Why Spending Winter With Seed Catalogs Is Smart

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Seed catalogs

(image: Sarah Gilbert)

In my mailbox this time of year, I find the obligatory glut of junk mail holiday catalogs. I sift through them to find the gold – the seed catalogs! They are the biggest blessing of December.

It is time to get serious about the 2015 garden. People think gardening is limited to warm weather. Serious gardeners, though, know this is a year-round process. They take notes all season long on hardy growth, high production, light, weather, bugs and disease. They make planting schedules and stick to them as best they can, considering they are dealing with the big unknown of the elements.

What to buy

Reading seed catalogs can be overwhelming. How do you know what to order and when to plant it? What kind of seeds should you buy? What is best for my region?

Start off with the seed companies that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge. This reads in part, “We pledge that we do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants.” You can read the entire pledge here. A list of these seed companies is here.

Look for your home state first. Small local seed companies frequently grow their own seed. They also have local seed farmers grow for them. This seed will be acclimated to your area, which means the plants are used to the climatic conditions. Whether you need short or long season plants, local seed will already be adapted to your garden.

Hybrid, open-pollinated or heirloom?

There is a lot of misunderstanding about hybrid seed. Not all hybrid seed is GMO! Let’s go back to the beginning.

All seed started out as open-pollinated (OP). That means the seed will grow out true to the plant it came from. Even in the wild, seed falls to the ground and makes another plant identical to the parent.

When agriculture became big business and farmers wanted better production and disease resistance, they created hybrids. They would cross-pollinate, for example, a zucchini with long straight fruit with another that was a bush instead of a vine. The resulting product would be a bush plant with long straight fruit on it. These plants must be hybridized each year to keep those qualities. If you grow the seed from a hybrid, you will get one of the parents.

OP seed that has been passed down for generations is considered ‘heirloom’, just like grandma’s dresser or jewelry. All heirloom seed is OP, but not all OP seed is heirloom!


There is a place for all three types of seed in your garden. When you make your plan, decide what you want to grow and why. Do you just want tomatoes and salad fixings? Do you want to put food away for the winter? Do you want to save seed for next year?

Seed catalogs are full of growing information. They will tell you when to start your seed, when to put the plants outside, how long it will be until harvest, and how to care for your vegetables, flowers and herbs post-harvest. Seed descriptions talk about potential bugs and diseases, too. Catalogs are an education in gardening by themselves!

If you want to save seed, find OP or heirloom varieties. If you want the most production and disease resistance, choose hybrids. It’s that simple.

Winter reading

While you are shopping for everyone this holiday season, buy something for yourself – some seeds! Then over the next several months, study those catalogs to learn about much more than seeds. It’s a great way to pass the cold winter.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.