically. The rational for harvesting this type of seed is that the seed did not take up any type of chemical during the growing process. In doing so, the plant that will germinate from this seed will not contain the chemical.

Traditional seed is harvested from plants that may or may not have been exposed to chemicals. The seeds are also treated with fungicides, bactericides and any other type of chemical used to extend the quality of the seed.

After you have gathered and deciphered all the information in the seed catalog, it is time to order the seed and/or plant material. Just remember when ordering, it is important to cover your needs and then a few wants while keeping in your budget.

So until we blog again, gardening has its own beautiful language that spans centuries, cultures, and science.

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