If you have an interest in gardening, chances are you are beginning to receive seed catalogs whose colors brighten any mailbox.
With our weather so cold and the landscape so dreary, it is easy to immerse ourselves in the promise of new varieties, new colors, bigger tomatoes … they are so alluring.
We want to order, but let’s just take a breath and apply some thought before catalog fever takes over.
There are plenty of good reasons to garden through mail order. Starting plants from seeds is less expensive than buying plants from nurseries or even home improvement stores, and you have a much better selection.
The only way to get many varieties of seeds — as well as of plants like roses, lilies, herbs, spring bulbs and perennials — is by catalog. Getting on a few mailing lists or building up a file of favorite websites expands your gardening world immeasurably.
Nurturing food or flowers from seed is uniquely satisfying. There’s no other flavor like a home garden vegetable, and even a novice can do it with the right plants. You can afford to experiment with new or borderline plants you’d hesitate to pay $10 for. Seeds are cheap, so go ahead and try it — you aren’t losing much if it doesn’t work.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before you put pen to order form or start dialing that toll-free number:
Question 1: What kind of gardener are you? If you are a novice at gardening, start with a good general garden book or an authoritative website to get background on plants you think you’d like to grow.
You can’t count on the catalogs to define essential terms or explain gardening basics. For example, a catalog may assume you know that peas are normally sown right in the ground, but tomatoes have to be started inside as much as two months ahead of time and transplanted outdoors in late May or June.
Question 2: What do you need to know about a plant before you order? You need to know sun and soil requirements, and height and width of the plant at maturity.
If you are using seeds, should they be started indoors or sown directly into the ground? If you are getting plants, when should they be planted, and should you get bare-root or potted plants? If you are choosing perennials, does the seed need a cold period before planting?
Question 3: What is the catalog’s system of symbols? What are the icons trying to tell you about the plant’s needs? Remember that catalogs aren’t standard, so find and understand the legend before you buy.
Also, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Choose a few easy plants to start, or try sowing something directly into the ground; sunflowers or zinnias are good, and in the vegetable arena, try radishes, carrots or peas (If you choose peas, make sure you have strong support for the pea vines to climb on — seed catalogs probably won’t tell you that).
If you want to try indoor seed starting, it is best to order an inexpensive small kit and use it to start a dozen or so tomato and pepper plants on your sunniest windowsill or under a close-hanging fluorescent light.
Finally, here are a few tips for ordering from gardening catalogs.
First, pause for thought. Make a list of everything you’re ordering from all the catalogs, what you plan to use it for, how much work it will take and what you’re spending. Does it still make sense? Could you cut your plans in half and still have plenty of gardening to do?
Be sure to order early. Many desirable varieties, especially new ones, sell out early. Also, be sure to keep packing lists to remind you of what you ordered last year. In winter, run over the lists and note what worked and what didn’t. It is also a good idea to photograph your garden at regular intervals during the summer so you can remember what you need to order in the middle of winter.
Finally, if you have ordered too much seed, remember that it keeps well. Store it in its original packet, folded over and paper clipped, in a paper bag or envelope.
Do not use a plastic bag, because it will trap moisture that can invite fungus. When you use your saved seed next year, the germination rate will be a little lower, but you’ll still likely get a good crop.
Next week we’ll look at how more experienced gardeners can get the most from their seed catalogs. In the meantime, stay warm, grab a cup of tea, curl up by the fireplace or heater with your colorful catalogs and dream.