Learn to Read a Seed Catalog

Nothing brightens a gloomy winter day more than opening the mailbox and finding a seed catalog or two. The pretty pictures, the fanciful descriptions, the unspoken promise that yes, there will be a spring. A seed catalog is like a little packet of sunshine dropped at your door.

But what if you'd actually like to buy something? The wealth of information and ideas that are crammed into such a small space can often be overwhelming. Far from a foreign language, a seed catalog is just an efficient, but highly stylized set of plant descriptions.

Start At The Beginning
Learning to read a seed catalog means starting at page one. Most seed catalogs feature a page or two of information on the setup of the catalog. The table of contents may list plants by their common or botanical names-or both. If the seed catalog uses codes or symbols, a key will often be located at the beginning of the book.

Secret Code Words
A description of a plant will often end with a few one-word tags. These tags often describe a distinctive feature of the plant. Typical descriptive tags are:

  • Vigorous. This euphemism is used to describe plants that are invasive. Plants that will take over your garden the minute your back is turned or the sun gets in your eyes. Consider yourself warned.
  • Compact. Used to describe plants whose mature size is on the small side, perfect for smaller gardens or those with an inferiority complex.
  • Early. This tag indicates plants that get a jump on the competition. Early plants are great for those with short growing seasons-or attention spans.
  • Hardy. Often used to describe plants that shrug off cold weather. Hardy plants will often survive the winter, self-sow and generally not take the hint when it's time to leave.
  • …Resistant. This tag is typically preceded by the words "deer", "disease" or "insect" and indicate a plant that is tough enough to take care of itself, thank you.
  • Self-cleaning. Plants with this tag will often drop their flowers to make room for new ones. Although this may seem fickle, it's actually a good thing.
  • Naturalize. Plants that "naturalize" or are "carefree" will self-seed with abandon. See vigorous. Again, consider yourself warned.

Climate or hardiness zones are based on the average minimum temperature in a given area. It pays to know your zone. Most seed catalogs will have a map of hardiness zones near the front or back of the book. Each plant listing will have a range of zones that are suitable for the plant.

Growth Cycle
Your seed catalog may also list the growth cycle of each plant. There are three types of plants:

  • Annual. These plants complete their life cycle in one growing season.
  • Biennial. Biennial plants use their first year to store energy and establish themselves, blooming in the following year.
  • Perennial. These plants become dormant over the winter, but will re-establish themselves the following spring.
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